A Short History Of Tower Records

A Short History Of Tower Records
Authored By John Nicholson

In 1960, Russell Solomon opened the first Tower Records store on Broadway, in Sacramento, California. He named it for his father's drugstore, which shared a building and name with the Tower Theatre, where Solomon first started selling records. 

The first stand-alone Tower Records store was located at 2514 Watt Ave in Arden Arcade, a suburb of Sacramento, California. By 1976, Solomon had opened Tower Books, Posters, and Plants at 1600 Broadway, next door to another Sacramento Tower Records location.

Seven years after its founding, Tower Records expanded to San Francisco, opening a store in what was originally a grocery store at Bay Street and Columbus Avenue. In 1979, Tower Records in Japan started its business as the Japan Branch of MTS Incorporated. The following year, Sapporo Store, the first in Japan, opened. 

The chain eventually expanded internationally to include stores in Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Ireland, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, and Argentina. 

The Tower Records stores in Japan split off from the main chain and are now independent. Arguably the most famous Tower Records outlet was the purpose built building which opened in 1971 on the north west corner of Sunset Boulevard and Horn Avenue in West Hollywood.

I have fond memories of shopping there during our many trips to LA. However, the last album I bought there was Joe Satriani’s ‘The Extremist’ in 1993. It was that ‘long box’ format, which was developed purely to allow CDs to sit in the racks in the way vinyl records once did. Never saw the point in them myself. They never caught on in the UK and soon, the racks were just full of CDs in plastic jewel cases. 

Even so, hanging out at that Tower Records on Sunset was, to a boy from the cold, windy islands of the UK, a fabulously glamorous thing to do. It felt like you were at the axis of something important. You weren’t, but it felt like you were!

In New York City, Tower Records operated a suite of stores on and near lower Broadway in the East Village. The main store was located at the southeast corner of East 4th Street and Broadway. The Tower Records Annex was in the same building, located at the southwest corner of East 4th and Lafayette Street. The third store, Tower Video, was located on the southeast corner of East 4th and Lafayette Street, and specialized in video and the second floor of this location also sold books. 

Their location on the Upper West Side, near Lincoln Center on 66th Street and Broadway, was a magnet for those working in the field of musical theatre. There was also a location in the basement of Trump Tower, and a small clearance annex on 86th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I love a clearance annex because you'd find all sorts of goodies for a few cents. We often used to get 'cut offs' in the UK, records from America that were massively discounted and had the corners cut. If memory serves they were often by the likes of the Guess Who, Elephants Memory, Ohio Players and Crabby Appleton.

The Nashville location on West End Avenue (across from Vanderbilt University) was in a former Packard dealership. The old showroom floor in front was devoted to CDs, cassettes and vinyl. The area in the back housed videocassette sales and rentals, PC and console games and music paraphernalia.

The strip mall next door contained a separate Tower Books. The location was famous for their late-night Monday events that culminated at midnight on Tuesday when staff started ringing up sales of new releases. Because of the store's proximity to Music Row, country music stars could occasionally be seen performing or shopping there. I've always thought record shops are a natural home for live music, even if its a solo acoustic gig. 

But although they had expanded all through the 90s, this was all only going one way. Firstly, the price of CDs was way too high.  In UK we were paying up to £15 for a CD in the early 90s. Way too high.

As part of a 2002 settlement with 41 states over CD price fixing Tower Records, along with retailers Musicland and Trans World Entertainment, agreed to pay a $3 million fine. It is estimated that between 1995 and 2000 customers were overcharged by nearly $500 million and up to $5 per album which rather makes that $3 million fine look like a price worth paying doesn’t it? And where had all that money gone?

But it made no difference to the fate of the business. Tower Records entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the first time in 2004. Factors cited were the heavy debt incurred during its aggressive expansion in the 1990s, growing competition from mass discounters and internet piracy. The writing was on the wall.

Mismanagement, managerial incompetence, and crippling restrictions from the first bankruptcy deal also contributed to Tower's demise. It was a classic case of making the wrong move at the wrong time. They expanded in the 90s, right when the industry was on the cusp of huge change to online retailing. 

Some observers took a pragmatic view. As Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer, has stated: "I'm sorry if Tower Records' and Blockbuster's sales plummet. On the other hand, it wasn't that long ago that those megastore chains drove a lot of neighbourhood record stores out of business." Amen to that, Robert. 

In February 2004, the debt was estimated to be between $80 million and $100 million, and assets totalled just over $100 million. There was some wrangling. Bits of the company were sold but basically, in 2006 it went bust, shut its doors and was written off, ending a 46 year history.

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