Tag Archives: Record Industry

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

dvd_allthingsmustpassThe high flight and quick descent of Tower Records

A five year fall from billion dollar sales to bankruptcy is a startling denouement, but not the message of Colin Hanks’ documentary on Tower Records. At the heart of the story is founder Russ Solomon, the staff he nurtured with his business, and the customers, artists and customer-artists they served for over fifty years. Solomon and crew tell the story of Tower’s rise from a counter in a Sacramento drug store to an international chain, and the technological advances that at first spurred growth, and later conspired with debt-financed expansion to prompt reorganization, bankruptcy and liquidation.

Tower was both a beneficiary and victim of major technological and social changes. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, baby boomers came of age, music became a cultural rallying point, and record stores turned into social gathering places. Tower’s first standalone store opened on Sacramento’s Watt Avenue in 1961, and their second on Broadway in 1965; but what really signaled the future was the 1968 opening of the San Francisco store at Columbus and Bay and the 1970 opening of the Los Angeles store on Sunset Blvd. Filled with vast inventory, knowledgeable staff and billed as “The Largest Record-Tape Store in the Known World,” Tower Records was unlike any record shop ever seen.

By the end of the 1970s, Tower had more than twenty stores along the West Coast, and expanded successfully to both the East Coast (with a landmark New York City store), and internationally with stores in Japan. With expansion came opportunities for staff growth, and Solomon actively grew his clerks and junior employees into senior staff and executives. Tower’s CFO Bud Martin provided the corporate yin to Solomon’s more freewheeling yang, but it was Solomon’s gregariousness that set the tone for the company’s culture, and made it “the place to work” for many young people. Each Tower store had its own personality, and within each store the major genres (i.e., rock, jazz, classical) often felt like independent shops.

Tower rode a wave of unparalleled musical creativity and concomitant growth in the record industry. They innovated in advertising, store displays (both inside and outside the stores), and developed the in-house music magazine, Pulse! When a recession hit the music industry in the early ‘80s, Tower’s fortunes were not only salvaged but accelerated by the high price point of the newly introduced CD. The late-80s and 1990s saw profits grow, but also planted the seeds of Tower’s eventual downfall: over-expansion and digital music. The former included unsuccessful stores in Asia and Latin America, and bond financing that would turn into crushing debt. The latter provided the technological foundation that would obsolete physical musical retail.

Even before debt and digitalization took their toll, the entry of mass market retailers – Walmart, Target and Best Buy – created pricing pressure that deflated the CD balloon. Napster may be fingered for triggering piracy (the old saw “how do you compete with free?”), but its real impact was in salting the wound of listeners who wanted to buy songs from an industry that wanted to sell albums. To be fair to Tower, few in the industry saw how quickly MP3s would erode CD sales, or that on-demand services would subsequently erode downloads. Terrestrial retailers born to a culture of collecting couldn’t pivot into a world of networked borrowing.

By 2000, CFO Bud Martin had retired and Russ Solomon had been sidelined with heart problems. Martin’s replacement had taken on debt to fuel expansion, and Solomon’s son Mike had taken the helm. The son hadn’t the magnetic, rallying personality of the father, and with sales flattening (for the first time since 1966), the debt holders instigated management changes whose ideas failed to prevent the downward spiral. The money-making Japanese stores were spun off, the American business pruned of its differentiators, and by 2004 the company filed for bankruptcy and was liquidated in 2006.

Interviews with celebrity customers Bruce Springsteen and Elton John exemplify how dazzling the Tower shopping experience was, and testimony from employees paints a colorful picture of the backroom. There were tears and anger at the end, but the reader board closed the Watt Avenue store on a fatalistic note: “All Things Must Pass – Thanks Sacramento.” Hanks’ 96-minute documentary is more a love-letter than an analysis, as Tower’s impact on local record stores isn’t discussed, and the fate of its peers (Wherehouse, Peaches, Musicland, Virgin, etc.) is unexplored. But for those who spent countless hours roaming the aisles and perusing the stock of Tower stores, this is a love letter worth viewing. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Tower Records Online
Tower Records Japan

The Best Little Record Store You Ever Saw… is Back!

