“An Example of What Gets Lost as Life Goes More and More Online”: Directors Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller on Their Doc, Other Music
According to various studies, anywhere from 30% to 80% of American small businesses will not survive the pandemic. And would they all receive documentary tributes as lovingly made and artfully constructed as the one Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller have made for shuttered New York record store, Other Music!
Opened in 1995 directly across from Tower Records on East 4th Street street in lower Manhattan, Other Music was more than just a record store. It was an invigorating place for cultural discovery, a site of musical education, a community hub. Until its closure in 2016, by which time a new generation of music fans had migrated fully online, not only for files and eventually streams but for music talk as well, Other Music curated and promoted — through charming, hand-lettered descriptive cards and passionate and garrulous on-the-floor clerks — the arrestingly new alongside the deepest of deep cuts. As Other Music the film documents, the store drew some of its foundational spirit from the early days of the legendary East Village rental store Kim’s Video; in the same way that Kim’s embraced a cataloguing system both idiosyncratic and micro, Other Music organized its CDs in sections with monikers such as “Then,” “Krautrock,” “In,” “Out” and “Decadanse” (the latter a primarily ’60s-section containing French pop like Serge Gainsbourg, Francoise Hardy and Bridget Bardot alongside the Italian singer Lucio Battisti and the Brazilian bossa nova of João Gilberto).
As Other Music grew, it added in-store performances (seen here in documentation footage are Mogwai, The Go Between, Yo La Tengo, Neutral Milk Hotel and more), an email newsletter (pre-Pitchfork, a vital information source that subtly laced critical assessments within exuberant prose) and, after iTunes popularized digital music, its own digital storefront. At its peak in 2000, Other Music did about $3.1 million in sales; within that number, as the documentary states, were huge percentages of individual band’s record sales. But by the time of its closure, Other Music was subject to macro economic forces beyond its control. Its Manhattan rent had more than doubled while its sales were cut in half.
With its hit to New York business, 9/11 inaugurates the beginning of Other Music’s troubles, the film makes clear, while the doc also identifies in this moment artistic discovery: the store’s championing of William Basinski’s elegiac Disintegration Loops. Indeed, the movie elegantly interweaves stories of art and commerce. As much as Other Music’s history is one of a nearly 20-year stretch of the New York music scene, it’s also about a small business — the long hours, sweat equity and impact on personal relationships involved in any such endeavor. (Directed by a husband-and-wife team, Other Music knowingly counterpoints the story of store founders Josh Madell and Chris Vanderloo with commentary from their wives, Dawn Madell and Lydia Vanderloo.)
“It’s a great film, and it made me very sad,” said a post-screening audience member at the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere. As a regular customer, and someone whose taste the owners, particularly Chris, knew, I felt the same way. (I brought so many film directors to that store — my partner Robin O’Hara and I worked a lot with European directors, who’d come to New York for short shoots. When their presence in the office became too much, Robin would always turn to me and say, “Can’t you just take them to Other Music?” And when I worked with Focus Features on their FilmInFocus website, Jamie Stuart and I made a little video shot in the store around the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control.)
I begin my conversation with directors Basu and Hatch-Miller with that sentiment of loss while acknowledging that the sadness the film touches on has even more dimensions at this moment.
Other Music is available for digital download and rental now across the usual platforms.
Filmmaker: A long-time Other Music customer, and a contributor to the Kickstarter campaign, I was at your film’s premiere at Tribeca. I loved the film, but it also was a very melancholy experience, thinking of the store, its loss, and the time in my own life it corresponded with. I just rewatched the film, and, of course, it’s even more bittersweet. The celebration of face-to-face interaction around physical media is still gone, but now we’re in a world where the type of concert that closes out your film is also, at least for the moment, a thing of the past. As well, small businesses are dying off in New York due to the pandemic. What’s it like for your as creators to have the film come out in this moment?
Puloma Basu: When we made the film we not only wanted to preserve what Other Music was and preserve the history of the store, but we also hoped the film would make people think about and appreciate and hopefully support similar places that are important to them in their own communities. But we never imagined that all of the sudden, nobody would be able to physically be in a space they care about to support it in-person.
Rob Hatch-Miller: We always intended to use Other Music as an example of what gets lost as life goes more and more online. When we were filming we thought that in spite of the resurgence of vinyl, independent record stores were going to have a hard time surviving in the future. At least in the way that we grew up with record stores, as a vital way for people to discover new music and meet friends, or maybe start a band. All that stuff. But at the time we thought that a lot of other aspects of the music industry were alive and well. Certainly there was no looming threat to live music. Artists were making money on the road — maybe they weren’t making much money through streaming, but the independent music scene was still thriving in a way that this pandemic has thrown into question. When we made the film we never could have imagined, for example, that the Bowery Ballroom, where we filmed the farewell concert for Other Music, wouldn’t be able to be open for an entire year. So it’s definitely strange.
