Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Death of an Icon

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.


Belizegial said...


I don't know much about the music business so your information about the death of Tower Records is interesting.

From what I can tell, the same is happening with the movie industry. Making big budget movies is likely to soon become a thing of the past. It appears that no sooner than a movie is 'in the can', some enterprising individual has a pirated version up on the world wide web for all the world to see and download before the movie's premiere actually takes place in Hollywood.

The digital age has arrived and there is no turning back, eh?

Have a blessed Sunday,

awareness said...

Hi Mike

There was a Tower Record outlet in Toronto when I lived there years ago. Interesting, we had a conversation at dinner tonight about the whole history of the record business and where it places new artists things have altered so dramatically with respect to marketing and promoting new music etc.

Wonder where we're headed?

Anonymous said...

MIKE! This is so damn depressing to me. Tower Records holds SO MANY MEMORIES. Not just buying music but buying concert tickets!!!

One quick story: I have never missed a Springsteen show since my first one in 197?. This particular year we were DETERMINED to get good seats so we showed up at good old Tower Records at about 2 am ready to camp out till the box office opened at 10 am the next morning. There were already tons of people waiting and they gave us wristbands. The cops cruised through the parking lot ever hour or two to check us out, but let us have our huge party blasting Bruce on the boom box and dancing, singing and having a great time. AND - I got tickets behind the stage! If you are a fan of his, you'll know that means they were GREAT seats!

Helene said...

it the ole change is hard thing! It also makes me feel so old!!! Tower Records was a place I went when I was a kid... lol

Ellen said...

Well, this certainly explains why they no longer call me for catering events. I had no idea they were headed for bankruptcy.

Very nice eulogy for yet another business rolled over by progress.

Saur♥Kraut said...

Tower sounds like our Peaches (or did you have Peaches, too?) Apparently they still exist in some parts of the U.S. but not in Florida. I remember how cool it was to have celebs pass through, leaving foot and handprints. I got to interview Peter Tork of the Monkees that way (in his later years).

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

one of my abiding memories of san francisco was buying 'burning the daze' by marc cohn from tower records. i remember it just like the pictures you show.

two things sadden me, firstly that we will lose these retro buildings, and secondly, why have we not had a new album from marc cohn for 9 years?

BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

Tower Records is indeed an icon.

While I was going to law school, I worked there, mainly to have access to their records (at this time, only LPs) and to receive their discounts. I worked in the classical music department, which is probably by now a war horse.

Thanks for the memories, Mike.

mckay said...

my goodness. i had no idea. there's a huge tower records close to wear i work. music upstairs, movies and books downstairs. dang, i really like that place.

did you ever hear of licorice pizza? that was the cool music store from my youth. i don't even know if it's still around...

times change, hmm?

Snaggle Tooth said...

I used to love going to Record stores. There was a very cool used vinyl store in Harvard Square, Cambridge that kept LP's selling for decades until recently. Tower in Boston (on Mass Ave) was five stories high!

It's discouraging to musicians to have their work going freebee on-line instead of earning them deserved income.
I still have a few piles of vinyl LP's n 45's (n one working turntable). I still use cassettes in the truck for tunes. You need to play them through every year or so to keep them working.
Of couse I have a CD players too- but they tend to break often.

I think they just keep coming up with new devices so we all have to keep switching over - to make their bux. Amazing how our generation had to go through all of these devices so far- from radio n up...

soft_rain said...

The end of an era

Times are a changing.....hold on to your hats

Interresting blog, I will be back

Michael K. Althouse said...

Enid ~ There's no stopping technology and Tower isn't the first, nor will it be the last casualty.

Awareness ~ I sure don't know, but I do know there will be money involved.

Barb ~ I remember waiting many a night in line for tickets to Days on the Green, Sammy Hagar, Nugent, Rush, ZZ Top, Pat Travers, Triumph, Van Halen, Black Sabbath (with and without Ozzie)... the list goes on and on and on and on...

Kate ~ A friend of mine knows the founder of Tower (Russ Solomon) and worked for him in the early years. We did the math, my neighborhood Tower opened about 30 years ago - and it's still there, for a minute.

ellen ~ Thank you, I kinda owe Tower a little something, I think.

saur ~ I remember hearing about Peaches, but I don't think they ever got established in the Bay Area.

harbor ~ Thanks for stopping by, I have many a fond, if somewhat foggy memory of SF as well.

BFC ~ Tower single handedly changed the face of retail music forever. It's too bad that greater change was in the winds...

mck ~ like peaches, I have heard of licorice pizza, but never saw any around the Bay Area - maybe in SF. And it is sad that Tower will be no more.

snags ~ I think I've been to that Tower! Here is a positive note... Tower in Japan sold a couple of years ago and separately, so like the Victoria Station Steak house, an American Icon will survive in exile.

soft ~ Thanks for coming by, there's always something going on here - sometimes.

Kathleen Jennette said...

Ahhh the memories you stir up in me! I remember the Tower Records in S.F. and I also remember 8 tracks! My friend Pat put my 8 track player in my first car.. a Ford Galaxy 500. I also had a head shop room filled with old Filmore posters I got through the mail and postcards they sent of upcoming shows---geez what great memories and times! Thanks for the post. I am smiling now.

Unknown said...

Wow! I'm so out of the loop--I didn't even know Tower was going out of business! Thanks for the info.

I lived in NYC for 14 years, and I have to say, even though I lived in the East Village--which is home to the best record stores in the world (besides Amoeba in California!), Tower Records was the only place that I could find a lot of the music that I listen to. The New York City store had EVERY single jazz album ever pressed. Man I'm going to miss that store.

I spent so much money there in the 1990's, I wonder if my leaving NYC threw them into bankruptcy! :P Just kidding...

Thanks for the informative post--and I agree, this is the loss of a great icon.