I remember the first time I saw a Tower Records.
It was 1985. My brother was one of the winners of an MTV contest (yes, people really won) and the network had put us up at the famous Hyatt House on Sunset, now known as the Andaz West Hollywood. While he was out letting MTV prep him for the evening, I took a walk around the neighborhood.
Four blocks away, there it was: the Biggest Record Store in the World.
I’d grown up in New Orleans, where we had Leisure Landing, and I’d visited New York, where you had a choice between the mighty Sam Goody’s and the crammed racks of used LPs on 8th Street. But I’d never seen anything like Tower: the stacks of records, the endless aisles, the cover art dominating the windows.
It felt like heaven.
For a time, Tower was the best — and probably the dominant — record store chain in the country. When I moved to New York, I frequented the building on 4th Street in the East Village, and later the one just north of Lincoln Center. Atlanta got a Tower next to the Lenox Square shopping mall. Tower had selection, Tower had Pulse! magazine, Tower had cheap blank cassettes.
But Tower had also gotten overextended, and when the Internet and streaming took over the marketplace, it just couldn’t compete. (Few places could; next door to the Lenox Tower was CompUSA.)
Colin Hanks’ documentary “All Things Must Pass” brought it all back. The documentary is really a love letter to Tower, and its eccentric personalities reminded me of the wonderful and knowledgeable people I interviewed in Ann Arbor when Borders Books was going under.
At the big Towers — before it expanded too quickly and took on the baggage of a suburban chain — that meant a certain kind of social atmosphere. The other shoppers were obviously as discerning as you; the employees perhaps more so. (There are no snobs like music snobs, a point the film amiably admits.)
“Everybody in a record store is your friend for 20 minutes or so,” Bruce Springsteen, an obvious fan, says at one point.
Tower encouraged that kind of community. The stores were open until midnight, so if you just had to find that obscure import at 11:15 p.m. there was a place you could go. It was a new record store that felt like a used record store.
Much of that philosophy came from the founder, Russ Solomon, the son of a Sacramento drugstore owner. Solomon had a kind of throw-it-at-the-wall style of retailing, willing to take flyers on everything from opening branches in Japan to starting Pulse! Coupled with a more fundamental sales philosophy — stack ’em high and sell ’em low — Tower became the place to gather for music fans. It helped that the decades of the late 20th century were very good times to be music fans — and music retailers.
But Tower became caught in the bind that affected the entire music business. CDs made big profits when they became dominant — they retailed for $14.98 or $15.98 vs. the $8.98 price of an early-’80s LP — which began a gravy train that just couldn’t sustain, especially since it seemed foolish to pay such exorbitant money for perhaps two or three good songs. The numerous Tower stores meant that it didn’t feel so special anymore — it was a good chain, but still a chain, and it had to hit the bottom line. And other retailers, such as Best Buy and Media Play, started undercutting Tower and using CDs as loss leaders.
When MP3s hit, Tower’s days were numbered. Why spend all that money on CDs when you can buy a couple singles for 99 cents each, or simply steal them? The music business turned upside-down, and it took Tower with it.
Still, there was a time when it was the place to be if you loved music. Used record stores are holding their own, and music still sells in various formats, but it seems like something — a sense of community, perhaps — has been lost.
Elton John, who used to show up at the L.A. store first thing in the morning to make his purchases, obviously senses it.
“I can say, without exaggeration, that I spent more money at Tower than any other human being,” he says in the film. I’ll bet he doesn’t regret a single dime.