We’re Getting the Band Back Together: Tower Records

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S1: Empire Records is considered a cult movies. I may be talking about a movie that people have not seen shot.

S2: Carol, hiking in is a screenwriter. She wrote a movie called Empire Records that came out in 1995. It was kind of a flop at the time, but over the years, it’s developed a very devoted following your left. You will notice a shoplifter being chased by this young with deep that I don’t know. Let’s turn to our first year, another tasty treat from the gang at Empire. The movie’s about a day in the life of employees at a record store, and it’s based on Carol’s experiences working at a Tower Records in Phoenix as a teenager in the early 1980s.

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S1: There’s a character who at least is the way I originally wrote it. It’s like she wasn’t really cool enough to work there. She was good in school. She was getting a scholarship to go to college, you know, and so that was based on me.

S3: What are you doing in calculus? I hate it, but my dad says I’ve got to get an.

S2: Carol was an excellent high school student, but she dropped out of some of her senior year classes so she could work shifts to Tower Records. She got her parents to sign off on this plan. Working at Tower was that important to her?

S3: I really wanted it. I really wanted to be there in that store. It wasn’t much about the money. I hadn’t been looking to find a job at all. But I think it just seemed like it was really going to be fun.

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S2: It was fun and a little bit excited and a little bit wild.

S3: There was some sex in the cabinet room.

S4: Tell me more. I wasn’t there that night.

S2: If you watch Empire Records, you’ll get a glimpse of the atmosphere that lured Carroll into working at Tower.

S5: It was casual, it was creative. Co-workers were passionate about music and art, and they treated each other like a family.

S1: It’s hard to get fired from Tower Records. It’s not really an employee employer relationship, you know, it’s just that you’re a part of each other’s lives.

S6: A lot of this trickle down from towers corporate leadership, which gave the employees at its many outposts a lot of autonomy, Tower Records was a chain, but each store had its own individual personality and it had its own in-store artist.

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S1: And it was just a really kind of fun atmosphere where you liked the people that you worked with. I looked forward to going to work when Empire Records came out.

S6: Tower was in the groove. It’s yellow and red. Logo was instantly recognizable. It had stores in cities all over the world, sometimes with gigantic amounts of square footage spread over four or five floors. In 1999, Tower had sales of over a billion dollars, but five years later, Tower went bankrupt and all its U.S. stores closed. The brand was defunct, a victim of mostly the Internet, Carol Hiken, and hadn’t worked a tower for a couple of decades at that point. But she still had affection for the company. She could see its demise coming once people started getting their music online.

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S3: I guess I just wasn’t surprised. Did you shed a tear? I think it sucks.

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S5: Tower Records pretty much disappeared for a decade and a half, but last year, after a long hibernation, a new ownership group relaunched the brand. Carol saw a news item about it and she was among the earliest customers.

S3: I did order a T-shirt from Tower Records online, which I should have worn now that I think about it.

S7: Can an old brick and mortar chain that sold physical media find new life and the era of Amazon and Spotify? How much nostalgia will it take to stage a comeback for a brand that’s been essentially dead for 15 years? Rewind your cassette tapes, dust off your old LPs, and please join us in the listening booth. I’m Seth Stevenson. Welcome to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism. Today on the show, we’re getting the band back together.

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S6: The story of Tower Records. Russ Solomon’s dad owned a drugstore in Sacramento. There was a soda fountain with a jukebox when he was 16 years old. Russ started selling used copies of the records. The jukebox played out of a corner of the drugstore. They used records sold fast. So we started selling new records and those sold fast, too, which gave him an idea. At the time, record stores were relatively rare. Most people bought music in department stores. Russ Solomon thought that a store dedicated to music, capitalizing on the growing excitement around rock and roll could be a hit in 1961. He opened a standalone shop in another part of Sacramento. He called it Tower Records. Not long after that store opened, Heidi Coller started hanging out in it or sometimes in its parking lot, singing folk songs with her friends.

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S8: It was the only thing to do in Sacramento. I mean, come on.

