All Things Must Pass, Colin Hanks’ documentary captures the heyday and the glory of Tower Records through a kaleidoscope of archival images and interviews of former employees and famous customers, who through their personal memories remind us of the empty space the brand has left behind. The most compelling character in Hank’s film is Russ Solomon himself. The humanity of Tower Records’ former director characterises the spirit of the brand. His stores somehow became extensions of his own home, where everyone was invited to the party. Russ is depicted as much more than an entrepreneur, but a man who clearly touched the lives of many people, including Colin Hanks. Why is the actor, son of the Hollywood star directing a film about one amongst many American bankrupt businesses? Simply because Tower Records became a sanctuary, a home to many, including Hollywood. But Tower Records is not another film for and about Hollywood. It’s about the 1,686 lives touched by Russ and his brand, the generous crowdfunding backers who through this film managed to tell a bit their lives…
There was never any long-term vision, no business plan, no market research. Tower Records began in 1960 as an attempt by the Solomons, a typical Sacramento family, to make an extra buck by reselling used records from their drugstore. It became a lucrative operation of its own immediately. The family store was quickly outgrown and Russ Solomon was given free reign by his father to run an independent annexe however he deemed. The first stand-alone store rapidly grew into multiple stores throughout California.
Set during the free loving 60s in the US West coast in an era of political change and possibility, Tower Records completely embodied the spirit of its time. The San Francisco store took off like a rocket. It became the place where those seeking to experience the hippie movement went. In the mind of Russ Solomon, Tower records was about the music, something very meaningful to young people, and Tower Records was where they got it.
By the late 70s, Tower Records was an established national brand. A key ingredient to Tower Records’ rapid success was its alternative approach to management. In these ‘supermarkets of records’, the business strategy was to ‘stack em high, sell em low’. First and foremost, Tower Records was run like a family business. Employees were Russ Solomon’s family members, friends, neighbours, and the family and friends of these people, and so went the recruitment philosophy, which is why working in these stores was for many “like being at home with a bunch of friends”.
There were no employee training schemes. Employees taught themsleves and development stayed in-house: clerks became buyers, then assistant managers, on to managers, regional managers… Russ trusted the ‘kids in the store’, encouraged to be initiative with their ideas. Bob Delaroy became a receiving clerk although he had no clue about the record industry, but he felt it was right down his alley. Good fortune or good intuition, he eventually went on to direct the company’s massive expansion into Japan in the 80s, even before opening a store in New York! This was a decisive moment in Tower Records’ history and a truly brave move. Tower Records was the first company to expand in Japan without being tied to any local partner. They adapted their philosophy to the local market, including the very Tower Records’ move to invite an unauthorised replica store in Sapporo to become a legitimate part of the brand.
Russ’s carefree business manner became legendary. He was known for cutting off label managers’ ties in an attempt to take the edge off of business meetings. This quickly turned into a rite of passage for music execs, who happily left their marks through their torn ties stapled to business cards, framed in Russ’s office. The Sunset store, in particular became the hangout of the record industry. Influencers, professionals and celebrated musicians, including Clapton, Page or Townsend would turn this store into their local record sourcing destination, where they could shop without being bothered. Elton John was a regular, claiming that he spent more money in Tower Records than any other human being. Bruce Springsteen used the store as a place where he could actually meet his fans.
Indeed, the stores turned into youth clubs of their own. Teens would congregate there, listening to new releases for free and hang out in front of the stores way pass closing-time. The Tower Records stores became infamous for the smooching sessions in their listening booths, which were eventually designed to become hot after a while to limit any lengthy ‘listening sessions’.
Young people weren’t just the customers, they were the employees, the soul of the brand. The misfits, characters and music aficionados that made up each store, all rolled their way into this spiralling project as if Tower Records had been a calling for them. The idea of work without a dress code, service without a need for people skills, turned the company into a sort of ‘lost boys club’. Staff could play whatever they liked on the store record player, turning into amateur DJs as they worked a shift, most probably inspiring the character of Barry from High Fidelity (2000) as portrayed by Jack Black.
Tower Records was, for many a desirable company to work for, including Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters front man, Dave Grohl who chose to apply as it was the only place that wouldn’t make him cut his long hair. In fact, Russ still sees Tower Records’ no dress code policy as a key to the brand’s success. There was only one strict rule: to show up, overlooking the three hour lunch cocktails, the parties and wildness happening in the backrooms, the odd LP pinched. The staff’s underlying dedication to show up showed a real love for the store. The employees’ free spirit contributed to making every Tower Records branch truly unique. There was always a party atmosphere, which was captured in the 90s iconic’s film, Empire Records (1995), based on a former employee’s experience. Bruce Springsteen fondly remembers that he always felt like every employee in a Tower Records store was a friend for 20 minutes.
Tower Records became a way of life, a mind-set, something very real in progressively unreal times. But all good things must end and the DNA of Tower Records’ success could also have contributed to its demise. It was a perfect storm. Tower Records’ tour de force hit a wall as its ‘build it and they will come’ attitude, along with its international expansion in emerging markets like Argentina, Colombia and Hong Kong, met the underestimated arrival of Napster. Cheaper or even pirate digital singles were an underestimated threat until it was too late. Russ admits perhaps they had gone too far, becoming too big for their own good, building up a debt they couldn’t pay off. A cold reality settled in, as illness, change and reconstruction brought the dream to a end. Family and founding staff were fired over lunches or dinners. Any bitterness has passed. Tower Records is still remembered fondly by employees and shoppers alike. Tower Records may now only be a memory, but the brand undoubtedly contributed to giving a chance of a lifetime to many free spirits of its time. Still, the demise of Tower Records marks a much more significant loss: the change of an era, of a form of consumption. It was a victim of the battle between the analogue and the digital.
What’s left behind? The brand’s Japanese division which was bought off, keeping the brand’s ghost alive in 85 stores. A Californian commercial lot, dusty displays and an emptiness, testament to soon forgotten times when, to echo Tower Records’ slogan, having no music, was having no life. Times when music had a material feel, a visual representation whose spirit could be felt in such places, which represented in the end, much more than shops…
Are records stores’ vacant spaces replaced by concert venues? In this digital world, you need to rely on virtual realms, apps and social networks, to make physical connections that were once so accessible and spontaneous. Overall, the message communicated by this documentary is that the internet didn’t kill Tower Records, its demise is just a sign of our times. The only thing we can deplore is that indeed all things must pass…
Written by Jessica Bush and Rochelle Shanthakumar
Photos: Courtesy of A Company Name production