The memories conjured by recent death of Russ Solomon, the founder of Tower Records, were those of disappointment and despair. Not for Solomon, RIP, but for the failure of his stores. This includes the first one on the corner of Broadway and Land Park Drive in Sacramento, where I shopped obsessively for CDs as an adult. Also, the Watt Avenue store, the last to close when his corporation filed for bankruptcy, where as a youngster I spent hours in listening booths, and bought the occasional vinyl album or cassette tape, when I could afford to.
I don’t know that anything could have saved Tower Records from the competition of digital downloads and Amazon. I am bitter, though, that this pied piper didn’t make more of an effort to innovate, to strengthen brand loyalty, to make brick-and-mortar shopping more of a distinct experience, to embrace the digital age, to leverage the music revolution, rather than surrender to the company’s debt (estimated at more than $300 million at one point.)
The Sacramento Bee story (3-6-18) on the music pioneer’s death quoted his 2000 observation that the internet “is certainly never going to take the place of stores.” He also admitted in retrospect that the digital downloading phenomenon spread faster than he imagined. Such a lack of vision seems extraordinary for the entrepreneur who made Tower Records into a $1-billion-a-year worldwide endeavor and himself into one of the richest Americans in the 1990s (when Forbes pegged his personal worth at $310 million.).
While music lovers across the globe, and especially in his hometown of Sacramento, mourn the loss of Solomon, I remain as grateful for the memories of Tower as I am bitter that its swan song was so off-key.
I miss the stores. It’s a shame that so many businesses are falling to the internet.
Here in Boise we have one of the most successful independent record stores in the country – the Record Exchange. It’s owned by a guy named Michael Bunnell, who is a little older than us, is originally from Sacramento and was a loyal customer of Tower Records back in the day. He moved to Boise in the 70’s and opened a used record store, expanded to several stores and then re-focused on his one highly sucessful main store in downtown, where his business was eventually threatened by the same trends that killed Tower. But instead of succumbing, he founded and still serves as the executive director of the Coalition of Independent Record Stores. His efforts were ultimately instrumental in saving and reviving the record store industry nationally. He brought exactly the creative response that Stuart laments Solomon failed to do.
Today, the Record Exchange is at the center of a huge creative music scene in Boise and part of a much larger national trend. They sell tons of new and used CD’s and vinyl records and related merchandise, put on many free in-store concerts, support major music festivals and other events and are a booming business that contributes greatly to the success and culture of downtown Boise. The failure of Tower Records and was what galvanized him to save the industry and his own business, and ultimately spur a creative music revival in cities across the country. If you are ever in Boise, you can’t leave without a visit to the RX. It’s what Tower Records in Sacramento used to be – and more.
Hal’s right. I visited Boise and that store is cool because it’s a special place to go… and be part of the community. Tower never came close to re-defining itself. A shame that a business selling creativity couldn’t be more creative. An even bigger shame that Stuart didn’t buy the store and turn it around!
Hal — Thanks very much for sharing this success story. You’ve convinced me to visit Boise and the Record Exchange. … It is so disappointing that record stores did not adapt and capitalize on the social aspects of enjoying music. Starbucks figured it out; the shops make money selling comparatively pricey drinks because they also serve as places where people gather. — Stuart
Hal’s comment is illuminating and exactly the comment needed…I too miss Tower Records and remember how much a part of LA they were when I 1st moved here…did not know it was from Sac! Thanks Stu and Hal for your comments and reflections!