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S7: In 1965, Heidi got a job at Tower. She worked in the books department, which had opened not long after the record store did the job suited her countercultural style.

S9: There was no dress code. There was no hair code that’s didn’t smell and your butt wasn’t hanging out. You’re pretty much good to go yet. Wishes most of the time.

S5: Heidi says the vibe at Tower, what we now call its corporate culture, all came from its founder, Russ Solomon. He was cool. He was free spirited, and he hired lots of cool and free spirited young people to create the kind of company he wanted. He didn’t care much about rules as long as the job got done.

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S9: We ran on basically just sheer idiocy for a long time. And it worked because we adored Russ. He had respect for us. And in a business where you’re being paid a dollar 25 an hour can be respected at 19 or 20 years old is a pretty heady thing.

S5: Tower staff of young misfits managed to make the business run even if they sometimes used unorthodox methods. For instance, there was a line item in some expense reports listing money spent on hand truck fuel for the team. What is the truck fuel?

S9: Henshaw’s cocaine.

S5: The rowdy mood at Tower was infectious. Customers came in to be a part of it.

S9: You can spend hours in those little steamy record booths. You can make out, you can get loaded, you know, you can do obscene things to each other. And the only thing that you had to do eventually was to get out and let somebody else use the booth.

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S2: Towers rise coincided with the rise of youth music culture. The store became a sort of church where young people would gather to talk about music, look at album covers and with any luck, buy something. And they did buy as Tower’s revenue grew. Russ Solomon looked to expand beyond Sacramento, first to San Francisco in 1968, then to Los Angeles in 1970, where he established a legendary store on the Sunset Strip, a place where even famous musicians like Elton John would come to shop in choosing where to expand, as in every other part of his business. Russ Solomon trusted his instincts about what was cool or would soon be cool.

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S10: He had this great talent of finding a really good, cheap location in a place not yet discovered and make a lease on it. That made sense. He was amazing at that.

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S7: By the end of the 1970s, tower stores were popping up all over the western U.S., Seattle, San Diego, Phoenix, Tempe, then Tower moved east starting in New York City in a then rather bleak spot at 4th and Broadway in 1983, the tower was a chain.

S5: Its stores in cities or in suburban retail corridors were given a remarkable amount of autonomy, choosing inventory based on local taste and leaving the decor to young employees who often saw storefront displays as an opportunity for creative expression. It somehow felt like your neighborhood record shop and also like a window into the counterculture. Heidi Coller became head of Tower’s books division and got an office in the corporate headquarters. But even as Tower grew and its executive ranks swelled, Heidi says it still operated like a family.

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S9: We all felt that we were part of the company. We all had a stake. And it was not just RECIST company, it was our company as well.

S7: When compact discs became popular in the second half of the 1980s, tower sales boomed again, with people replacing old vinyl and cassettes. With this new wonder technology tower, stores lured foot traffic in with their absolutely massive inventory of CDs, sometimes four or five stories worth of merchandise.

S2: Classical, jazz, obscure indie bands in the pre Internet era. The ability to browse such a wide selection of music and to ask for recommendations from towers knowledgeable if slightly gruff sales staff was a real draw.

S7: Tower continued to write each new wave of youth music, culture, alternative rock hip hop tower sales hit one billion dollars in 1999, but it was right around then that everything seemed to go south.

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S9: Russ got sick. His son was overly enthusiastic with extension. We had some Yesenin surfers who were just, I don’t know, I’d never have been a financial person. I tried to ignore the fact, but the signs are visible. Sales are down. The Internet was coming in. And so it was a perfect storm of bad investing on our part and being able to download free music. It all came together.

S7: Russell Simmons heart surgery in 1998 sidelined the company’s number one asset, the founder, who guided it unerringly from the start. His son was, by all reports, overmatched. But no one, not even Russ Solomon, could have overcome the new obstacles in his path. First, big box chains like Wal-Mart and Best Buy started selling CDs at deep discounts, undercutting towers, prices and stealing its foot traffic. Then, as more people got broadband Internet connections, they started sharing music illegally on services like Napster. It’s hard to compete with a music library many times larger than any tower store could hope to fit, especially when all the music is free. Meanwhile, Tower continue to expand its brick and mortar model, including internationally. At its peak, it had about 200 stores worldwide.

