In the late 1950’s Russ Solomon began selling used 45 records out of his father’s drug store in Sacremento, California. He purchased them for 3 cents and sold them for 10. And that 7 cent profit, my friends, was the beginning of what became Russ’s gift to the music world, Tower Records.
In his first full-length feature, director Colin Hanks chronicles the rise and fall of one of the most influential players in the music industry and the company that made it cool to carry a yellow plastic bag. As Bruce Springsteen says in the film, “Everyone is your friend for 20 minutes at the record store.”
Hanks weaves wonderful archival photos with extensive interviews from a core group of employees to chronicle the rise and fall of our (um, my) generation’s favorite record store. Listening to the stories of the key players, most of whom began their careers as sales clerks and accidentally fell into their roles as future executives, you feel the nostalgia for simpler days, but your older, more mature self thinks, “How in the heck did this ever work and why didn’t I work there??” At Tower, you literally could be a stoned shipping clerk in California one day and heading up the Japanese division the next. We’re also treated to heartfelt remembrances of the Tower experience from Springsteen, Elton John, and Dave Grohl, who was himself a former employee. Not surprisingly, John says, “I can guarantee you that I have spent more at Tower Records than anyone else on this planet.”
While the digital age certainly was a factor in the demise of Tower Records, Hanks shows us that the “work hard, play hard” culture, fueled by meteoric success, led to some not-so-wise business decisions. It’s a worn analogy, but Tower was a Titanic, almost too big to correct itself, and enjoying the party a bit too much, when faced with the iceberg that was Napster and big box companies selling music at cost. By 2000, Tower’s lenders “cut the heart out of the company” by firing most of the clerks-turned-execs (many who had now been with the company for over 30 years) in order to pay the debt. As with all things in life, the party bill was due.
For those who remember what it was like to shop in a record store, this movie takes us on a trip down memory lane, where we’re reminded not just of what it felt like to shop at Tower Records, but what it felt like to go on a weekly adventure with our literal and figurative friends. The digital revolution, while convenient and efficient, has stolen that tangible, tactile collective treasure hunting experience. We should remember, though, that we can still find community and everyday surprises through our local bookstores, record shops, and film clubs. It’s still there, albeit on a smaller scale, and we should embrace the serendipitous discovery of art.
And in the spirit of Ferris Bueller:
What are you still doing here? Turn off this device! Go grab your BFFs and head to your local record/book store. Talk to people, for goodness sake. Do you have nothing better to do than to stare at this screen? Go on now. Go.