Tower Records

Russell Solomon

all things must pass

Tower Records was an American retail music chain that liquidated in 2006. The brand currently exists as an international franchise and an online music store. Tower.com was purchased by a separate entity and was not affected by the retail store closings.

Tower was founded in 1960 by Russell Solomon in Sacramento, California. The store was named after his father’s drugstore, which shared a building and name with the Tower Theater, where Solomon first started selling records. The first Tower Records store was opened in 1960 on Watt Avenue in Sacramento. By 1976, Solomon had opened Tower Books, Posters, and Plants at 1600 Broadway, next door to Tower Records. It was also one of the first retailers to move online in 1995 as Tower.com.Seven years after its founding, Tower Records expanded to San Francisco, opening a store in what was originally a grocery store at Bay and Columbus streets. The chain eventually expanded internationally to include stores in the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Ireland, Israel, UAE, 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 one located on the north side of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood.

In addition to CDs and cassette tapes, stores also sold DVDs, video games, accessories, toys, and electronic gadgets, and  a few Tower Records locations sold books as well. In New York City, Tower Records operated a suite of stores on and near lower Broadway. The main store was located at the southeast corner of East 4th St and Broadway, consisted of four levels, and sold mainstream items. The Tower Records Annex was in the same building, but located ‘in the back’ at the southwest corner of East 4th St and Lafayette, and stocked items that were older and a bit more obscure. (As the CD replaced the LP, vinyl moved from the main store to the annex.) The third store was called Tower Video, and was located on the southeast corner of East 4th St and Lafayette; it specialized in video (for a while, the second floor of this location also sold books). The main store in the East Village was famous in the 1980s for selling albums of European new wave bands not yet popular in the States. and was a noted hangout for teenagers from the wider metropolitan area. Their location near Lincoln Center was a magnet for the Musical Theater industry.

The company published a music magazine, ‘Pulse!,’ which was distributed free in its stores. In 2005, the company began using ‘scan and listen’ stations in its stores that allowed customers to audition a CD, to listen to audio samples from the disc, or search for particular songs, albums and artists.

Tower Records entered 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. Mismanagement, managerial incompetence, and crippling restrictions from an earlier bankruptcy deal also contributed to Tower’s demise. 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 neighborhood record stores out of business.’

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. In 1981, Japanese subsidiary Tower Records Japan Inc. (TRJ) was established. In October, 2002, TRJ went independent from the international chain by management buyout. The bankruptcy of Tower Records in the U.S. in 2006 did not affect TRJ as it had been completely independent. TRJ maintains 85 directly operated store locations throughout Japan, including 10 Tower Mini Stores, and the Shibuya Store in Tokyo (moved to the current location in March, 1995) which is said to be one of the biggest music retail outlets in the world, occupying over 50,000 square feet of selling space on nine floors). TRJ also publishes free magazines ‘Tower,’ ‘bounce,’ and ‘intoxicate’ directly and through its subsidiary NMNL.

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