(Have you heard about Tower Records’ bankruptcy auction? Read about it here .)
Libby and I visited Tower Records/Video in Concord Sunday for the second day of the company’s “liquidation” sale. As if 10% off the highest regular prices of any national music chain could even be considered a “liquidation.” Is everything about this company a sad joke now?
Wasn’t always so. There was a time when Tower Records was an absolute Mecca for music fans. I’ve spent a fair share of time and money in various Tower’s over the years, from local outlets in my home-towns of Stockton and Concord to the bigger stores in Sacramento, San Francisco’s Columbus & Bay and La-La Land’s Sunset Boulevard outlet.
Used to be that Tower was the place for not only finding all the hit records, but it was my first choice for finding obscure singles and imports. I found the "Another Day" single on the CBS-Ireland label by a new band called U2 at the Tower in Stockton in '79, years before the band was well known. In the early ‘80s, 12-inch singles with multiple remixes were the rage of the day and Tower had 'em all.
The company was rarely (if ever) about customer service, with some of the most disinterested clerks in retail history. But Tower was always about selection---and back in the day, they had the right prices to go with the best selection. From the '80s on, Tower tried unsuccessfully to branch off into books, video, action figures, pop culture nick-nacks, you name it. That should have been a sure sign of impending downfall. When a company completely loses focus on its core product, it’s usually not too far from the end.
As an independent business owner, I’ve come to realize that every business has a life-cycle. Unless new energy and ideas are pumped into a business as a regular practice, then stagnation and obsolescence become the order of the day. The comics biz has changed a lot in the time Flying Colors has been open in Concord. What used to be a primarily collectors' market for new and old periodical comics has become a vibrant readers' market for comics and graphic novels. I'm still trying to get some re-modeling done here that will refflect the evolution of the comic book business.
Tower, though, seemed to wilt under the competition from online music sellers, from used music sellers (like Amoeba and Rasputin) from file-sharers and downloaders (legal or not), and from the Big-Boxing of America. Tower was late to adapt to the Internet and when the company finally did, it severely shot itself in both feet by having much better prices online than in the brick and mortar stores that built the company. Of course, when Wal-Mart and Best Buy are the two biggest retailers of music in the US, what chance did Tower really have?
There are also fundamental changes continuing to happen in the music business. The old marketing chain for new music was from the label (and artist) to independent radio stations. From there, listeners would jump into their local record shops to buy what they heard on their transistors (yes, it was a long time ago).
Radio is inconsequential (and mostly indifferent) to new music these days. Even the stations that claim to have vast music libraries are smothered by short and predictable playlists. What new music does make it to radio is usually bought and paid for by the labels, so listeners get a narrow choice of style over substance. That’s a real shame because there is a ton of great music you will never hear on commercial radio. Satellite radio, maybe. Heck, more people get exposed to new music by songs being used in TV series and commercials these days. The delivery system for new music is now over-whelmingly about the Internet, with iTunes and MySpace being two of the primary sampling spots for tunes of all kinds.
So it’s with sadness and a tinge of nostalgia that I mourn the passing of Tower. It was my old hitchin' post for tunes, but soon it'll be just another memory.
(Although I may still visit the local store a time or two more if the “liquidation” sale ever really kicks into gear.)