All Things Must Pass, a documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records, is worth a look. It’s one of those interesting stories that are relevant to me because it’s ephemeral and generational. It’s like watching a doc about free weekly newspapers thick with ads, repertory movie theaters that showed old films, or even as recent as video rental stores; all things that were big in “our” time — baby boomer’s time — and have since faded. But whatever age you are, you may find it of interest.
I’d wondered how they managed to get interviews with people like Bruce Springsteen and David Geffen until I found out the director was Tom Hanks’ son Colin. As Colin’s dad nostalgically depicted in That Thing You Do, back when I was a kid, records were sold in places like TV and radio stores, department stores, and five-and-dimes (a pretty anachronistic phrase now).
A few record stores existed mostly for the classical and jazz fans (I can’t really call them “crowds”) and were smallish hobby and collector stores. We boomers have lived through the whole era of the giant record superstore, rock-driven places like Sam Goody in New York and Tower Records, which started in 1960 in Sacramento and made its first giant leap to San Francisco in 1967. Its early claim to fame was completeness; every record, every genre. That’s what the owners liked to see as the Tower difference, its contribution — a deep catalog, which was as much a commitment to being willing to move, inventory, and stock a lot of things as it was to fuzzier concepts that sound good in today’s interviews, like musical diversity.
Opening a Los Angeles store on Sunset Boulevard in late 1970 gave the Tower chain its real fame, due to its proximity to the live performance clubs and the area where many traveling musicians rented homes while recording in Hollywood. If it hadn’t been for that location, it’s hard to say if Tower Records would have been much more memorable than, say, Pacific Stereo or the Federated Group, both of them big California record-selling businesses with few pretenses of changing pop culture history.
T here are great stock shots of the Sunset Strip in the psychedelic Whiskey-a-Go-Go years, plus plenty of rare bits like a John Lennon radio promo for the store, and 16mm footage of Elton John briskly, expertly roaming every aisle. Anything he liked, he bought three copies of for his three homes. Former store employees said admiringly that he was one star who knew his stuff; if one rack of early jazz had been moved since his last visit, he asked about it.
When Tower opened in San Francisco in 1967, the founder, Russ Solomon, was a 42-year-old man in a suit and tie, serious in expression, balding on top. Five years later, he was bearded, wearing tie-dyed shirts, still balding on top but now with long graying hair on the sides. A side note: as far back as Lenny (1975), I’ve been struck by how much younger many already mature men tried to make themselves look in the late ’60s. Despite Russ’s (and to some degree the filmmaker’s) attempt to pose himself as a Gandalf or an Obi Wan of a musical revolution, he really wasn’t. He was a small businessman at the right time and place to become a bigger one, who smartly made use of the opportunities granted by a younger generation who liked music and was willing and able to spend.
Russ talks about the generations of people who started as clerks and rose through the record-selling ranks, as if he was Roger Corman, the roguish godfather of a thousand careers. But the evidence on film is mixed; some people, usually stars, praise the attentiveness of the knowledgeable staff, while less-elevated personages (i.e., normal human beings) complain that to them, the staff was too often rude, conceited, lazy, stoned, or all of the above.
Like the Tiffany Theater down the street, the original home of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the record store had loose policies, no dress code, and no problems about being high on the job, as long as you could still do the job. One difference is, un-like the Tiffany down the Strip, you weren’t allowed to get high on Tower premises, though I’d bet plenty found basement and loading-dock spots to do so. From the mid-’70s on, cocaine had a bigger, more menacing presence, which the movie makes light of as just one of those historical things. But this also begins decades when the earlier thriftiness of Tower management gave way to wasted money and grandiose expansion.
One top executive in particular is casually said to have hired women strictly on looks, and for closed-door sex. This is the kind of thing that is regrettably not confined to Tower, or to the 1970s, but was especially acute in the cultural/historical border between the increase in public exploitation of sex, and the protections offered to women by changing laws. The documentary shrewdly, or perhaps a bit cynically, introduces the sexism part of the story by having it told by a sympathetic woman, sort of defusing it as supposedly being a funny thing about the old days, or at worse, well, “you know what men are like.”
This film was released in 2015; if it had been after the #metoo explosions of 2017, I doubt it would have been so (relatively) cavalier. As it is, the level of boss-employee hanky-panky described here would, unfortunately, have gotten little more than sympathetic laughs at a festival or a PBS screening, ten, 20, or 30 years ago.
In the ’80s and ’90s, mass merchandisers re-entered the record-selling arena; companies like Best Buy, Circuit City, Walmart, and Target, were willing to take losses to get people into their stores to buy other things. Their vaster marketing power, meaning larger orders, got them cheaper wholesale prices than Tower. The bigger retailers said in their own defense that they were selling only a mere fraction of Tower’s much-vaunted wide selection, but they knew as well as anyone that Tower counted on selling the mass hits just as much as everyone else to keep up the profit margins that allowed them to boast of stocking the complete Muddy Waters discography.
If you ask, finally, “What killed Tower Records,” “the internet” is a reasonable two-word response. But it’s a little more involved than that.
Sometimes, business isn’t as stupid as people like to assume. Well before the web was used to distribute digital audio, the record chain was innovative enough to use a new medium, a website, to sell records. This was a time when internet commerce was still new, and like other, similar sites, it didn’t have massive success at first. Tower knew it could be a force for selling and someday even home delivery, but they had no way of guessing that music would end up being exchanged for free. It never occurred to them, because despite decades of (by then) nearly everyone having an audio tape recorder, home re-recording of music, though not exactly welcome, or technically legal, had never caused much of a dent in revenue. Tape copies had to be done in real time (real slow time), and second- or third-generation copies already sounded terrible.
What made the MP3 files so stealable and exchangeable was the simple fact of being digital. Making copies that were nearly as good as studio originals, something the record industry chose to do. It wasn’t the only way they screwed up strategically. Once the web was used for outright theft, the record companies would spend years and millions of dollars in legal expenses in a futile attempt to try to shut it all down.
At the same time this digital door to piracy opened, millions of younger record buyers were being squeezed out by the industry’s unwillingness or inability to come up with a successor to 45 rpm vinyl singles. There was some (very) limited success with cassette singles. CD singles were tried but failed in the marketplace. That suited the record companies and artists just fine, because they’d long wanted to funnel everyone into buying albums, which by the late ’90s cost $18; say, $24 now. Besides the money, this had creative elements, ego, and pretention going for them; over decades, albums had become the symphony, the novel, the feature-film medium of rock. But younger people, deprived of the cheap way we ’60s kids had of entering their record-buying age, were ready for Napster, which did what the industry didn’t think possible: give away everything they owned for free. So, it was either $18 or free. A lot of people took “free.”
David Geffen admits the industry made a huge mistake by not simply cutting the prices of records, and the semi-proof was the success of the standardized 99-cent download at the Apple online store. I resist the hero-izing of Steve Jobs when it’s excessive, but I have to admit that his fame, and ruthless reputation, gave him the clout to bluff the record companies, who all felt that their own individual artists deserved a uniquely better deal.
As late as 1999, Tower was still a billion-dollar-a-year company with global ambitions. By 2004, it was bankrupt. All in all, Tower Records had quite a 44-year ride.
All Things Must Pass is available through several streaming services, though I saw it through the miracle of free TV on Pluto.com, a useful and interesting cable substitute.Published in