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Five years ago, Other Music co-founder Josh Madell sat across from me at a Fort Greene café and enthused about his venerated East Village record shop going digital. It was 2007, and a brave new world seemed to be on the horizon: Its neighbor and rival, Tower Records, was shutting its doors, as were countless other music stores on the island of Manhattan. And as Other Music watched that space across East Fourth Street morph into a Halloween-costume store and a Christmas-decorations outlet (it now houses the MLB Fan Cave and Blink Fitness), it turned into the last man standing. Not that such status brings stability in the world of retail and Manhattan real estate. "Obviously, running a record shop these days is not getting any easier," Madell told me recently. "It is our passion, and there is still a lot of life left in this store, but record retailing is a tough business and getting tougher all the time."
Yet rather than enter into the lucrative, fast-paced businesses of a frozen-yogurt stand, a coffee roastery, an NYU bookstore, or a locavore eatery, Other Music finds itself venturing into the haphazard world of being a record label, launching its Other Music Recording Company this month in a distribution partnership with Oxford, Mississippi-based label Fat Possum. "A label is a natural extension of the work we do and the connections we have," Madell says of this new endeavor. "We have talked about it for years, but this relationship with Fat Possum has allowed us to start the label we've always wanted to." Although the shop has always fostered local musicians and bands (Animal Collective members worked as clerks) and even had a short-lived reissue imprint, Omplatten, run out of their offices (it released the first U.S. reissues from Brazil's iconic Tropicalia act Os Mutantes), Other Music Recording Company marks the store's first foray into producing music product.
This month sees the first fruits of the Other Music imprint, and the two full-length releases couldn't be more beguiling or more different. First up is a solo album from Japanese musician Shintaro Sakamoto. Sakamoto spent two-plus decades as the frontman for the obscure yet OM-championed Japanese psych-rock band Yura Yura Teikoku. The group had a storied career in Japan, starting off on the PSF and Captain Trip labels before signing to Sony and headlining music festivals in their native country; it disbanded in 2010. Sakamoto's How To Live With a Phantom is a true solo album, with him manning every instrument (save percussion and woodwinds).
At first glance, it's reminiscent of a quirky singer-songwriter album from the early 1970s—think Nilsson, Todd Rundgren, Van Dyke Parks, or perhaps former Yellow Magic Orchestra shape-shifter Haruomi Hosono. If you've ever had an eclectic record recommended by the shop's staff—whether the genre is California troubadour, Brazilian Tropicalia, J-pop, or Korean psychedelia—Phantom is the quintessential Other Music album. Beneath its luminous, sunshine pop surface, though, darker themes teem. The Boz Scaggs yacht funk of "Mask on Mask" has all the existential angst of Yukio Mishima's Confessions of a Mask.
The raucous, Replacements-inspired second album from Long Island–to-Brooklyn transplants Nude Beach—which the band originally released themselves, hand-delivering copies to local shops around town—came out last week. "Other Music sold lots of copies of it in the shop," says drummer Ryan Naideau. "And right when we were running out of the pressing, they started talking to us about reissuing it themselves."
The trio of guitarist/vocalist Chuck Betz, bassist Jimmy Shelton, and Naideau all grew up in Northport and bonded over punk rock in the suburban village while connecting with other punk fans in different towns, despite there being no unified scene. "It wasn't like there was any sort of venue for shows," recalls Shelton, to which Naideau adds: "Every now and then, we could convince our parents to throw shows in our backyard or basement." That was short-lived, though, according to Betz: "There was a community for a minute. But then all of those people moved out of their parents' house and migrated to Brooklyn."
There was a similar dearth of good record stores to be had. "On Long Island, you'd have to resort to Napster or some kid selling seven-inches at a show," Shelton says. "In the city, though, you can just go to cool record stores and learn about new and old music organically." Naideau claims he has learned about electronic and Kraut-rock albums from shopping at Other Music over the years. And while Nude Beach plies a ragged and hook-sharp brand of punk that would seem at odds with Other Music's epicurean tastes, the band and label think it's a good fit.
Other Music as a store is well-versed in the most esoteric of electronic albums as well as the snottiest of garage-rock outfits, so the label's aesthetic is similar. "I don't care how people listen to music, only that they do," Madell says. "We have been developing our brand for close to two decades now in the face of a changing industry. So the label is a way of reaching out to listeners and customers that are open-minded and adventurous with their tastes."