Actors: Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, Russ Solomon, Chris Cornell
Synopsis: Established in 1960, Tower Records was once a retail powerhouse with 200 stores, in 30 countries, on five continents. Now the doors are closed, but the legacy lives on.
Tower Records was established in 1960 and was once a retail powerhouse with 200 stores, in 30 countries, on five continents. From humble beginnings in a small-town drugstore, Tower Records eventually became the heart and soul of the music world, and a tremendously powerful force in the music industry. In 1999, Tower Records made an astounding $1 billion but in 2006, the company filed for bankruptcy. Everyone thinks that it was the Internet that killed Tower Records that’s not the story we learn here.
Directed by Colin Hanks, we meet Tower Records founder Russ Solomon. For seven years, Hanks worked on the documentary that both lamented and celebrated the Sacramento-based record store that grew from an American retail powerhouse.
When news broke in 2006 that Tower Records filed for bankruptcy and liquidation with plans to close its doors entirely that year, many of us were sad to see Tower disappear. Many younger people had little reaction as it was not common for them to actually shop at a music store. However, regardless of everyone’s feelings about the closing, Tower Records had changed the music business, set trends, and became an iconic store for the 40 plus years the doors were open.
“All Things Must Pass” documents the history of Tower Records from the original Tower Drugs store in Sacramento, California with a side business of selling new and used records at the drug store counter and expanded with the Tower Drugs’ owner’s son Russ Solomon who decided to open a store entirely for music, He opened the first Tower Records store on Watt Avenue in Sacramento opened in 1960. A few years later in 1968, Tower Records opened a new location in San Francisco, which at the time was the largest music store in the country. Later, stores opened up in Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, and more along the west coast. Japanese investors considered opening stores in Japan and Tower Records opened their first stores outside of the country in 1979. Following expansion around America in places such as New York, Boston, Nashville, New Orleans and Washington D.C., they also expanded international stores in Mexico, Canada, Thailand, Israel, Argentina, and more. Business was constantly growing and each financial risk they took seemed to only be a step in a positive direction.
Tower was known for the best selection available and the storers were very large and carried thousands of albums, singles, merchandise, from every genre. They stocked the major releases while also promoting the independents and obscure acts. It also helped that Tower Records employees were knowledgeable about music. The young people who worked at the stores were huge music lovers and showed their appreciation by recommending and pushing personal favorites. Since there was no dress code, employees were able to wear whatever they wanted, giving a fashion sense into the retail world with individual personality. Tower Records published “Pulse”, a free magazine available at all locations featuring everything from interviews, upcoming release information, “desert island discs” sections, and much more. Tower Records advertised heavily, on billboards and on television and it worked. Their national TV ads made people interested and their forward looking and creative TV ads were way ahead of the competition. It was one of the first music stores to open an online store back in 1995 with tower.com.
Tower Records saw the potential very early on in the Internet age and worked very closely with record companies. The stores sponsored in-store performances and autograph signings to increase awareness. They helped with the artwork and promotion of upcoming records and Tower even had its own art department to create visuals for in store use. Events held at Tower Records were some of the most important ways that even newer artists could get their names known. It was no secret that the employees had a good time at the workplace, sometimes with extracurricular substances helping out the celebrations. For music loving kids it was a place they dreamed of working but it was widely known that there were Tower Records clerks who had total disregard for customers who “lacked knowledge”. For some, it might have made shopping intimidating for some but it was a great place for others. Quite naturally, we want to know what happened?
There were many to put the blame on the easiest target which was Napster with the illegal file sharing network becoming a fast growing way for people to get music for free without even having to go outside. But Napster was not the only cause of Tower Records’ downfall. There were multiple issues to blame for the closure that started from the late 90’s. There was competition from other retailers and pricing wars were issues, with superstores such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart opening stores everywhere, and their lower prices for CDs and DVDs. Superstores might not have had the big selection, but they did have the overall lower prices for the major releases. Failures of international expansion was another case. Japan held on, but places like Mexico, Thailand, Taiwan, and others were struggling.
