All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

Russ Solomon welcomes all and sundry to the Manhattan Tower Records.

Russ Solomon welcomes all and sundry to the Manhattan Tower Records.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Russ Solomon, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Mark Viducich, David Geffen, Michael Solomon, Steve Knepper, Heidi Cotler, Dave Grohl, Mike Farrace, Rudy Danzinger, Paul Brown, Steve Knopper, Steve Nikkel, Stan Goman, Ken Sockolov, Chris Hopson, Bob Delanoy. Directed by Colin Hanks

To people of a certain age, a visit to a record store was akin to a spa day; we would spend literally hours browsing the bins of records, cassettes and later compact discs. We’d pour through the bargain and used bins, sweaty palmed and wide-eyed until our breath would catch in our throats as the one record, that one record that made the time and effort worth it appeared out of the stacks. There were no finer moments in my life.

Those days are gone; most of us, myself included, get our music digitally downloaded through iTunes, eMusic, Amazon or some other service, or stream our music through Pandora, RDIO or Band Camp. Music is so easily accessible that it has lost much of its magic to many of us. Why bother spending that kind of time haunting a record store when you can just Google the name of your treasure and it will be located in seconds? Who among us of a certain age can remember the thrill of first entering a Tower Records, a record store that dwarfed anything we’d known before and had just about anything and everything that was available – and if they didn’t have it by God they could get it for you in a week, tops.

In 1999, as a title card at the very beginning of the documentary All Things Must Pass which chronicles the story of what is perhaps the most iconic record chain in history, Tower Records had over a billion dollars in sales. Five years later, they filed for bankruptcy. How did that happen?

Well, the Internet happened. Music suddenly was being file shared and downloaded. Who needed to go inside an old-fashioned brick and mortar emporium? Who had the time? Besides, you could find anything on Napster for free. Why pay twenty bucks for a CD when you could get the very same quality for free? You can’t compete with free, says one talking head ruefully during the course of the film.

Competition happened. Big box stores like Wal*Mart and Target began stocking CDs in comparable qualities and sold them at cost. Tower couldn’t compete with that either. But this wasn’t all Tower’s doing; the music business itself made some incompetent decisions, focusing on music piracy. They may have won the battle against Napster but they lost the war; the major labels these days are shadows of their former selves and making a living as a musician is way harder than it used to be – and it was never easy.

&Tower grew because it was a family store, a neighborhood store. It began as a few bins in a drug store located in the Tower Theater building in Sacramento. When the proprietor’s son, Russ Solomon, decided to get in the record retail business, his father sold the bins to him and soon Russ had a couple of stores in Sacramento. Then one in San Francisco. Then another in Los Angeles.

Russ believed in expansion but he also believed in having more stock than anyone else. He believed in putting people as clerks who were people you’d want to hang out with and talk music with for a couple of hours. I remember going into the Tower Records in Mountain View, California and when the clerks found out I was the rock critic for the San Jose Metro ended up spending nearly three hours just chatting with nearly all of them in between them ringing up customers. They grilled me on various groups and styles; about some I would plead ignorance but others I knew well. When I left the store, the manager told me that I was “Tower Records clerk material.” I don’t ever recall being as thrilled about a compliment in all my life.

That family feeling carried through to the executives of the company, nearly all of whom started out working at the cash register. As we listen to their interviews, particularly Mark Viducich (he of the walrus-like moustache in the photo above) and Heidi Cotler, we get the sense that these are people who are used to speaking what’s on their mind and would be a hoot to hang out with for a few beers after work. These guys knew their market because they were their market.

Solomon’s aggressive expansion phase made Tower a global presence, particularly in Japan which was rabid about American culture (the Japanese expansion was Viducich’s call). Music being such a personal thing, they understood that it had to be treated almost as therapeutic and so it was. If music was the catalyst for change in the latter half of the 20th century, Tower Records was the company that provided the chemicals for the reaction.

Times did change and despite their best efforts Tower Records is no more. Now Colin Hanks, the actor and son of Tom, has fashioned a documentary that is a very good idea – it is going to inspire a ton of nostalgia for a lot of people ranging from the baby boomers to Gen X; in other words, the people that Millennials roll their eyes at these days. That can’t be a bad thing for the box office.

If I have one complaint with the film it’s just that the format is pretty tried and true – lots of talking heads with archival film footage interspersed with it. The soundtrack is pretty good but not as great as that which accompanied The Wrecking Crew or Muscle Shoals. That’s a bit of a problem, but one that isn’t a deal killer at least.

There are some record collectors left but most of us have reverted to digital storage. Ironically the CDs which prompted the golden era for Tower in terms of profits were also the vehicle for the doom of big record chains including Tower. Once music was digital, the obsolescence of brick and mortar record stores was assured.

Still, one can look back fondly on hours spent at Tower, Amoeba and Park City CDs and the money spent and not one dime of it do I regret. Music is as essential to life as breathing (the Japanese Tower continues to use the old Tower slogan “No music, no life”) and I can’t imagine life without it. We all have our own soundtracks and Tower was the place where many of us acquired ours.

REASONS TO GO: Classic nostalgia for aging music geeks. Engaging interviews.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian format.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Tower Records no longer exists in the United States, they still thrive in Japan under separate ownership.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Homemakers

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