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The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

November 27, 2015

Many Americans bought their first record, cassette, or CD at a Tower Records. Uncle John’s dutiful blogger here bought a Monkees album at a Tower in Portland, Oregon, for example. The chain’s impact on the American music industry was huge. And now it’s gone.

Tower Records

When Russell Solomon founded Tower in 1960, he was in his mid-30s and nearly broke, decided to open a small record store at 960 Watt Avenue in Sacramento, naming it after Tower Theatre, a nearby business that shared a building with his father’s drugstore. Within seven years, the store was successful enough to warrant a second Tower Records in San Francisco. Additional locations followed as Solomon added books, posters, and other items to their shelves. In the ‘70s, Tower Records took off like a speeding train as Solomon and his growing legion of knowledgeable but often cranky staffers opened stores everywhere from Japan to Ireland.

One key element of the chain’s triumphs during these years was its wide array of music. Unlike other record stores, it offered everything from classical concertos to punk. People who worked at Tower often used their immense music knowledge to order records by new and emerging talents too. Fans of New Wave acts from the U.K. flocked to the Tower Records in Manhattan’s East Village in the early ‘80s to buy records before they arrived in similar stores.

Unfortunately, the rise of online music sharing services like Napster really began to bite into the profits of the industry in the early ‘00s. As more and more music fans opted to steal or buy music online, Solomon’s empire toppled like a rickety Jenga tower. Tower Records entered bankruptcy proceedings in 2004 with debts estimated between $80 and $100 million. All of its stores were quickly closed in the mid ‘00s but the company continues to operate online.

Many mom and pop records shops weren’t sad to see Towers Records go the way of the dodo for obvious reasons but many music fans still lament its downfall. One of them is Colin Hanks, the son of acclaimed actor Tom Hanks. Colin recently directed a documentary about the chain called All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records.

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