Basu: Ultimately, I think we feel that as sad as it is that this is how things have turned out, the film’s message is resonating with people more. Because all of the sudden it’s not just this one place, but it’s a lot of places that are possibly closing down. Or have already closed down. Maybe for some people if they watch this film now it’ll activate them into trying to help places that are struggling right now to stay alive —
Hatch-Miller: — and inspire them to make sure that they patronize those places, digitally now if they can or physically once this pandemic is over. We hope that people who watch our film will think twice about staying home and watching a movie on Netflix and will maybe instead go support their local cinema when it reopens. Or instead of just streaming an album on Spotify, they’ll go to a shop and buy it. Or better yet go to a shop and ask the people that work there for a recommendation of something they haven’t heard already.
Filmmaker: You both have connections to the store Other Music. When did you first encounter the store, and what were takeaways from it as employee/customers? And how did it affect your own musical tastes?
Basu: I think I first heard about Other Music when I was in college in Massachusetts in 2000. I met some people that used to make trips to New York City specifically to go to Other Music. Back then it was mostly CDs, and everybody would lend their music to each other so you could hear new stuff. And I started to really want to visit the store — I think I went there for the first time in early 2001. And it was like no other place I’d ever been to before, but it was also really scary because there were so many artists I’d never heard of. How it affected my musical taste was… I saw the diversity of the types of music they had, every genre you could think of, almost. And people that worked at the store seemed to be really open to all genres and to be listening to all kinds of things. So I think that it made me braver about buying things that I’d never heard of.
Hatch-Miller: The first time I went to Other Music was my first week as an NYU film school freshman. My dorm was right on Washington Square Park, so it was just maybe a five-block walk to go to Tower Records on Broadway and then right across the street was Other Music. I must’ve read about it in some Time Out New York “Guide To NYC Record Stores” or something like that. The first time I went in I had very little knowledge of what almost anything in the store was, outside of stuff like Neutral Milk Hotel, Pavement, Guided By Voices and maybe some things like Kraftwerk or Aphex Twin and Big Star. But that was just a tiny drop in the bucket of what Other Music had on the shelves. And the names of the artists on the bin cards were completely mysterious to me, which was scary but exciting because it seemed like there was this whole world to be discovered. I kept going back, and it became the only record store I went to. I think I went to Kim’s also, but mainly I went there because of Kim’s video rentals being upstairs on Saint Mark’s Place. And eventually I got a job working at Other Music and it just taught me so, so much about music of all kinds. I feel like I really knew almost nothing about music before I started working there.
Filmmaker: Were there archival challenges in terms of sourcing the various footage in your film? And what about music rights? From experience I know that even the most indie of artists can present challenges when it comes to the business. Was there footage or music you wanted to include but couldn’t?
Basu: In terms of footage, we originally had an Animal Collective clip on the Letterman show. And it was really, really expensive. So we replaced it with a clip from them playing the same song “Summertime Clothes” at Pitchfork Fest, which ended up being a better clip anyway.
Hatch-Miller: Yeah and luckily we were dealing with Pitchfork right before the Condé Nast takeover made things much more complicated there and lots of people got laid off. I think if we’d been trying to find that Animal Collective Pitchfork footage even a few months later, all the people that would’ve been able to get us access to it would’ve been gone. So that was fortunate, at least for us. In terms of other archival stuff in the film, the vast majority of the footage is stuff that was shot by a guy named Derek Yip back in the late ’90s and into the early 2000s. He volunteered to videotape a bunch of the in-store performances by artists, and Puloma knew Derek already. He was an accountant on several feature films and TV shows that she’d worked on in the locations department. Derek was great to work, the store had his VHS dubs, but he helped us get us access to all his original master tapes to digitize. And we ended up giving him a producer credit on the film because he was such a key member of our team. I think that all of the in-store footage really, really brought the film to life — even some “accidental” establishing and b-roll type shots that he filmed. He wasn’t ever intending to get shots of people shopping in the store or anything like that, he was just there for the in-store concerts. But he ended up getting some shots by accident just by virtue of being there with a camera, and that ended up being really useful to us for the edit.
There’s some other archival footage like some stuff from a documentary about the Monks, a German band that did an album signing at Other Music. The filmmakers gave us access to raw footage that they shot, and that gave us our only scene in the film where the third co-founder of the store is seen speaking on-camera. He’s not in the film otherwise except through still photos and other people talking about him. Also there’s a documentary about Gary Wilson, whose in-store performance is in the film, and we were able to cut Derek’s single camera in-store tape with their two-camera raw footage that they never used to make it a little more exciting and visual. And of course there are also clips from some in-stores that were shot by Natalie Johns with a multi-camera crew — artists like St. Vincent, No Age and the Dirtbombs, Conor Oberst.
