The legacy of a truly great retailer...

Rewind some twenty plus years and the record stores during the pre-internet era were very different to those that we have today. Here in England, a teenager new to buying music would gravitate towards their HMV or Our Price: big corporate stores, sure, but ones that were had an enviable depth of new releases and catalogue titles alike.

In a sense, they were gateway stores for gateway bands. As a consequence, as your tastes evolve, so would your need for your local indie record store. You might’ve had something as good as the modern day Rough Trade, but more likely you’d experience something akin to the sarcasm of High Fidelity, or a dingier place in which (personal experience) a bloke in a Mötley Crüe t-shirt would look at you in disgust for simultaneously buying second hand albums by Young Gods and Tori Amos.

It’s easy to look back on the past as a golden era, but it’s more complicated than that. On the positive side, the record store would be a place to find new music, drift away time and maybe make friends with other socially inadequate people with an interest in collecting b-sides from bands who struggled to make the Top 40.

On the other, it’s much easier to discover and access music from behind a screen. And a cursory glance of my piles of CDs informs me that Our Price charged me £13.99 each for Faith No More’s 'Angel Dust' and Teenage Fanclub’s 'Thirteen' over twenty years ago. It’s just as well I’m too lazy (read: mathematically inept) to calculate how much they were in current terms.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Colin Hanks (son of Tom, genealogy fans) experienced something similar growing up in Sacramento as a customer of Tower Records.

Over the course of several years (when he started, Walmart was America’s leading music retailer), he made the store’s definitive documentary, titled All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records. “As a kid I spent a lot of time going to record stores as a place to find myself and find a little bit of my identity through music,” he begins. “More often than not, Tower’s selection was better than anyone else’s in town as they would always have such a deep catalogue. It was like that as a kid growing up in Sacramento but as I got older and I started travelling around it was still that. I remember doing a play in London, walking past 1 Piccadilly [location of Tower’s flagship UK store] and thinking, wow, I know what my afternoon is going to be. That would be one of my weekly haunts.”

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More often than not, Tower’s selection was better than anyone else’s in town.

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Hanks’s best memories of Tower Records are the little things: “The idea that you could go to a retail store and they didn’t care if you bought anything. That to a bored teenager with very limited income is an invitation,” through to picking up defining records (or even cassettes) from the likes of Nirvana, Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys. It was also about that personal connection. For example, Hanks’s discovery of Mike Watt (The Minutemen/fIREHOSE) came after he asked a clerk about the man who Red Hot Chili Peppers had dedicated their 'Blood Sugar Sex Magik' album to.

As the documentary unfolded, however, Hanks discovered the scale of the Tower Records story. It runs almost as a microcosmic parallel of the wider industry. The company’s founder Russ Solomon started out selling 78s at his father’s drugstore before taking the plunge and opening his first store. It seemed to have a knack of being in the right place at the right time: first on the West Coast as the album format exploded; into San Francisco around the time of the summer of love; into Los Angeles as the music industry and local scene exploded; and then overseas, most notably in Japan where the brand continues to thrive.

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Once you get twenty years into that realm you’re going to get a little bit comfortable...

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Musicians loved it too. In the documentary, Bruce Springsteen pops up to describe it as a mecca for out-of-towners to discover like-minded souls; Dave Grohl recalls working there because it was the only job he could get without having to have a sensible haircut; and Elton John is visibly devastated when recalling the days of his favourite but now long lost record store.

A contrasting blend of entrepreneurial spirit and hippyesque open-minded, Solomon leads a cast of former employees who recall the glory days: big queues, surprise visits by artists, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and what we’ll euphemistically call creative accounting. It was a big chain, concurs Hanks, but one that was “from a business perspective, as anti-corporate as you could get... They were run like a Mom and Pop organisation, but united by their red and yellow signs.”

“The thing that completed boggles my mind is that from 1960-2000 they always made money,” Hanks continues. “They made a profit every year. Once you get twenty years into that realm you’re going to get a little bit comfortable and think that this party is never going to end.”

Not long after this previously almost improvised business took on an air of professionalism, everything came crashing down. As you can see in the documentary, the reasons behind the downfall of Tower Records were more varied than simply the move from physical formats to digital, but it was clearly a factor.

As you can imagine, the laughter stops. Suddenly Solomon and his old colleagues shift from light-hearted tales or hijinks and creatively haphazard business ideas to scenes of emotional devastation: tears are shed and words become barely audible as they recall Tower crashing to the ground.

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Record stores are not dead...

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Hanks sounds moved recalling the atmosphere of those interviews. “As I got to know these people, I could see how passionate they were. Not only about their job and how much they loved it, but also in support of Russ. You realise: these guys spent a large chuck of their lives working together and at the end, they all have to fire each other. That’s horrible. That’s a gut-wrenching experience.”

He notes that small business owners tend to respond particularly well to the film, themselves in the midst of their own rise-and-what’s-next? “I say, I hope it ends better for you.”

“Record stores are not dead,” he asserts. “There’s one in your town, and if you live in a big city there are several. OK, it might not be an amazing record store, but there’s someone who’s trying to keep that alive. But we’ll never see a chain on that level again. Tower was of its time and its place.”

Over the course of making the film, Hanks saw his own musical purchasing tastes evolve from being opposed to digital to embracing streaming. He still buys records, the famous Amoeba being his store of choice, but things change: in some ways for the worst, but mostly for the better. As the title states: all things must pass.

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Words: Ben Hopkins

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records is out now on DVD and digital formats.

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