- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

When I first moved from Colorado to Central California in 1984, I quickly took a shine to the mild winters, palm trees and world-class fresh produce there. But what I liked best was Tower Records, which was sheer nirvana for a record-junkie like me. If I suddenly got a hankering to buy the third Savoy Brown album from 1969 or Fairport Convention’s 1968 debut, Tower Records in Fresno or Modesto was about the only place you could find them. And Tower had knowledgeable sales staff that could help you track down fairly rare music. They would order it for you if it wasn’t in stock and usually get it quickly.

Best of all, it had a huge import section at reasonable prices. Frequently, there were in-store concerts by some pretty good bands.

Four years later, we moved north to Sacramento, home of the original Tower Record store. This was, hands down, the finest record store I had ever been in, and I often spent hours there thumbing through row after row of records until I had found a small stack I had to have (finding them wasn’t hard; winnowing them down to fit my budget was).

Time permitting, this would be followed by a trip next door to the excellent Tower Book store, and then on some days a jaunt across the street to the Tower movie theater, which always showed great art and foreign films and was where people didn’t talk loudly, like they do in virtually all other California movie theaters. After a year or two, the Tower Cafe opened next to the theater on the site — if memory serves — of Tower Records founder Russ Solomon’s dad’s drugstore.

In 1938, Mr. Solomon, now 81, first convinced his dad to let him stock 78 rpm records in the store, which eventually led him to open the original Tower records store across the street in 1960. By 1968, he opened a second store, in San Francisco, and then it was on to L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard in 1970. From this foundation, the chain expanded nationally and even internationally, including London and Tokyo. Mr. Solomon says it was timing more than his retail genius that made the chain so successful, coming on the scene just as the rock ‘n’ roll culture exploded and baby boomer rockers started earning real disposable income.

How times have changed.

In the past decade online downloading and big-box retailer chains have taken over the industry. Now, the eject button has been pressed for Tower Records, America’s premier deep-catalog music retailer.

Tower, which owed $200 million to creditors, filed for bankruptcy in August, about two years after an initial bankruptcy filing from which it had managed to emerge. But this time there was no alternative but to quickly find a buyer who would try to resurrect the fallen giant or to liquidate it. A two-day auction in early October resulted in the chain being purchased by Great American Group, which immediately announced plans to liquidate. It beat out Trans World Entertainment, which reportedly planned to continue to operate at least some of the stores, by only $500,000.

The windows of Tower’s store off Ox Road in Fairfax — one of five Tower outlets in the D.C. area and 89 stores in 20 states — has sprouted “Going out of Business” and “Everything Must Go” signs. Inside recently, customers were scavenging for good buys. But with prices marked down only 10 percent, several could be heard grumbling that they would wait for steeper discounts before loading up.

The demise of Tower — which follows on the heels of the collapse of such other chains as Sam Goody, Musicland and Wherehouse (none of which were really in the same quality class as Tower) — is the clearest indication yet of the tsunami that has washed over the record industry. Tower was about the last refuge for CD connoisseurs looking for a wide and deep array of eclectic music.

Today, a huge percentage of CD sales occur in just a few big-box retail chains: Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy. These stores often price new CD and DVD releases at loss-leader prices to attract traffic inside. With only CDs, DVDs and (at some locations) books to sell, Tower could not play the same steep discounting game.

Perhaps an even more serious blow has been the rapid shift toward downloading music from the Internet, both legally and illegally. The runaway popularity of Apple’s IPod digital music players has accelerated the transformation of the market.

The music industry sowed the seeds of its own destruction when it made the fateful decision in the mid-1980s to price the then-new CD format at $15.99 per disc at a time when new vinyl records were selling for $9.99 and the lowly cassette-tape album for $8.99. Record companies justified this on the grounds of higher production costs and retooling of the industry. They said the price differential would gradually decrease as more disc factories came on line.

It never did, of course, and we’re now up to $18.99 retail for CDs — little plastic discs that we all know cost about 50 cents each for material.

Ironically, had antitrust regulators been more diligent about prosecuting the industry for the price-fixing collusion that many observers believe occurred in the mid-1980s, it might have ultimately done the music industry a favor. Instead, the industry got away with it — until, that is, computer-savvy kids without the disposable cash to plunk down $35 every time they wanted to pick up two new albums figured out ways to use the Internet to build their music libraries.

Just how utterly ridiculous these high CD prices are was underscored on a recent trip through Target, where a DVD of a popular movie was on sale for $12.99. This DVD included not only the movie, but bonus features galore and, of course, the soundtrack. But to buy the CD of the soundtrack alone would have cost $16.99. Surely this is an indication of a music industry with a death wish.

In an interview last March in the Sacramento Bee, Russ Solomon was frank in blaming the intransigence of the few huge record companies that dominate the industry and their pricing policies for helping to drive retail chains to ruin.

High CD prices are certainly why I’ve long purchased most of my CDs in used record stores, and why I now buy the majority of my CDs (and I buy several every week) from Amazon.com, including more and more from the used dealers who interface through the Amazon portal. One can usually get good-as-new CDs there for 25 to 50 percent off.

I feel guilty about buying so few CDs and DVDs from my old friends at Tower in recent years. When I heard they were in very serious trouble again, I even made a conscious effort to start buying more stuff from them, but usually wound up making my selections from the $7.99 or $9.99 cut-out bins, which were starting to include some pretty good music during the past year or so.

If there is any poetic justice in this situation, perhaps it is that these bloated record companies will perish along with the retail chains they helped to destroy, to be replaced by more collector-friendly companies that will again find ways to teach the younger generation the joys of having a tangible music collection to love, cherish and obey.

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