Basu: And then in terms of the music, Rob and I had made a music documentary previously and had learned a lot about how music licensing can crush a documentary and keep it from being released. We were really careful about only using music from artists who were close to the store or the store had promoted heavily and helped in their careers. And we just kind of tried to cater it or curate it in the way that Other Music themselves curated music. We actually used the Other Music weekly new release email update — we went through those archives online to pick the music that ended up being in the film.
Hatch-Miller: And maybe even more importantly than choosing artists the store supported, we chose artists who had no major label connection. Anything that had a major label connection was an immediate red flag, and we decided early on that only things that absolutely had to be in the movie could have a major label connection. Otherwise it would’ve just been too much of a headache or impossibility to clear them. So artists like Jackson C. Frank, Vashti Bunyan and surprisingly Neutral Milk Hotel were some of the very few major label-connected artists we had to license. That made things easier in that we only had to deal with major labels for fewer than five songs out of around 65 in the overall film. Dealing with independent labels is of course a better experience, and they’re more understanding about the budgetary constraints of a documentary.
Filmmaker: The doc moves purposefully through moments of cultural significance — for example, the William Basinski Disintegration Loops section — to moments having to do with social and technological change, such as the music industry’s transition to digital and the effect that had on the store. And then a pretty sizable amount of the doc — 25% or so — is based around the closure of the store. Tell me about your decisions around structuring the doc. Was the structure apparent from the beginning? Were there clips or sections that had to drop out? Is there anything you wish you could have added?
Basu: I think there were some story points that we knew we wanted to hit, like the Disintegration Loops. We knew that we had to talk about it because it was a piece of art that really spoke to a specific time in New York history and we could connect that to Other Music’s story really easily. So we knew that had to be in there.
Hatch-Miller: We benefited from the fact that I had worked at the store. And Puloma was really close to it just from shopping there for a long time and being friends with people who worked there; she was really familiar with the stuff they sold. There was never any time for a research phase — we started shooting after the store announced it was closing. And we didn’t have time to familiarize ourselves with the story, so we had to hit the ground running. I don’t think we could have done it without already having a built-in knowledge of a lot of different things that were important to the store’s history. When we started, like Puloma said, we knew the Disintegration Loops was really relevant, and we knew the post-9/11 “Meet Me In The Bathroom” rock revival with the Strokes and TV On The Radio and Yeah Yeahs Yeahs was kind of born out of Other Music. Or at least that the store was a very key place to that music scene. And of course we knew we had to ask people about Animal Collective and get shots of their old show fliers in the back room and things like that. So we had quite a few of those beats in our heads, even if there wasn’t a formal outline or anything. There were other artists that we knew were going to be important to include, like Jackson C. Frank, Vashti Bunyan. And we knew that the film would have to tell two parallel stories simultaneously, the past tense story of how the store began and what it meant to New York music history and the present tense story of its final days. So I guess we had a pretty good sense of what the structure would be. But as much as we had a sense of what the structure would be our editors, Amy Scott and Greg King, were crucial partners in developing that structure. So much of the structure of a documentary, as much planning and research as you might do, is always discovered in the edit room.
Basu: We started filming maybe two or three days after the announcement that Other Music was closing. And from the day we started filming, we filmed every day all day. We knew that we wanted to show what it was like with all the madness of it closing after so many years, but also we wanted to live there to show what it was like just on a regular day at Other Music as well.
Hatch-Miller: And luckily for us, in the six weeks between the announcement and the actual closure they were a couple of weeks in the middle where the atmosphere wasn’t so charged. And it did just kind of feel “slice of life,” we’re in a record store filming the day-to-day life. It was really important for us to have that footage to work with, to give a sense of the vibe of Other Music on a normal day when people weren’t coming in crying all the time about the store closing. Because that’s not how it actually was for most of its 21 year history!
Basu: One section that had to drop out is: we had so many interviews with people telling us about how they met their spouses through Other Music, or at Other Music, or because of something they bought at Other Music. We really wanted to include that in some way, but it just didn’t end up fitting. We thought it would be really cute to include that and just do a quick montage of all the different people — including somebody like Bill Callahan, who met his wife at Other Music and talked about that on stage at the farewell concert that we filmed.
Hatch-Miller: And it’s worth noting that Puloma and I met through Other Music, in a way. We met because Puloma is friends with Duane Harriott who I worked with at the store, and we met through Duane. So the film isn’t about our relationship, but it’s about the place that was responsible for our relationship existing. So I kind of feel like that inevitably seeped in, in some way.