S5: London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei, Mexico City, Buenos Aires. The company borrowed a lot of money to finance its big ambitions, and when sales started shrinking, the debt became unmanageable.

S7: Tower lost 10 million dollars in 2000. It lost 90 million dollars in 2001. In 2004, it went bankrupt. Its last U.S. store closed in 2006 and was rough and it all went down the tubes.

S9: We all felt that we’ve been left kicked to the curb, as it were.

S7: And I think there was a lot of anxiety and a lot of sadness and a lot of depression that is not super common to have that kind of emotional attachment.

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S9: I can’t imagine going to break into tears over Amazon and look at titles like Brigadoon. It came it was all over the place. It was great. It was there. It was joyous. It was fun. It was irreverent. It was blast. And that was gone. And, you know, and people that still remember it are like old people like me.

S7: Russ Solomon died at age 92 in eighteen, reportedly with a glass of whiskey in his hand, Tower had lain basically dormant for more than a decade at that point, given the trends during that period, it made no sense to revive Tower in its old form. People were abandoning brick and mortar stores and moving their shopping to the Internet. Physical media became a relic of the past, with streaming and downloads taking over from compact discs. But now it turns out that maybe Tower wasn’t fully dead, just in a cocoon waiting to be reborn.

S11: We’ve been kind of sitting on the idea for a while because it’s such a big name and iconic brand. We had to introduce the right way.

S7: More on that when we come back.

S5: Danny’s idol was raised in Curacao, a small island in the Caribbean, he grew up listening to a mix of music, the salsa and Morange that were popular there, but also international pop hits and more eclectic stuff brought by the Dutch DJs who’d come to play the island’s clubs.

S11: Only thing was back then when I grew up there, there weren’t that many music stores. And so whenever we would go to the U.S., I would drive my parents crazy to go to a tower record store because like there I mean, it’s crazy. It’s like they had everything as a teenager.

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S7: Danny Love Tower Records for its wide selection, sprawling square footage filled with bins of every kind of music imaginable.

S11: I would go in and watch something in mind, let’s say a Bob Dylan album that I want to buy and end up living with Fela Kuti, with William Oyinbo or with David Byrne that I’ve never heard of. And like with like CDs at the time that I listen to constantly.

S7: For weeks when Tower Records died, he felt nostalgic for his youth.

S12: It was sad. It was to me an end of an era. To a certain extent.

S7: Danny ended up working in technology, helping to develop software for financial applications. He moved around and eventually settled in Brooklyn. Along the way, he worked with and befriended a guy named Rold Smeets, a Dutch businessman whose family runs a huge, extremely lucrative financial services company. Danny says that Road Smeets acquired the Tower Records brand back in 2007 in an auction after the original tower went kaput. News reports from the Times suggest the price was a little more than four million dollars for the name, the logo, the website, all the intellectual property for many years. Nothing much happened with Tower as people were getting their music from iTunes and then Spotify.

S12: But then an opportunity seemed to arrive, let’s say five years, seven years ago, everything was streaming. Recently, there’s been a big resurgence of vinyl customers. Seems to want a more physical experience, like touching something, listening to a vinyl, a sense of community.

S13: Last year, for the first time since 1986, vinyl outsold compact discs. It seems unlikely the tower could compete on the turf of the big streaming and digital download services. But if customer tastes go back in time a little to a pre Internet sensibility, well, who better to jump on that trend than Tower Records?

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S11: We felt a change in the customer’s patterns and behaviors as they want it to now get back to physical slow things down a little bit. There was always that sense of community that was left before it was left for Tower Records and then said, let’s do it. It’s now in our neighborhood with vinyl coming back. And yeah, here we are.

