I had probably heard about the making of this film, by Colin Hanks [scion of Tom] a few years back and my wife came to mention it to me recently as she was buying films on DVD for the library where she works at. The order went out and we got it to watch this week. We wasted little time in giving it a spin in the antiquated DVD player.
I didn’t have the firmest of relationships with the music megadealer. Where I lived in the cultural wasteland of Central Florida, such stores were unknown. I first shopped at a Tower Records in their Foggy Bottom, Washington D.C. location, back in 1990. I was presenting a paper I had co-written at a conference back in those earlier days of my career, when it had some promise. As usual, I scoped out what record stores of interest were in D.C. and made sure to visit them during the down time. Now that I think about it, I can’t recall how I did this in the pre-internet era, but I suspect a phone book was involved! The first Tower experience was profound.
It was shortly afterward when I got in the habit of trekking up to Atlanta for some excitement, that I came to find that Hot-Lanta had its own Tower Records in the Lenox Square Mall outer zone. Every trip to Atlanta for the next five years involved a visit to Tower! The store was jam-packed with exactly the releases that I was buying in the era. Massive amounts of import CDs and an import CD single selection that would put many whole stores in Orlando to shame!
While I accepted the level of excellence that Tower records aspired to and maybe even took it for granted, I was in the dark as to how the particulars of the once-mighty chain had come together. The film revealed that it was down to one man, Russ Solomon who wanted to sell records out of his father’s Sacramento drug store; Tower Drugs. The elder Solomon had no time for that folderol so he gave that part of the business to his son and let him get on with it.
The film showed how Russ built his empire from the ground up, attracting record store types with a mixture of good cop/bad cop dynamic courtesy of his business partner who managed the finances offsetting Russ’ more lassiez-faire attitudes. As anyone who worked in a record store probably knows, a lot of behavior that would get you arrested elsewhere was usually fine at a record store. It was our good fortune that Russ aspired to run the best record store in the world.
A memorable scene showed how VP Heidi Cotler admitted that there was a euphemistic line item on an actual budget where almost $400 worth of cocaine was given the less transgressive nomenclature of being “handtruck fuel.” The crews would often perform re-stocking after hours. Sometimes into the wee hours. Peruvian marching powder was seen as a must. Most of the execs interviewed for the film reflected this casual vibe, of course. The gent who ended up in charge of the hugely successful expansion of the company into the eager Japanese market recalled famously how he was in the tree outside of one store smoking some powerful herb one afternoon when Russ called and wanted to know some particularly detailed information that his slack brain was having a terrible time processing.
But the Tower chain stood as a beacon to the music industry for decades. There would not have been a Virgin Megastore chain without their lead to follow. The film outlined how a handful of stores in California grew to be a worldwide presence of over 160 sites in over a dozen nations. Barring a small music industry recession like the one in ’78-’81, it was the nearest thing to a sure bet as generations of youth grew up to stoke their love for music in these temples of commerce.
The emergence of the CD market was depicted as both the apex of the music industry as well as the seeds of its doom. By the late 80s, growth was enormous as listeners sought to replace their record collections with the silver discs. The film cited the elimination of the CD singles market in the late 90s, coupled with greedy pricing by the labels as setting the stage for a huge fall. While CDs were originally $12.98 list price in 1982, when there were only three pressing plants in the world, they crept up to $17.98 over a fifteen year period where economies of scale should have seen the product lowering in cost.
Young listeners didn’t have $17 to buy albums, and the singles trade was important in cultivating that market so that when it matured, the listeners were ready to enter into the album sales market. I had stopped buying [import] CD singles in 1993 or so, and I was unaware of how younger listeners could no longer buy the songs they wanted for a lower price point by the late 90s. So a perfect storm of rising prices, elimination of the singles market, coupled with the deathblow of Napster, meant that as the film opened, it revealed how in 1999 Tower Records had sales of $1,000,000,000 and five years later it was in bankruptcy.
It wasn’t all down to Shawn Fanning. The over extension of the Tower empire also had a lot to do with that heavy debtload. Then there were horrible retailers like Best Buy, who contributed to many a local record store death in the 90s with their aggressive, loss-leader business model that used cut-rate CDs to get warm bodies in store to buy expensive refrigerators! When management didn’t account for the cliff fall of sales post-Napster that was when the banker moved in and took control.
Was Russ Solomon naive? Maybe. He was a high-school dropout who couldn’t have been a CEO of a billion dollar organization at any other time since then, but while unschooled, Russ was no idiot. He built the Tower empire from the ground up and promoted from within. Every major player in the company learned the business from the ground floor as clerks and by the time they were VPs in charge of international marketing, they knew every part in the complex machine of music sales that was Tower Records.
Once bankers were in charge, the end didn’t take long. The locusts of finance can strip once proud companies down to a husk in short order. By 2006 it was all over. The last time I set foot in a Tower Records was the Foggy Bottom store in 2004. I was in D.C. for an Edward Tuffte information design seminar and made sure to stop in to visit the store I had last been to two years prior with chasinvictoria during our Scots Rock Weekender [where we saw not only Simple Minds, but also The Rezillos].
I noted how the in-store displays allowed the employees to curate and promote releases according to their passion and expertise. I noted a display of the then-current V2 DLX RMs of The Associates that warmed the cockles of my heart. I walked through the store aware that I didn’t have too much money to spend but wisely chose three discs that were important buys.
- Simple Minds: New Gold Dream [81, 82, 83, 84] 5.1 DVD-A
- Altered Images: Bite…Plus DLX RM
- Cristina: Sleep It Off DLX RM
Altered Images third album had only just come out on CD from Edsel for the first time. Though the disc had errors, it was better than nothing. The Simple Minds DVD-A was a very far sighted buy! I would not have a 5.1 system to play it on for another seven years! But by then the disc was incredibly scarce. And I could enjoy the alternate 2.0 long, unedited [and alternate take] mixes that were unique to the format before then. I’ve never seen another. The same went for the godlike second album by Cristina, “Sleep It Off.”
Having these rare discs I can put down to Tower’s amazing depth of stock which was second-to-none. The stores surely pointed the way for the closest thing we have in America to it today, the Amoeba chain with their now smaller Hollywood store [recently downsized due to real estate hijinx] still holding the blue ribbon for sheer record store chutzpah in our fallen world. But at least the Amoeba Music chain [of three stores] has been avoiding the explosive expansion scenario that could not have helped Tower during the perfect storm of their demise.
Watching “All Things Must Pass” now puts a nostalgic frame around an era that is long since gone and will never return. Three years after the 2015 feature debuted, Russ Solomon died of a heart attack in 2018. So Hanks’ decision to film the tale when he did was clearly advantageous in that he was able to craft it while the relaxed fit mogul was still around to weigh in on the storied history of the chain. I’m just glad that I got to experience, however intermittently, the wonder that was a trip to a Tower Records. I’ll never forget my friend Ron Kane regaling me with tales of shopping at the Shibuya, Japan location. How each story of the store had a different emphasis with all of the original Blue Note Jazz albums bought from America now living on the top floor with all new pricing. Ron’s gone, and so is the chain, but Tower Japan was independent from the American company after a time and still exists, profitably, today. But if you want to visit, you’d better hurry. I suspect that even the Japanese market’s lingering embrace of the CD will one day be part of history. And when that happens, all we will have left are memories and films like this one.