Filmmaker: Well, I was going to ask… One of the themes of the film is couples, and the impact of a small business on a relationship. You too are also a couple, and an independent film is a small business. How do you function as a filmmaking couple in terms of how you approach the work? Is there a division of labor, or do you do everything together? What recommendations do you have for artists who are couples and who create together? And how did your own perspective here affect the way you approached this storyline?
Hatch-Miller: As a couple, this is our first feature doc that we co-directed together. We had co-directed some music videos and other short projects before this, and those had less of a division of labor. On a shorter project it’s easier to both be on set together at all times, both do all the planning together, both sit for all of the editing together. For this film we were separate from each other a lot more. Because over the six weeks that the store was closing and we were filming, I had a full-time day job and Puloma was between freelance jobs on films and TV shows. And because of that, she spent weekdays by herself as a “one-man-band” camera and sound crew in the store. And then I would come in the evenings and take over until the last employee left the store for the night — also as a “one-man-band” cameraman and recording sound myself. On the weekends we were both there together, and we traded off throughout the day whenever one of us got tired from holding the camera and needed a break. On the weekends we were able to do more staff interviews in the store’s back room, where I would hold the camera and Puloma would hold the boom mic and ask most of the questions from a standard list we kept on the Notes app on our phones. It was different after the store closed, and we were shooting more celebrity and musician sit-down interviews. We were both able to be there for a lot of those interviews, though there were a handful when it was just one of us. Like for the Tunde Adebimpe interview Puloma couldn’t be there, and I couldn’t be there for Matt Berninger. When we got into post, again I had a full-time day job and Puloma didn’t. So she was primarily the one sitting with our editors all day on a day-to-day basis, and I was more seeing scene assemblies and giving feedback on stuff that was already edited and giving bigger picture directorial notes. But I was also doing a lot of the assistant editing work in Premiere myself on the weekends, and doing a lot of music research and was very directly involved with the music supervision process and things like fair use clearance.
Basu: You asked what recommendations do we have for artists who are couples and create together? Don’t kill each other.
Hatch-Miller: I think not everybody has it in them to work together as a couple. Not every couple has it in them. It just works for some people and it doesn’t work for others. And for us, most of the time, it works.
Basu: We started working together pretty much as soon as we met. So a lot of our relationship was built on working together as a part of it, right from the beginning. I think that kind of made it happen organically, where that was already built into our relationship.
Hatch-Miller: Yeah, it probably wouldn’t have worked as well if we were like, dating for two years and then said, “Hey let’s try to make a movie together.”
Basu: We were on our first shoot together I think a week after we met. And we were dating and working together and getting to know each other all at the same time. So we formed a lot of working habits together that happened without us thinking about it. So it’s really hard. I don’t really know what advice we can give.
Hatch-Miller: Do you think we approached this story differently because we’re a couple?
Basu: I think that we have really different personalities and we think about things differently. For example when we were interviewing Regina Spektor, Rob was trying to ask her question and she thought he was trying to tell her what to say in her answer. It was just a miscommunication on both sides where he wasn’t really telling her what to say but she misunderstood, and I had to come in and explain, “Okay, no, this is what he was saying.” I think when you’re co-directing with someone it helps to define what your stronger skills are and then focus on those things, and then to know that the other person is focusing on different things.
Hatch-Miller: I would also say that we are not “auteur theory” people. We have both worked in various capacities on a lot of things, and we know that it’s very rare for one person to be in total control of a film. Film is a very collaborative medium. Whether it’s one director working with one producer, or multiple producers, or a director and a screenwriter and separate editor… we definitely don’t approach things single-mindedly, and I think it helps to have a partner to bounce ideas off of. Especially one who approaches things differently than you do. It’s always good to have more perspectives than less.
Basu: I think for our specific dynamic, being a woman and a man directing together, there are definitely differences right off the bat in terms of how we perceive things. Which helps for the bigger picture.
Hatch-Miller: In terms of us as directors being a couple and how that thematically connects to the film… I hadn’t thought about that before. This is kind of an original question, which is surprising since our film started screening at festivals a year-and-a-half ago and we’ve answered a lot of questions between then and now! I guess the film is sort of about a couple in a way. Josh and Chris, the two owners of the store and how they work together with their different personalities. The kind of “marriage” of those two people is what made the place so special for everybody that worked there and shopped there.
Basu: And then their own relationships with their wives, who supported them and made sure that this place stayed open as long as it did. It was a family-oriented place and everybody was very close.
Hatch-Miller: It is a film about family, in a way — a type of family. I think a lot of people on the staff were young people who worked for Josh and Chris and sort of saw them as parent figures.
Basu: Oh yeah, we have so much interview material from the staff talking about how they looked up to them and were influenced by them.