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Legendary Music Chain Tower Records Closes Doors Forever  Print E-mail
Home Theater News Industry-Trade News
Written by Charles Andrews   
Thursday, 12 October 2006


If you read the business pages, it was not news that giant music retailer Tower Records was in trouble. But the speed and finality of its dispatch was a shocker to most. You’ve come to assume there’s a longer process through refinancing, restructuring, Chapter 11 and such before the patient is finally declared dead. Tower did restructure two years ago and filed for bankruptcy protection August 24, but the bidding process for takeover that began Thursday, Oct. 5, was completed Friday and the new owners, Great American Group, immediately declared that all 3,000 Tower employees would be let go as soon as every bit of inventory could be liquidated – sale starts Saturday.



The tragic coda is that history, a cultural touchstone and 3,000 people’s livelihoods (and no doubt sense of pride and identity for many) have been lost for a relative pittance. Trans World Entertainment, who recently acquired the Sam Goody and Wherehouse Music chains and had indicated they would close only a handful of the 89 Tower stores, lost out by one bidding increment of $500,000 on a sale price of $134.3 million. Attorneys for Tower’s creditors, no less, argued to save the company by awarding the sale to Trans World: “Sometimes the highest bid is not the best bid.” Bankruptcy judge Brendan Shannon could not be swayed.

But what else was lost, and what does it mean for the music business? For many, Tower Records had meaning in their lives. It became a successful operation through the concept of deep catalog – stocking not just 1,000 copies of the new hit album by an artist but every album they ever made, and not just rock and soul but deep in genres too. When you went to Tower for something you heard on the radio, you encountered everything from blues to bluegrass to rai to reggae, imports and the hard-to-find. You came to rely on an informed staff enthusiastic to share their passion and encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of music. You met fellow travelers in the aisles, also pawing their way through unfamiliar and exotic musical landscapes, and you realized there was a community here that spoke the same language.

The flagship store on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood was a towering symbol, you might say, for the wonderfully glutinous excesses of rock and roll. Every rock star who passed through Los Angeles for decades had two places on their list of must visits: Guitar Center, and Tower Records – both located on the famed Sunset Strip. Many of them performed in-store concerts there, and on any given day you might find yourself shopping next to the person whose music you were buying. For easily 30 years – these were the glory days of both record retailing and rock and roll itself.

It’s hard to lose such a personal symbol, but was it inevitable? Probably. Credit Wal-Mart and Best Buy, downloads, the cluelessness of the record industry and its refusal to deal with today’s realities, and Tower Records helped seal its own fate with prices so high the kids were laughing as they got what they wanted elsewhere, so much cheaper. To the very end, Tower was trying to land $18.99 for a catalog CD. Five years ago, that was too much. Today, it is the backbone of a bankruptcy.

Is the Tower experience completely gone? Not yet. There remain a few shining lights like Amoeba Records (strangely enough, by definition a Mom and Pop operation, on steroids) and their discount prices, and maybe that’s enough. Maybe we no longer need a Tower Records in every community, because everything except the personal touch is available on the Internet, and the people buying the music know that. But if the day of the super-sized chains has passed, hasn’t the relevance of the mega record labels (now down to five, world-wide) who supply them actually taken an earlier death blow, through pro quality home studio recordings and increasingly-sophisticated Internet distribution and promotion, even though they stagger mortally irrelevant into the 21st century?

Again, inevitably, probably so. But nothing really replaces the experience of physically going to a place where you’re surrounded by so much music you lose track of time as new worlds open up before you. For a lousy half a mil, the Tower Records that really mattered could have been preserved, and under new stewardship, in leaner form, may even have managed to stay relevant. Capitalism is often a harsh mistress, but judge Shannon screwed a lot more than 3,000 employees with his cold, foolish decision.


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