The late 1990’s saw a time that recordable CDs became affordable for home use thus making copying in high quantities very fast and easy. Places like Thailand or Taiwan became heavily known for the places to buy bootlegged CDs for a fraction of the cost of the retail price, and for many in those countries, it made more sense to buy the unofficial CDs.. Record companies were also not helping things out. Their ideas were to sue Napster and its users and punish the downloaders rather that to find ways to work with the online distribution system. Because of lower sales figures, they decided to mark up the prices of the CDs, which would again prevent people from buying. Instead of taking chances on new bands or new styles of music, record companies cut back with letting go of employees and bands that were not worth the time and effort to market, while concentrating on bland pop music and bands that were guaranteed sellers. Essentially they were making it so it was more difficult for real music fans to actually buy music.
Hanks interviewed everyone that he could including Russ Solomon and his son Michael, as well as a large amount of former Tower Records employees that helped build it from the ground up. Hanks also includes interviews with famous musicians who talk about the Tower Records experience, Bruce Springsteen loved going to California to visit the stores, Elton John says he is probably the person who spent the most money at the business, and Dave Grohl who was an employee at a Tower Records in Virginia before concentrating on his music career. Throughout the documentary there is vintage film footage, vintage photographs and TV commercials to bridge the interview footage together. This is very well directed and well edited film that gets all its points across but there is something I would have liked to see— the viewpoint from the average shoppers.
Hanks and writer Steven Leckart are very lucky to have fortunate to have the colorful commentary of Russ Solomon, the l octogenarian who started selling records in the back of his father’s Sacramento drugstore in 1960, and steadily built a global chain of Tower Records outlets. Each store was a mammoth music marketplace where virtually every recording imaginable was displayed for just browsing, shopping and/or impulse buying. Solomon shares screen time with several former employees and associates, all of whom are nostalgic about the wild-and-crazy early days of Tower Records expansion, when sales clerks hired off the street could work their way up to management positions, and lunch breaks often expanded to allow for excessive consumption of booze and drugs. The opening of the first store in Japan served to increase company-wide confidence that the fun and making money would never stop.
But it did stop. Even before Napster and other streaming services in the 1990s, Tower Records suffered dearly for its inability (or unwillingness) to adapt and evolve. The artificially high price of CDs, along with the end of the CD single, bothered customers who gradually rebelled against paying for tracks they didn’t care to hear. It didn’t help much when big-box retailers such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart started slashing CD prices in a loss-leader campaign to increase customer traffic. Steadily mounting debt led to management shakeups and layoffs, desperate measures that proved to be too little, too late, to keep Tower Records afloat.
In 1999, the documentary tells us early on Tower Records recorded $1 billion in earnings. Five years later, the chain entered bankruptcy. What happened to Tower is all too familiar. We have seen it with Borders and Radio Shack and Comp USA. Once thriving retail chains have found themselves on the wrong side of history. What could have been a boring story comes to life in the hands of Colin Hanks and it is a compelling tale.
Hanks interweaves talking-heads interviews, archival material and a retailer history lesson that is soundly constructed, briskly paced and affective. The film opens on the empty shelves that once contained endless stacks of CDs and records and then we see Solomon leaving for the airport.
Unfortunately, as the title of the movie tells us, all (good) things must pass. The ultimate reason for the decline of Tower was, as Russ Solomon says, “We weren’t successful in any of the other countries we went into,” further claiming personal responsibility by adding, “I’m stupid for saying yes to partnerships [in other cities] even though I didn’t totally believe in them.”
Solomon always seemed to believe in the people he hired, starting with down-to-earth Sacramentans who were relieved that their town finally had a place where its youth could hang out, even if that did mean essentially spending a lot of time in a parking lot. Heidi Cotler, who started out as a clerk and rose to the rank of VP of Operations, adds, “You know, in Sacramento, there weren’t very many places for kids to hang out. There was, like downtown, there was places. But in the north area, there was hardly any north area, so it was, you know, Tower Books and Records were in like this parking lot surrounded by nothing. And for kids in high school, that’s what you did.”
By the end of “All Things Must Pass”, Tower’s world is shrunk from the global to the mere span of Japan, which kept the business open as a result of its independent management. And so, with the final store closing at the original location in Sacramento, it was written, “All things must pass. Thanks Sacramento.” And what Tower was really thanking its city of origin for was that it embraced Tower and that was so special and unprecedented.