In the Shadow of No Tower

Insound, Other Music, and Anthology explore the brave new world of digital music

It's the final days before Tower Records on Broadway and East 4th closes its revolving doors forever, and the malnourished feeding frenzy within is a forlorn sight indeed. Most of the bins are picked down to their cumbersome wood shelving, but stacks of Stills, Buckethead & Friends, and Faster Pussycat remix CDs remain untouched, along with other still-sealed jewel-case offal that beggars all logic. A clerk with a grave sort of humor cues up "Video Killed the Radio Star," blasting it so that it echoes throughout the carcass of this once venerable dinosaur.

"Tower was my local record store growing up," Matt Wishnow remembers. The 32-year-old president of indie-music online retailer Insound recounts how "my first Rolling Stones, Replacements, and Elvis Costello records were all purchased at the Tower in New Jersey." He's not the only one with such fond memories. "When I was growing up in New York, Tower was great," testifies Josh Madell, co-owner of Other Music. "I bought tons of great records there." He also remembers when record shops like Bleecker Bob's in the Village and Pier Platters in Hoboken failed to keep up with trends in the early '90s. Having been situated across the street from Tower for well over a decade, he long ago perceived a similar atrophy in his East 4th Street rival. "(Tower) going under is not a surprise," he says. "They weren't well managed—they didn't stay up with the times. Stores forget that you've got to make it a good shopping experience."

One would presume that finally being out from under the shadow of Tower could only brighten Other Music's future prospects, but it's the opposite, a fact the store is reminded of every night. "It's pitch-black on that street now," Madell laments, pondering the future of his own downtown brick-and-mortar operation. "With Tower's video store also closed, it's one less reason for someone to make a trek here."

Now catering new music to a generation accustomed to the instant gratification of file sharing, indie institutions New York's Insound to and the U.K.'s Rough Trade had myriad reasons to unveil stores selling digital files—insound.com/mp3s.php and roughtradedigital.com, respectively—in the fall of 2006. By the end of January, Other Music itself will step into the fray with its own digital store at othermusic.com. (Disclosure: This writer has been approached about contributing content to the site.) Despite Insound enjoying increased vinyl sales over the past five years, selling inexhaustible MP3s was a no-brainer for Wishnow: "We knew that eventually our customers, many of whom are college students, would eventually look elsewhere if we did not provide the option of digital sales."

In November 2006 alone, 55 million songs were sold digitally; Nielsen SoundScan reported download sales were up 67 percent from the year before. Both Insound and Other Music admit that they won't be up to speed until later in the year content-wise, but they're at least in the market, offering catalogs from indie-label stalwarts like Touch & Go, Merge, Secretly Canadian, and Matador. And while virtual stores like iTunes and eMusic own the lion's share of the market, they don't have everything covered, as some shoppers discover during virtual crate-digging.

"I download a lot of music to listen to," says Keith Abrahamsson, an a&r exec at the local label Kemado. Clad in a frayed jean jacket, with shoulder-length hair and beard to match, Abrahamsson is a ravenous lover of music from the world over; we discuss everything from Swedish electro-acoustic composers to Texas punk rock to Thin Lizzy over lunch. "I don't shop at iTunes that often, but when I did go to look for titles a little more left-leaning, I found it strange they didn't have a lot," he recalls. The more Abrahamsson searched, the more he realized that his wide-ranging tastes and ardent love of cool, weird records weren't being serviced by the bigger sites. "I just started to scratch my head a little and think there was something that was missing."

Enter Abrahamsson's moonlighting gig: running the Anthology Recordings digital store, which also went live last fall at anthologyrecordings.com. It too hopes to cater to the discerning fan who wants to explore beyond the realms of the mainstream and the cliquish fields of indie rock, to get at music where the intensity of artistic vision eradicates not just notions of era, but ofgenre altogether. Much like Other Music itself, the selection at Anthology is extremely choice, with Abrahamsson cherry-picking obscure curios that scarcely exist in the digital age. In fact, Anthology's collection of tracks from early-'80s New York artcore band China Shop stems from the band's ex-bassist selling CD-Rs to Other Music. "That was the only place they existed," Abrahamsson enthuses. "My buddy bought it there and said, 'You've got to hear this shit!' " So far Anthology testifies in much the same way by offering such brain-warping wares as the proto-metal sludge of Brooklyn's Sir Lord Baltimore, Adrian Sherwood's wicked '80s dub project African Head Charge, and the communal third-eye thumping from early-'70s spiritual guru Father Yod and his cult band (literally), Ya Ho Wha 13.

All three interviewees, like countless listeners of previous generations, first got into music by checking out records based solely on their cover art or intriguing labels. There was a palpable sense of mystery inherent in these physical objects and the untold sounds buried in their black grooves. The thrill of discovery bubbled up with every trip to the store. Now, "you never take chances, because you always want to hear something first," Madell grumbles. "What we peddle at Other Music is often difficult music. You can't always get it on a first listen or whatever. That sort of information-overload culture isn't necessarily to the service of underground music. People make snap judgments about stuff." Wishnow too perceives how the Internet and file sharing are a double-edged sword: "For avid music fans, it created a sense of discovery and community . . . however, for the more casual music fan, it created a sense that music was not something that one should spend money on."

While the nature of the beast encourages snap judgments and hive-mind sensibilities, the upside of the MP3 format for independent music, reissues, and other sorts of obscure music is impossible to deny. Abrahamsson admits that "the overhead is so low that you can focus on so many things. The medium is tailored for these kind of releases." He offers as testimony that the biggest success for the nascent site so far has been the release of the self-titled album from ex–Gorilla Biscuits/soon-to-be Quicksand guitarist Walter Schreifels's 1989 one-off hardcore project, Moondog, which played but one show at CBGB. "Walter was incredibly enthusiastic about having Moondog seen in a light with all these other esoteric, strange records," Abrahamsson says. "He was really into that."

Smaller imprints and artists are reticent to make the leap, though. "It's a complicated contract," Madell says, admitting that after a career in record retail, he's learning the legal logistics on the fly. Then there's the aesthetic question: how to sell music that no longer has a visual aspect or tactile quality to it, a particularly heated issue with the crate-digging savants these stores target. Diehards may cling to their nearly puritanical tenets—analog sounds better than digital, and cover art is meant for a gatefold record sleeve, not a JPEG file—but the trend away from physical product is irreversible. "MP3s are not my favorite format," Abrahamsson confesses. "I prefer LPs."

Insound's marketing also prioritizes albums over singles: "We want to elevate the album format in a time in which it's being challenged by technology," Wishnow says, conceding that it's also a matter of business. "The truth is that we cannot survive selling individual tracks. We pay credit card fees and transaction fees on every order to credit card companies, and we would lose money on every 99-cent order."

Madell also prefers LPs and old 45s, but is nevertheless enthused about the future. "It's exciting to be at the beginning of this new era," he says. "I can't really say there's a problem with people buying stuff digitally. They're listening to music, that's what really matters."

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