The Tower Records Story

'All Things Must Pass' documents the rise and fall of a music industry institution

Dec. 5, 2016
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It wasn’t so long ago that the record industry reached unprecedented heights of profitability. Performers and songwriters could aspire to become rich; money flowed into retail and record stores were the places where fans met the music. From modest beginnings as a rack of used 78s in a Sacramento drugstore, Tower Records grew into an international retail chain. In 1994 it grossed over a billion dollars. Five years later it went bankrupt.

Out now on DVD, All Things Must Pass is a documentary on Tower Records’ steep rise and precipitous fall. The focus is on the chain’s flawed visionary Russ Solomon. With supermarkets as his model, he erected record stores that became legendary for their size and the breadth of their inventory. They were a brick-and-mortar forerunner to Amazon music—if you could imagine an Amazon warehouse open to the public and staffed with people who actually loved the products they sold.

Inevitably, All Things Must Pass becomes an elegy for a lost time. From the 1950s through the early ‘90s music occupied a more critical place in the lives of more people than is true in today’s world, where music is as cheap and accessible as tap water. In those years, record stores weren’t merely retail outlets but gathering places for music fans—a school of rock (and other music) where people learned by scrutinizing album covers, listening to the music on the in-store turntables and talking to opinionated clerks.

All Things Must Pass is also a study in hubris on the part of the record industry as a whole and Solomon in particular. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the big labels pushed up prices for CD albums and tried to force fans to buy them by abolishing singles. Feeling invincible, Solomon expanded his empire beyond its natural boundaries by opening outlets across the U.S. and on every continent save Africa and Antarctica. Music fans responded by buying CDs at Walmart or Best Boy, which priced them low as loss leaders, and consumer anger fueled the wildfire spread of file sharing. The industry is still regaining its footing, artists have been pauperized and many record stores went dark.

Happy ending: in the final scenes of All Things Must Pass, Solomon receives bows from employees of Tower Japan. Years ago, he sold the name to local investors. Wisely, the Japanese kept chins up as technology changed and continued to operate along the lines Solomon drew back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Today, 85 Tower record shops are operating in Japan. According to All Things Must Pass, they are flourishing.

All Things Must Pass includes interviews with Bruce Springsteen, who recalls his wondrous response upon first visiting Tower Records in Los Angeles; Elton John, who regularly descended on the LA Tower Records and carted off hundreds of LPs; and Dave Grohl, who once worked at Tower as a clerk.

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