The story of the US’s biggest record store is told in a talky but absorbing documentary.
A while back there was a TV series which showed new businesses starting up and how they coped with the initial launch. It was quite an eye opener seeing how much is involved to the point where you were left wondering how any business managed to get started. This documentary by Colin Hanks seems to suggest things were a lot easier back in the 1960s in the United States. It tells the story of Tower Records which became the largest music chain in the US and even had a branch in London which I remember well. Considering how huge Tower became the origins appear to have been a mixture of chance and opportunism.
Russell Solomon the confident founder was working for his father’s California based Tower Drugs Store in 1960 and sensing the potential for the small portion of the shop that sold singles suggested developing it further whereupon his Dad give him the whole thing as a separate business. Such spontaneous developments were to mark the company’s early years and recounted by Solomon and others here. When looking to expand into a second shop Solomon just happened to notice a vacant property over the road from where he was one day and snapped it up. Later when he saw how albums were starting to become more popular than singles- and also earning more- he chose to focus on them. And so it goes- with each turning point it is Solomon’s `wisdom`, born of little other than boundless optimism, that carries the day. He is a great interviewee too, framing each stage in the company’s growth as if it was a natural thing.
Of course few people bothered to film the goings on in record shops back then so there are only a handful of black and white photos and a lot of talking heads. Visually this may be rather dry but if you’re from those generations who used record shops at the height of their powers there is much to enjoy in the assembled former employees’ tales of a leisurely time when pop and rock music was becoming an important cultural beacon and they were right at the centre of it. We hear what went on in the listening booths and it was a lot more than just listening to the songs! Someone also reveals they used to put the strongest lights in there so it was so hot people would not linger too much. From the company’s hand drawn logo- which pretty much remained unchanged for its entire existence- to the photos of untidy counters milling with people, the emphasis is on a casual build up rather than some super organised corporate progress.
Solomon himself is a real character and we see Photos of him cutting off the ties of serous businessmen who called as they did not fit in with his differnlt type of work ethic! Those former compatriots we see appear to be cut from a similar cloth. Almost all of the behaviour you imagine might sabotage a successful business seems to have worked for them. Solomon himself took most of the major decisions on a first discussion. Various indulgences were almost encouraged (this was the Seventies) yet did not seem to adversely affect the running of the business. As described in the documentary each shop acted rather like an independent albeit as part of a chain. The boldest off the cuff move was to expand into Japan, suggested by a lower member of the team who was promptly packed out to oversee what would become a hugely successful franchise.
Tower’s success was also helped by the rise of CDs in the 1980s, several hugely successful albums such as `Thriller` and the way that a rolling succession of music trends kept the business ticking over lucratively after the demise of disco at the end of the Seventies running all the way through to grunge in the early Nineties. The chain was also helped by the innovation of producing its own in store magazine `Pulse` and pioneering in store appearances by artists promoting their latest albums.
While the documentary can be a little hazy on dates their expansion – for such a home spun brand- is impressive. By 1979 they had ten shops on the US West Coast and as well as the Japanese adventure they also opened their first shop in New York. By now there is more photographic and even filmic evidence of these developments so we see a whole area of Manhattan that looks derelict but once Tower opens it helps to regenerate the renowned Greenwich Village locale. All the photos and film we see of the shops show a vibrant, busy atmosphere that would be frowned upon in today’s more sterile retail environments and bland online shopping sites. Tower- even more than its nearest UK equivalent Virgin- looks like a natural extension to the world of gigs and concerts.
Inevitably this working method’s flaws started to show once the music business changed. The arrival of Napster and its online successors dealt a blow that would ultimately be fatal and judging from the testimony in this film Tower’s laissez faire business model made them vulnerable sooner than others Unsuccessful forays into South America didn’t help either. With debts starting to pile up the latter years are depicted as hard lessons in business reality. When the company was taken into the charge of debt advisors wholesale changes saw many of Solomon’s retinue dispensed with after decades of service, branches closed and even `Pulse` cancelled. As the various participants detail it was a managed decline in all but name and the last US Tower Records closed its doors in 2006. Having felt as if we’ve lived the idealistic business dream with these people it is quite sad to see the end not just of an era but a lifestyle as the camera lingers on an closed shop with empty fittings filling a deserted floor.
Surprisingly the film has a sort of happy ending as Solomon is seen visiting one of 85 Tower Records stores amazingly still open and thriving in Japan! It is heart -warming to see the now elderly pioneer being greeted like a returning hero by another generation of music lovers who have kept the brand going for a decade.
In truth this story would probably work better as a book. The nature of developments and lack of footage doesn’t particularly lend itself to film though perhaps the inclusion of some clips of in store appearances might have helped. It is nonetheless an absorbing tale of another era when enthusiasm in itself was enough to overcome obstacles and people really loved music. It made me recall those metal steps, yellow bags and packed shelves that made up the London branch and how when you entered it was like going into another world. In a time when record shops are all but gone, it is a reminder of how much part of music fans’ life they once were.