Saturday, Oct. 7 was a sad day. An icon in the retail music business began the final phase of a process that will eventually erase its existence and bring an end to an era.
Tower Records is having its going-out-of-business-sale.
Although it has valiantly tried to hang on in the wake of the digital revolution, it reacted perhaps too slowly to the changing landscape of the retail music business.
The result of Tower’s attempt at Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection? Liquidation.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the Tower Records constructed across the street from the San Antonio Shopping Center in Mountain View, Calif. (my childhood "backyard") was not far from where it was founded – right here in Sacramento (my current "backyard").
All I knew was that for a kid who was not yet old enough for a driver’s license, who’s only means of transportation was a bicycle and walking, the placement of a record store less than a mile from home was a godsend.
It was not long before I had discovered, quite by accident, rock and roll on AM radio. KFRC in San Francisco was spinning top 40 in the early 70s (does anyone remember the late great "Dr. Don Rose?"), and although it wasn’t the kind of rebellious music I would eventually gravitate towards, it was the spark that ignited the fire.
Soon enough, FM radio became the norm for music, rock and otherwise, and stations like KSAN in San Francisco and KOME and KSJO in San Jose were spinning the records that would become synonymous with my coming of age.
And Tower was where they could be found.
Eventually I discovered the section of the store that contained the posters and psychedelic art that would cover every inch of drywall in my bedroom. Although we didn’t call it one, many referred to it as a “head shop,” and the name was fitting.
As societal norms changed, so did Tower’s product line. Paraphernalia was no longer sold at Tower as California passed a weak, but temporarily effective anti-paraphernalia law. However, the law and society did not remove Tower from the fringe of what was considered acceptable as many items could be found at Tower that were found nowhere else.
As the retail music landscape evolved, so too did Tower. Other music stores began to disappear… The Wherehouse, Musicland, The Record Factory and others were closing their doors, but not Tower.
Tower had the name, the attitude, the selection and a certain je ne sais quoi that no one else did. When my favorite bands would come to town for a concert, it was at Tower that they made their guest appearances.
Back in the days of analog… before CDs and DVDs and MP3s and iPods and even the venerable Sony Walkman – when the 8-track player was giving way to the cassette tape, music came on vinyl. The packaging allowed for cover art that was large enough to be displayed. The Internet was in its infancy and the World Wide Web? No one knew. Memory and storage was measured in kilobytes – digital music was only a dream.
Even when CDs first made their appearance, there was significant resistance to this “un-pure” medium, with some insisting that their refined musical ear could differentiate between digital and analog reproduction.
Those promoting the new technology as “indestructible” were equally misinformed, but technology marched forward nonetheless. My generation grew up transferring analog vinyl to analog cassette tape to bring our music with us and share it.
Even then, those in the business of music viewed this innocent reproduction of music as a threat to their income, ultimately squashing not the analog cassette, but it’s digital offspring, the digital audio tape (DAT).
Although the fears were perhaps well founded, the industry chased the wrong rabbit as the digital revolution entered its own with the high-speed, long distant transport of millions of bits of data – musical data – at the click of a mouse.
Unfortunately, it was the ultimate reality of this transfer of data that rendered the Tower Records of yesterday naught but a relic today as we upload and download our music via the World Wide Web. We have, in our rush into the future, left behind our “high overhead” middle man.
Music stores like iTunes consist of software, servers and electronic fund transfers. No longer is that pimply faced kid with the green mohawk and the bad attitude there to assist us in locating that hard to find import or some obscure group that no one has ever heard of. It can now be located with the click of a mouse and the whirr of a hard drive… and if one is very clever, often at no cost.
I’m going to miss Tower Records. It’s a sad day. However, progress is a fact of life and mourning the loss of days gone by is not a productive use of time.
Neither, it would appear, is going to the record store.