Sunday, August 21, 2016

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

Year 8, Day 234 - 8/21/16 - Movie #2,428

BEFORE: It's time for a documentary break - when I planned this chain, "Sid and Nancy" was determined to be a linking dead-end, so it made sense to transition based on the subject of rock music (though it pains me to describe what the Sex Pistols put out as "music").  Oddly, a link has presented itself, due to a recent addition to the list - an actress named Kathy Burke who had a minor role also appears in the film "Pan", but I figure I'll stick to the original plan and watch some docs.  Last year's documentary week was quite informative on the topics of art, nature, video games and sports, so I planned another one, mostly about cartoonists.  But since I've already had a film this year about one NYC music hot-spot, CBGB's, let's start with a doc about another, Tower Records.

THE PLOT: A documentary that explores the rise and fall of Tower Records, and its legacy forged by its rebellious founder, Russ Solomon.

AFTER: I'll admit, I thought that the Tower Records on the corner of 4th & Broadway in Manhattan was the ONLY Tower Records.  Oh, there were rumors of them existing in other cities, but the only one I knew was the one a few blocks down from NYU, where I spent three years in film school.  And of course there was Tower Video and Tower Books, so when I got tired of being talked down to by record store employees, I could go get talked down to by video-rental and bookstore employees.  

But this documentary is very educational, mostly to the young people who would be fascinated to learn that there were once things called records (for that matter, things called STORES), and that if you wanted to listen to music, you had to get off your ass and walk 10 blocks to a place where your money got you a big, round, flat disc with grooves on it, and then you had to walk 10 blocks HOME if you wanted to listen to it.  (Geezus, now I really do sound like an old man...)  Furthermore, if you wanted to share a song with your friend, you had to carry the record to their house, and if you wanted to chat about the latest album, you had to all go to the record store together or something.   

Yes, the internet is sort of the unnamed villain here, it's a little surprising that the film doesn't take the web to task for killing brick and mortar stores, though there is a mention of a little thing called Napster (kids, ask your parents).  Because who could have foreseen that people wouldn't want to pay $15 or $20 for an album when they could download it to their computer for FREE?  I got the feeling that Russ Solomon, the founder of Tower Records, was so enamored of the 45 RPM singles of yesteryear that he thinks the reason Tower folded is because they didn't integrate the cassingle format quickly enough. 

It turns out nostalgia is a process of romanticizing the past, feeling the loss of a way of life that, honestly, might not have been so great after all.  But still, it was a simpler time and part of us wishes we could return to it.  Maybe after the Trumpocalypse, if the electricity still works, we'll dig out our old turntables and use them for something other than making scratching noises.  

It also turns out that while I was shopping at the NYC Tower Records, there were other stores in other cities that also made money for the company.  The chain started in Sacramento, right around the time a group called The Beach Boys caught on (no mention of the Beatles, that's a bit odd...) and took a few years to open a second store in San Francisco, just as the hippie movement was really taking off in 1967.  Talk about good timing...that would be like owning a gun store in a town suddenly named to host this year's NRA convention. 

But when the chain hit Los Angeles, things really took off, since that location was square in the middle of all of the music industry headquarters, so record executives and recording artists made frequent visits, and Sir Elton John was there all the time, shopping like a regular person, albeit one who arrived by limousine.  In NYC they had the location near NYU, and another one near Lincoln Center - these guys really knew where to place their stores!  And perhaps it's no coincidence that they opened in Seattle just when grunge was starting to become a thing.

But the expansion to other cities (Portland, Nashville, Tokyo) supposedly left the company in debt, leading to the first bankruptcy filing in 2004.  Nah, it couldn't be the fact that they got caught in a price-fixing scandal, along with two other stores, for conspiring to keep the prices of CDs high.  It's estimated that Tower customers were overcharged $500 million between 1995 and 2000.  But people kept shopping there, if only for the chance to have knowledgeable clerks as their "friends" for 20 minutes at a time - when those clerks weren't drunk off their ass, or high on the nose candy, that is.  

But I think this film should be required viewing for all students at business school, because it proves that any industry needs to adapt to survive in the marketplace.  And not by expansion alone, because Murphy's Law sort of dictates that as soon as you celebrate the opening of your 50th store, something unforeseen can happen that makes your entire business plan irrelevant.  The way that independent optometrists, for example, were railroaded out of business by LensCrafters, the way that FotoMat and Polaroid were killed by digital cameras, the way that independent bookstores have (mostly) been shuttered due to Amazon - on one hand, it's just capitalism at work, but on the other hand, what's been lost in the process of progress?

Also starring Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Dave Grohl (last seen in "The Muppets"), David Geffen.  

RATING: 6 out of 10 copies of Pulse! magazine

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