“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean, Tears from the depths of some divine despair Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes, In looking on the happy autumn fields, And thinking of the days that are no more.” ― Alfred Lord Tennyson
Tennyson perfectly captured my state of mind last night. After the events of the past few days, compounded by more than three months of isolation, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. And then a friend recommended watching Other Music, a documentary about a record store in New York City.
Other Music was located on 4th Street, just off Lafayette Street and east of Broadway. It was right across from the largest record store in the world, Tower Records. It was only a few blocks from my East Village apartment and just around the corner from my bestie’s apartment. And it was my portal to many different worlds.
From the day it opened till the day I left New York, Other Music was a place where I could go to lose myself and find something new to transport me elsewhere. I discovered LTJ Bukem there. I fell in love with Portishead on the recommendation of one of the staff members. A conversation about a Tricky single led to a date with a Peruvian poetess. My lifelong love-affair with Thievery Corporation might have started at a club in Washington D.C., but Other Music is where I bought the albums. Same for Kruder & Dorfmeister, Bent, and dZihan & Kamien. The list goes on.
Other Music played a vital role in the spread of Asian underground music in the US. I used to run a website called Desiparty and, as a sideline, wrote about music in the reviews section of the website. I asked the people at Other Music to find me the debut album by Nitin Sawhney. They were the first folks to stock Talvin Singh in New York. State of Bengal, Black Star Liner, and Karsh Kale entered into my heart from their shelves. They provided the springboard for Outcaste Records. Basement Bhangra flyers were always welcome there. I can still trace my affection for Morcheeba back to Other Music (one of the staff members said that these guys are going to be bigger than Portishead).
The documentary was a trip down the memory lane and a reminder that discovery is a major part of finding creative endeavors we love. While the film is about a record store, it is really about serendipity and the emotion of discovery. We need a story to make something a memory. I watched the documentary and instantly remembered every single salesperson, their quirks, and even their snobbery. Filmmakers Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller did a great job of capturing all of it in their documentary.
This is the missing piece of Spotify as we know of it today. The faceless algorithm does nothing to cement the moment of musical revelation in our memories. I am currently tripping on Oceanvs Orientalis, but I have no idea how I ended up finding them and liking their music. By comparison, a friend’s beau introduced me to El Jazzy Chavo. Every time I play his music, I think of the two of them and our bumpy car ride together.
Even if algorithms are efficient at providing basic “if you like this, then you might like this” music recommendations, they deprive us of the joy of discovery. As I wrote previously:
We all forget that tech companies are businesses, that take what we like and turn that into a lucrative addiction. Spotify, Netflix, and Facebook — are all at fault for one thing — taking what we like — playlists, great television, and friendships and turn them into weapons of mass engagement exploitation. What Facebook does in a merciless fashion selling our attention for nano-pennies. Netflix messes with our sleep to steal more attention. And Spotify seems to make the music sound soulless.
The data, no matter how you want to slice it, lacks the nuance, and is flat-dimensional. I go back to an earlier essay about data “is used like a blunt instrument, a scythe trying to cut and tailor a cashmere sweater.” In that 2013 piece, I hoped that “The symbiotic relationship between data and storytelling” was going to become “one of the more prevalent themes for the next the few years.” Sadly, we have seen Spotify and their peers go in the opposite direction. The front screen of Spotify has the emotional satisfaction of a megastore – stacked high, but rarely a joy.
That said, as much as I might bemoan the loss of this feeling, 100 million (and growing) people seem happy to have their music without it — just like they liked Tower, Virgin, and Sam Goody just fine. But some of us loved Other Music.
June 10, 2020. San Francisco
Previously about Music & Spotify
- Why we need to rethink how to support music & creativity.
- Spotify and the fight for attention
- Spotify and Muzak 2.0