S7: They plan to relaunch with a big coming out party at the South by Southwest Festival in 2020. That didn’t happen because of covid. So it’s been a bit of a soft launch. But Tower Records is back in business. You can visit the website by a vinyl record, a CD, even a cassette tape, or slake your tower nostalgia with a logo, T-shirt. Everything comes to you wrapped in that familiar yellow bag that, if you’re of a certain age, will bring back fond memories of taking on the new Liz Phair album. If you want to make a business case for the new tower, I think it mostly rests on the unexpected comeback of vinyl records. People are rediscovering the pleasures of having a record player. It’s a real trend.

S12: And it’s funny because we started when we’re doing market research, a lot of kids are basically what they’re doing with vinyl is that’s their alone time and their quiet time. They put the phone away, they listen to vinyl and just decompress.

S5: If Tower can become the place people go to buy vinyl, it might carve out a nice niche. But there are a lot of problems here. First of all, streaming and digital downloads still make up about 90 percent of music revenue to sell records is to play in a relatively small sandbox. And even within the world of physical media, you’ve got a vicious competitor in Amazon, a tough foe for anyone selling and shipping anything. Disney seems to think that for Tower Records to become the place where people choose to shop for music, there will have to be some emotional connection with the brand, some added value, some tribal bond.

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S12: Our focus is creating a place where people come and learn and discover music. That’s kind of our main thing, and that’s what our record was. And we still want it to be like that. And that’s what Russ built and we want to continue that legacy.

S5: One idea is to have in-house music experts, maybe customers pay a monthly subscription fee to access them, talk about records, get suggestions for new artists to try, just like I when I was a kid going into the store and learning about music and the store clerk or a specialist telling me, you need to buy this, you need to buy that.

S12: Have you heard of this person and this artist? That’s kind of the stuff that we want to bring back and we’re trying to do that online as much as we can. In the end, it’s like, yes, maybe for a dollar cheaper, you can go to Amazon, but that’s it. That’s where it stops. You’re not really interacting. We’re building out the site where it becomes something more where where you can start interacting with people. You can start talking about music and what you’re passionate about.

S2: Once in person, shopping becomes widely possible again, Disney would love to open a few Tower Records, pop up stores, then if things go well, perhaps a few flagship locations for now, given the pandemic, this is on hold. But even when normalcy returns, it’s hard to argue that brick and mortar retail, particularly on a large scale, will be a winning play. That sense of community that the old tower had the place where people want to work because they love the scene where people want to hang out and shop, because they want to be around other people who love music that will mostly need to be recreated online. And that’s a tall order. Will there be tower message boards where people find each other? Virtual listening booths where avatars can make out to a little hazy? Heidi Kollar, who worked at the original tower, isn’t sure this new version can work, but she’s pleased to see Tower alive and kicking.

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S10: I wish you luck. I think it’s pretty cool that he’s doing it because we tell people who love that brand. Still, I’m happy to see it back in action. I just hope he represents us properly when this happened. One of my friends who I used to work with, she said there are going to cost a worker there because I’m not going back. And I said, I’m not either.

S2: Carol hiking in, wrote the script for Empire Records based on her time working at Tower, is now developing a Broadway musical version of the movie. She’s still writing the ending, but she thinks it might involve a comeback. Not unlike the one Disney’s Idol is banking on for the most part is just set in 1995.

S3: But then what we do in the postscript is sort of explain, yeah, the store closed and then I did this this the building became this building. McNatt And then the building became an Empire Records again, because you started to like physical media again. So so it’s really nice.

S5: Is this what’s in store for the real Tower Records? We’ll have to wait and see if life imitates art.

S2: That’s our show for today. This episode was produced by Jess Miller and Cleo Levin, editing from Jonathan Fisher Technical Direction from Merritt. Jacob Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. Jude Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network.

S3: Next week on the show, an exercise program with a cult like following someone I was interviewing told me that she knew about eight people with Pellekaan tattoos that felt like a lot of people.

S2: That’s next week on Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism.