The Tower Records Documentary

This is not the movie you wanted it to be.

This is a business story. About the power of individuals, with big dreams and the ability and desire to make them come true.

No Russ Solomon, no Tower Records.

Your heart will pitter-patter when you see Elton John combing the aisles in a tracksuit before opening, hoovering up LPs as Tower’s best customer.

You’ll puke watching Dave Grohl talk his way through nostalgia, who made this guy the keeper of the flame? If Kurt Cobain were still alive today he’d want nothing to do with him.

That’s what’s wrong with today’s music business, the incredible yearning for what once was. But even Russ knows it’s never coming back.

Russ. He took a risk his own dad did not want to. He opened up a record shop and then another and another. And along the way he hired his family and then the longhairs no one else would. No ties and you could wear your street clothes. Oh, how far we’ve come, today what you wear is more important than who you are, and that’s just plain sad.

But the paradigm remains the same, it’s about scale. Being able to replicate an item at low cost and sell it to everybody. That’s what music was. It was the cultural grease of an entire generation. It was the radio and the stereo and the concerts, it was the iPhone of its day.

With a lot fewer zeros.

We’re never going back to the past, just like the industrial revolution looks quaint compared with the 1960s. Wal-Mart leveled the corner store and then Amazon leveled Wal-Mart. The customer is inured to top shelf products at the lowest price delivered nearly instantly. If anything, costs are gonna come down and delivery is gonna speed up. You mean you want them to go to a retail shop, you mean you want them to stand in line for tickets?

Starting at the bottom. Everybody began as a clerk. That’s why they hated Mike, Russ’s son, he didn’t pay his dues, he got no respect.

Whereas today the badge of honor is dropping out of Harvard and running a tech company. We revere the intelligent, and some become rich upon the scraps thrown away. And those outside try to play in this tech sphere laughingly. No one is good at everything. Own what you do. But how can you feel good about yourself when there’s a cadre of people making so much money!

It’s a financial nuclear bomb. It was exploded a couple of decades back, and we’re just feeling the effects now. Not only did they kill physical retail, they took our jobs too. We might get free music, but we’re paying for it with our attention, with our postings on social media. The only thing that doesn’t scale is us. We keep clicking, looking for attention, but fewer care. Otherwise why would YouTube start to charge? There’s just not enough money in placing advertisements against your home videos. No one cares.

But we all cared about music.

So Russ kept saying yes. Primarily to expansion. If you had a good idea he’d let you run with it. And he had a financial wizard to keep him in place. And when the CFO left the company…

The truth is the tide turned. No one could have saved Tower Records.

But the story of how it was built is a lesson those with MBAs should study, instead of self-satisfyingly writing their business plans and perusing their spreadsheets.

Money comes last.

The idea is first.

Then comes execution.

Not all ideas take hold. But those that do…

Tower was not the only record chain. But it won by doing things differently. Refusing to overcharge and carrying a staggering amount of inventory. Tower had it. Kind of like Amazon today. But instead of visiting online, you went in person.

And it was all about the Sunset store. When Tower closed down, the Strip faded, it’s nearly history, rock is gone and condos are rising.

Because Tower was a mecca. A shrine. Where all the music was. The Apple Store on steroids.

But unlike at Steve Jobs’s creation, the help at Tower was rude and barely existed. The store was a paragon of hip. And if you weren’t, you didn’t belong. Or you could start studying. And many did, because they wanted to be involved.

We knew about the acts, the players, the information was our manna. It was not about us, but them, the stars, those ruling our universe. Today everybody believes that they individually rule, but that can’t be.

So you need a visionary.

Who empowers his troops.

Who creates a work culture. Where people are loved as opposed to threatened.

You’ll be stunned at the ragtag group of employees. From Sacramento, for godssakes. Without college degrees on the fast track to nowhere. But they got the job done, on pure passion and hard work. Pay was crappy, but you could live on five bucks an hour.

You can’t any longer.

We need music. It’s part of life.

But once upon a time it was the only thing.

We don’t need more Tower Records. We don’t need more vinyl. We don’t need higher prices. WE NEED MORE RUSS SOLOMONS! A guy just like you and me, but different. Who knew work was supposed to be fun. Who operated with a gleam in his eye. Who knew you didn’t have to have all of the money, just some.

So write your app.

Post your selfie.

Try to make it through the sieve of modern life.

But some of us have lived long enough to know how it once was. When it was more decentralized and not only music, but information was scarce. And back then there were business titans just like today. And stunningly, none of them wore suits. And none of them reported to higher-ups. They had to do it their way, and they won.

For a while anyway.

P.S. This phony-baloney movie is so wrongheaded that it shows the triumph of Tower Japan at the end as evidence that Russ’s vision still rings true. But Japan is the last standing physical market, where not only streaming doesn’t rule, but neither does files. It’s all going to crater soon, along with Tower Records. Proving that timing is everything. Which was a big point in Gladwell’s book. Just because you put in 10,000 hours, that does not mean you’re gonna be rich, timing is everything.

P.P.S. The star of the show is one Jim Urie, the recently retired Universal sales majordomo. Who tears up while telling the story of Russ inviting him to dinner after he’d been fired. Humanity is everything, that’s what we’ve lost in this digital age.

P.P.P.S. Documentaries have it right, music has it wrong. Although “All Things Must Pass” is playing in theatres, its true life will be on Netflix and other digital outlets, where people will stream it. Those who believe it’s about the initial impact, getting in and out fast, are lost in the modern economy. You’ve got to last. Streaming pays…if people keep streaming your tunes.

P.P.P.P.S. Speaking of pay, tickets used to be four, five and six dollars. Musicians were not that much more wealthy than we were, their pay scale was reachable, unlike that of the billionaire techies. When you’re complaining that you can’t make bank know that the enemy is society at large. You don’t scale. If everybody was listening to your music you’d be a lot richer. But never as rich as the tech CEO.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Once again, if you’re watching this movie to feel all warm and fuzzy, remembering what once was, you’re gonna be disappointed. Because the truth is Tower Records was a retail joint. A business. The soul was the music, and that’s not what this film is about. Then again, there’s a lot of money to be made on the penumbra of the action. Like cell phone bumpers. People gravitate to what’s hot, they find a way to make it pay. But music is no longer hot, sorry.

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