The Belcourt showed a few screenings of the documentary on the once great record outlet; All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall Of Tower Records which documents the once billion dollar music retail chain while trying to gain some understanding as to what happened to the great mothership of deep catalog outlets.
So many of my teenage years were spent going to and deciding what to buy at the Fresno Tower Records location after opening in the mid 70’s next to a brand new Pacific Stereo store. While I waited for the “everything-in-the-store-for-the-same-low-price” sale that came every so often, I would go through every bin of vinyl as well as the eight tracks, cassettes and reel to reel releases.
I knew where everything was. I learned during the screening that Elton John has me beat. He knew where everything was at the Los Angeles store which dwarfed every other location back in the day.
I remember the day they opened at the strip mall on Blackstone. They had a rock trio on the back of a flatbed truck in the parking lot blasting through Orange Amp Stacks. They were playing ZZ Top covers. They sounded great and that was the first time I had ever heard or saw Orange Amps.
One time, they had a Wet T-Shirt Contest out in front and I was little embarrassed because a girl from my Drama class at Hoover High School who was 16 and posing as “over 18” won.
I finally got to the Sunset location in Los Angeles when I was down in the area with the Snow College Jazz Band in 1980. I purchased a copy of Van Halen Women and Children First on cassette for the car while we drove around Southern California.
After I moved to L.A.in 1984, I avoided going into the store for fear of spending my entire paycheck. I mainly would just drive by to see the big cover art displays and signage. I saved my dollars for the occasional purchase at a local record store in Costa Mesa, California because of my tight budget at the time.
I noticed every store was different. It was like every location had its own vibe and bands they would push. I saw how big The Smiths were in Orange County at the Mission Viejo / Lake Forrest store near my work. The Smiths had their own display rack of every single they ever made.
Tower Records in Buena Park had a lot of Punk Rock and obscure Ramones stuff.
I actually made the trek to Tower Records when I lived in Birmingham, Alabama after seeing that there was one in Nashville, Tennessee. By the time I moved here in 2008, it was either gone or on the way out.
I remember FYE was there for a while but they never had the deep catalog of Tower Records.
The last thing I bought from Tower Records Nashville was a Russian 2 CD set of the Best of Angel. Angel was difficult to find on CD. In fact, there are a lot of things that never were released on CD that were at the top of my list. There has never been a CD release of The Cretones Planet Records catalog. The Cretones were kind of like Elvis Costello & The Attractions if they lived near Joni Mitchell’s house in Laurel Canyon. In fact, three cuts made it onto Linda Ronstadt’s “new wave” album Mad Love including the title track.
There-in lies the rub: the turning back to vinyl for music lovers of all ages. I now own The Cretones first two albums in pristine quality for a few dollars as well as a couple of 7 inch singles.
The big question is how did Tower Records grow into a billion dollar business only to file for bankruptcy a few years later? They try to answer that question in the last fifteen minutes.
They talk about not selling singles. The youth quit coming and that meant death to future development business. The seven inch and twelve inch singles had the artwork and some exclusive B-Sides and mixes prior to the advent of YouTube. A CD single was not worth a dime. It still isn’t.
The other one was the price of a CD. The list price and average price was exorbitant. The actual cost of manufacturing was much less than vinyl so while this was to cover some marketing and the cost of promotional videos, much of this was a cash cow for the record companies and retailers that actually made the record business bigger than the film business in the Nineties.
The beginning of the end was Napster and file sharing. Lars Ulrich [Metallica] was right. At the time, he was demonized by other bands and his own fans for suing downloaders. If the record companies and bands had lined up behind Lars and took the whole file sharing scheme on in court and stiff fines were imposed for stealing music maybe the industry would not be where it is today.
It is missed opportunities like that which eventually drove the once gigantic Tower Records to be liquidated by its own creditors. It is hard to believe that every time a Tower Records opened up, there were hundreds of people lined up at the door much like an In N Out Burger joint opening is today.
The big chains are all gone and the small Mom and Pop shops and segmented Indie start up stores have taken their place. This is a mere ghost reflection of what sales figures were less than twenty years ago.
Record buying was a part of almost everybody’s life whether it was Mom and Dad buying Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass’ Whipped Cream and Other Delights or some stoner blasting an 8-track of Black Sabbath Vol. 4 from a 1969 Chevelle SS with a 396 and tuck and roll interior.
Everybody was building their collection, a physical collection that was where friends and party goers gravitated.
Songs and records were a framed reference for friends, loved ones and events that transpired through the time space continuum. It was not background fodder or best of song lists in Pandora or Spotify.
There were jobs involved in the music business; everything from retail clerks to buyers, distributors, manufacturers, advertising and so forth. There are thousands upon thousands of jobs that are gone.
The one bright spot in the documentary was how Tower Records founder, Russ Solomon pushed to get a store open in Japan after a couple of investors came forward. He was met with a lot of resistance but pushed forward and in 1980 opened in Sapporo, Japan. As the business de-construction Managers came in, Tower Records was forced to sell off the Japanese division. Tower Records Japan exists to this day with 85 locations.
The implosion of the music business story begins to show a real personal toll as the story of Tower Records is told from the very beginning to the aftermath by Russ Solomon and the key players, some of whom breakdown telling the story of the final days of the once renowned Retail Giant.
- Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN