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All Towers Crumble: Should We Mourn the Loss of the Megastore?

The massive grief for Tower Records is staggering.  Since the announcement that it would be liquidating and selling to Los Angeles-based Great American Group, music fans and journalists alike have been dreading the moment when the super-chain will be closing its doors; a moment which will arrive any day now.  Anyone who passes by a location can see the huge signs of impending doom: “Going Out of Business,” “Everything Must Go,” “Up to 30% off.”

Ever since the news broke early last month, newspapers have painted a picture of Tower as a trailblazer, and its owners pack of rock n’ roll rebels with deep pocket books and an even deeper catalog who wanted nothing more than to provide music fans with a great experience, to hell with the consequences.  And at the head of this pack was Russ Solomon, the quintessential music lover who started out selling records out of his father’s drug store, and ended up building an empire dedicated to bringing the waiting masses their musical fix.

The supposed culprits for Tower’s demise have been numerous; peer-to-peer file sharing has predictably been a scapegoat, as have big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target, electronics stores like Best Buy and Circuit City, and online sources like iTunes and Amazon.

Of course, with the blame falling on so many, the last notion anyone would bring up is the possibility that Tower itself may be to blame.  But in the end, that is exactly the case.  Beneath the sugarcoated rags-to-riches story, the real Tower Records is no different than any other bankrupt corporation; an edifice willing to cut any corner to get to the top that eventually fell under the weight of its own greed.

Though Tower has long carried the mantle of “hip capitalism,” Rock n’ Rap Confidential‘s Lee Ballinger points out that this was little more than a fig leaf for what were at their core the ruthless values of big business.  Young music fans would search out jobs at Tower in droves, hoping to get a chance to work around the records they loved so much.  It seemed an ideal job for them.

Of course, their bubbles were quickly burst after a few months.  Tower rarely paid its cashiers and stock-people more than minimum wage.  Christian, a college student who used to work part-time at the Washington DC Tower, told me he was paid $6.15 an hour during his time there (the DC minimum wage has since been raised to $7).  No one who works for a living in today’s America needs to be reminded how little that is.  “Let me tell you, when you work part-time as a student and you get that check and then you figure out how much one [semester-long] class is costing you . . . and you figure that you spend more on that one class than you get in a semester of working part-time there, well that is just fucked up.”

The story that Christian tells me is a typical one in globalized, twenty-first century America.  Low wages, hostile treatment from management, no paid breaks, and few (if any) benefits.  “I was just working there as a student part-time, but for a lot of people it was a full-time job, or even a second job.  One guy who started when I did was a teacher during the day, and here he was working 6 pm till midnight to pay the bills and feed his kids.”

The picture is familiar to anyone who has worked retail.  Asinine rules that seemed to have no purpose save to belittle workers abounded at Tower.  Christian and his co-workers were to stand at their post for hours on end, waiting for customers, with no chairs to sit in, and weren’t even allowed to lean on the counter!  Hardly the picture of a company trying to create a laid-back, “rock n’ roll” environment, this sounds like an experience that The Jungle‘s Jurgis would sympathize with.  The only real difference is that Jurgis didn’t have Beyonce’s latest single playing in the background.

In an economy we are told is prospering, the average wage is its lowest since the 1960s, inflation adjusted.  Most corporations pay so dismally low that that the average family works a full 660 hours more every year than they did in 1979, just to keep their heads above water.  “[F]rom 1979 to 2002,” According to Alan Maass, “when median household income essentially stagnated, the income of the richest 1 percent of the U.S. population more than tripled.”  Russ Solomon knew which side he wanted to be on.

With wages for so many of Tower’s loyal customers at a forty-year low, one would think that the store’s products would come to reflect this and provide music fans with something a bit more affordable.  Not the case.  Though record companies are quick to blame free downloads for the dip in music sales, the price of a current full-length release at Tower would remain somewhere between 14 and 19 dollars, more than twice the hourly wage for a Tower employee.

While people like Solomon and Richard Branson were toasting their own good fortune, ordinary music lovers were getting the shaft.  So it should come as no surprise that the very workers at Tower would search out cheaper access to music.  “They charge way too much,” says Christian.  “I wanted to buy a DVD from them but they were charging thirty dollars for it!  I couldn’t afford that on 6 dollars an hour, even with an employee discount, so I just went and found the DVD on eBay.”  If iTunes and Wal-Mart are indeed outselling Tower, then Solomon has nobody to blame but himself.

The same diktat of the bottom line, not a love for music, is the key to understanding everything Tower has done in its forty-year history.  While 1979 was the year when workers’ wages started to grind to a halt, it was also the year when the independent label, the “DIY” ethic, the movement to buck everything the music industry stood for, started to take hold.  Over the past thirty years, some of the most exciting music has come from these types of labels.  In many ways, the flowering of interest in bands outside the influence of the traditional music industry, and Tower’s willingness to carry such artists, was what gave the chain the capital to spread its wings across the globe.  Mexico, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Ireland, Philippines, Ecuador, all have seen stores open over the past twenty years using the millions that should have been paid back to indie labels and distributors long ago.  And now that Tower is going under, these labels will most likely never see that money again.

Solomon was so willing to go along with what is “profitable” that he even jumped on the censorship bandwagon in the late 80s and early 90s.  During the campaigns against “explicit content,” led by Tipper Gore’s Parental Music Resource Center, congress conducted nothing less than a witch hunt against artists as varied as Madonna, Judas Priest, and even Cyndi Lauper!  In a particularly bigoted move, the hearings would go out of their way to single out hip-hop as particularly violent and offensive.  Even some of the most “wholesome” figures in music, such as John Denver, were disgusted by the hearings. 

But not Solomon.  Tower was one of the first major music chains to start carrying the infamous Parental Advisory sticker, now known (rightfully so) as the Tipper sticker.  According to Ballinger, “Solomon made Tower one of the chains that most avidly championed Tipper stickers and record label lyric screening committees.  Combined with the equally crazy campaign to condemn fair use of copyrighted material to the dustbin of history, this shrewd maneuver choked the most exciting record-making climate since the dawn of rock n’ roll.”  Perhaps it was Solomon’s willingness to trade in his “music lover” image for one of a narc that led to flagging profits.

While the execs at Tower were busy reaching for the sky, they had not realized that they no longer had a floor to stand on.  While the prices of albums would climb, their own workers would be more and more unable to buy a CD from their stores.  While they expanded their empire across the globe with money that wasn’t theirs, their customers were shying away from a store that was going to ID them any time they bought a Slayer album.

Solomon and the rest at Tower thought they were riding a wave of cool that would keep the money rolling in till kingdom come.  In reality, music fans had stopped thinking them cool a long time ago.  And in the music business, when the cool dries up, so does the money.

The German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg once said “your order is built on sand.”  She may as well have been talking to Russ Solomon.  As Tower steadily sinks into the ground, we have a question to ask: do we want our music to be dragged down with it?


Alexander Billet is an activist and music writer living in Washington DC.  He is currently working on a book entitled The Kids Are Shouting Loud: The Politics and Music of the Clash.  He can be reached at alexbillet@hotmail.com.



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