Thursday, May 25, 2017

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

The eventual failure of worldwide music chain Tower Records owes as much to classic overreaching as it does to changing technology. What began as a family business in Sacramento, CA in the early 1960s later became an international corporation with stores in Japan and Latin America.  More and more money was borrowed to open in markets that were not well researched.  And even though Tower was one of the first retailers to have an online presence, Internet downloads would be another blow to the company (as they would be to any brick and morter selling CDs and other media). In 2006, Tower Records filed for bankruptcy.

2015's documentary ALL THINGS MUST PASS traces the company's history through the eyes of its key people - those who remember when the original stores in California were staffed with knowledgeable, fun loving free spirits who cared about music.  Their mantra was sound - do what you love, the money will follow.  Russell Solomon, a highly charismatic guru-type, opened the first store in 1960.  He expanded to San Francisco and L.A., then NYC and beyond.  The stores were extremely well stocked and had an impressively diverse inventory.  They were crammed with imports and rarities, enough records to attract musicians like Elton John, who states that he probably spent more money there than anyone else.

Solomon and others who worked in the early days reminisce of the wild atmosphere in the original locations.  A place where you could show up drunk or stoned and it was OK as long as you could get through your shift (and ring a register). One longtime employee named Heidi Cotler laughs as she recalls all the drugs and sexual encounters that occurred there. You wonder how the company didn't party away its profits.  There to balance Solomon's more eccentric behavior were guys who thought more carefully about bottom lines. But even the straight ones would loosen up after a few drinks at lunch and nail a secretary or two back at the office.

Director Colin Hanks interviews many long timers who began as clerks and would eventually fill important roles in the corporation. One guy begins to cry as he describes the final days.  They're a mixed bunch - a few still seem as if they're wandering Haight/Ashbury.  Russell's son Michael would become a corporate honcho, but was not as easy going and eccentric as his dad (who snipped visitor's neckties and framed them on a wall) and not well liked by the others.  He seems to be blamed for some of the mismanagement that plagued the company in its later years.

In addition to Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl wax nostalgic for Tower Records, expressing the sorts of things that anyone who has spent time getting lost in a sea of vinyl can relate to.  My times visiting Tower in NYC in the '90s and later revealed a more sterile, corporate atmosphere, not at all like what is described in this movie.  It happens.  I wonder if Russell popped in those stores to see if the employees were keeping the vibe.  Maybe it didn't matter by then, when bank notes began to overwhelm the enterprise.

I had mixed feelings as I watched ALL THINGS MUST PASS.  Sort of like I had when Barnes and Noble and Border's shut their doors in my town.  They were the bad guys once upon a time, running the mom and pops away.  Now it was their turn.

Postscript: The sort of record store that Tower apparently once was can still be found in places like Soundgarden in Baltimore and Confusion Records in Lake Park, FL.

PPS: Watching this movie also reminded me of the old beloved chain Peaches.  Holler all my South Florida peeps, if you remember.
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