The Original Rather Ripped

Rather Ripped Records was a legendary shop on the north side of the U.C. Berkeley campus. It was archtypical in its tasteful selection of music, knowledgeable staff and its gravity as a gathering place. It’s list of accomplishments – concerts hosted, bands launched – pales in comparison to the far-reaching impact it had on its customers. Ask anyone who shopped there regularly, and they’ll tell you about the records that a staff member pulled out from below the counter and handed over with a “I thought you might like this” recommendation. Records that more often than not became favorites and opened up entire new vistas of music. Rather Ripped wasn’t just a place to buy records, it was a place to hang out and indulge with like-minded fiends. The original shop closed in the early-80s and moved to a warehouse in Oakland, but it never had the lively vibe of the location right across the street from the University. The name lived on as a mail-order business, but there was no more dropping by or hanging out.

But Rather Ripped has now returned – to founder Russ Ketter’s home town of Pittsburgh, PA. The new RRR is located at 4314 Butler Steet in the suburb of Lawrenceville, and it’s well-stocked with vinyl, CDs, posters and collectibles. But what a store like this really needs is patrons – customers who hang out, talk music and add to the critical mass that makes a record shop more than a retail outlet. Check out their website (below), and if you’re in the Pittsburgh area, make sure to drop in, they’re currently open Thursday-Monday 11am-7pm!

Rather Ripped Records’ Home Page


Insightful look at what makes hit songs in the digital age

If you’re a musician wondering how to make your music more marketable, or you’re a listener wondering how the industry markets to you, industry executive Jay Frank has some interesting insights to share. His central thesis is that changes in technology lead to changes in consumption patterns which necessitate changes in the way music with commercial intentions is created. He covers changes in music delivery (jukeboxes, radio, soundtracks, commercials, iPods, video games), creation technologies (live, recorded, multi-tracked, DIY studios), and the industry’s business models. He provides specific suggestions for making your music saleable amid the changing landscapes.

Frank doesn’t purport to make your music more artistic; instead, he suggests how to make your output catch and retain someone’s attention – be they radio or digital stream listeners, the CD/MP3-buying public, a radio station’s music director, or a television show’s music coordinator. In that sense, he’s a hit-song mercenary, but after reading his book you’ll understand that getting heard amid the fire hose of music passing through the Internet isn’t always a simple task of just making great music. His analysis of industry changes suggests the impact they’ve had on song construction. He explains the results of transitioning from 78s to 45s to LPs, describes how listening habits and hit selection were altered by the 45 changer, and why song intros grew longer as automated programming systems favored records that left more room for ads to be read live by DJs.

The need to make your songs catchy and sticky is underlined by the ease with which modern listeners can change channel (due to digital radio tuners) and instantly skip a song (due to the capacities of MP3 players and streaming music services). Frank points out that we now live in a “zero play” environment in which listeners are more likely to hear a song from the beginning, rather than a radio environment where a channel change is likely to drop you into the middle. The result, according to Frank, is a heavier emphasis on the first seven seconds of a song (the time during which a listener is most likely to hit the skip button) and the first 60 seconds (the time at which a play is counted towards chart position). The sheer volume of music being created and marketed directly from artists to listeners begs artists to think about how to get and hold someone’s attention.

Frank points out that hitting skip in the radio world – changing to another station – is a negative vote on the station and an indication of reduced loyalty; in the Internet world, however, skipping a song gives the provider a chance to tee up a song you will like, and thus increase your loyalty. At the same time, Internet services have instant access to your skip pattern, and can fine-tune their presentation; radio must guess, do phone research, or employ portable people meters. Digital delivery is inherently a real-time ratings box. Internet services also have the advantage of stretching the repetition of their programming across individual’s listening sessions that span days, weeks or months, rather than driving a line down the middle of an hourly broadcast audience.

Frank is a sophisticated, deep-thinker about the inner workings of the industry and its interplay with consumer psychology. The recommendations he offers here for improving your music’s chance with modern listeners are about mechanics, rather than art: use more chord changes and dynamic range, create more releases more often, record covers songs, increase repetition of hooks, produce alternate versions, dip your toe across genres, and so on. Frank suggests that direct licensing of songs to listeners is shifting to a multiplicity of licensing models, including streams, on-demand, film, television, commercials, and video games, and that taking advantage of these new channels, if that’s one of your goals, will likely require changes to your music.

Given Frank’s background as a gatekeeper rather than a producer – he served as head of music programming for Yahoo! and is currently the SVP of music strategy at CMT – his advice might sounds like Monday morning quarterbacking. But his years as a programmer placed him on the front lines of what worked and what didn’t, and led to this compelling analysis of how production mechanics interact with delivery channels and listener habits and trends. Whether you’re a musician looking to increase your music’s commercial potential, or a music fan wondering just how such commercial potential is created, this is an insightful look inside the music industry. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]