An Epitaph for a Much-Loved Tower Records

The storied Tower Records chain has filed for bankruptcy. Musician and Day to Day contributor David Was says he is saddened by what he sees as the long, slow death of the brick-and-mortar record business in the age of the MP3 download.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

One of the nation's most storied record-store chains has filed for bankruptcy. Actually, it's the second time Tower Records has gone Chapter 11 in as many years.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

With 89 stores, it's one of the country's largest chains. Its latest filing, Tower blames both legal and illegal downloading of music, along with competition from major retailers like Wal-Mart.

BRAND: The bankruptcy filing doesn't mean Tower will be immediately shutting down its stores, but some industry observers say it will have difficulty surviving.

CHADWICK: And if it does close its doors, that will make a lot of people sad, including musician and DAY TO DAY contributor David Was.

DAVID WAS reporting:

Once upon a time, you went into a record store like Tower because the manager was hip enough to know what you ought to be listening to.

(Soundbite of music)

At the fabled Sunset Strip location in Hollywood, an eager employee introduced me to a bespectacled customer who was browsing the country and western section.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ELVIS COSTELLO (Singer): (Singing) Oh, it's so funny to be seeing you after so long, girl.

WAS: It was Elvis Costello himself who steered me toward some obscure blues CDs. We formed a musical bond and ended up getting together the next day to write a couple of songs.

(Soundbite of song, Shadow and Jimmy)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) For Shadow and Jimmy, every weekend ends up the same…

WAS: Including this one, Shadow and Jimmy. You just can't make that kind of thing happen online or at K-mart. Tower records was a cool place to hang, a scene unto itself. It was also part and parcel of the old-school ways of the record business, when payola flowed freely with scant federal intervention. It was an era of free leather tour jackets and concert tickets - emoluments that could secure a major record company the prized end-of-aisle placement for its cardboard, foldout displays.

A friendly retailer could also report inflated sales with a little persuasion and stoke the chart numbers on a faltering album. Ah, them was the good old days.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: Tower Records got its start in 1960, when a kid named Russ Solomon put up some record bins in his dad's Sacramento drug store.

(Soundbite of song, 8 Miles High)

WAS: In 1967, the summer of love, Solomon opened a big supermarket-style store in San Francisco, and two years later established the legendary Los Angeles operation on the Sunset Strip. Soon he went international, running stores from Tokyo to Tel Aviv.

Solomon's formula - huge stores with large inventories and discount prices -helped it expand rapidly during the ‘80s and ‘90s, only to be hard hit when the retail record business began to slump just as the new century began. Two years ago, Tower declared its first bankruptcy, and Russ Solomon lost control of the company he created.

The seeds of Tower's downturn and that of the entire retail record business were planted years before when the major labels inflated prices for its shiny, new digital delivery system, the compact disc. It cost no more to produce than vinyl or cassette tape, but the majors set prices at a level that fleeced consumers, and then - true to form - they neglected to pass their inflated profits back to the artists. But instant karma was lurking just around the corner in the form of the Internet, and a generation of cynical cyber-kids who didn't get the property part of intellectual property. The record business that used to depend on companies like Tower and its recent brother-in-bankruptcy Warehouse Records is now holding its breath and hoping for a second coming. Can you imagine Tower Records with boards on the windows on Sunset Boulevard, a music business executive recently asked wistfully? It'd be horrifying.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Musician David Was.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

BRAND: And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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