Tower Records

Tower Records: It Was More Than Music

“Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smart phones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?”
– David Lowery


“But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.”
– Emily White


“No Music, No Life”
–Tower Records

A blog post by Emily White (a 21 year old intern at NPR), and the reaction by David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven/ Cracker) has become quite the generational divide when it comes to the business of music.  The economics of the music business – even to this outsider whose education about the business is gleaned by articles, some books, and many viewings of VH1’s “Behind the Music” – is clearly one that rewards the few, but for a time, made it possible for the many to eek out a living doing what they love.

And then came the Internet and file-sharing…

When Napster, Kazaa, Limewire, and a number of other sites allowed people to download mp3s (a format that’s convenient for file-sharing and loading up your iPod, but horrible for audio fidelity) for free, the floodgates opened for causal music consumers to expand their library without dropping any additional coin from their bank accounts.  At the time, the attitude toward downloading music for free went something like this:  “Man, I pay $12.99 to $18.99 for a CD and there’s maybe one or two good songs on them.  CDs have been out since the ‘80s and they have never gone down in price. In fact, they are going up in price and the quality of the music we’re being asked to pay for is for shit. So if I can get the songs I want for free, I think it’s justice for all those years I’ve been paying for expensive CDs and not getting value for my money.”   In short, illegal downloading was a revolt of the consumers who felt the record companies were ripping them off at the cash register. And you know what? I’m totally guilty of grabbing free to low cost mp3s (and offering it on my blog and here at Popdose).  My agenda, though, was not to make a buck (I never did), but rather share my enthusiasm for a band or artist by showcasing a song (or six — in the case of the feature I used to write every week here at Popdose). I wanted to remind people of the greatness of a song or artist and motivate them to buy the music through a legitimate music service (which is why links to Amazon or iTunes were included). Did it work?  For a minority of readers, yes.  But the vast majority just wanted their free mp3s.  Alas, the initial rebellion of consumers against the record labels turned into an addiction to free.

And that rebellion had an effect that we clearly see today:  the dominance of digital downloading (whether it’s through Amazon, iTunes, or freebiemp3) has created a generation who has been socialized to view music as a product that should not be paid for.  Who has that hurt?  Well, there are only a handful of major music labels left, the number of artists who make a living at music (according to David Lowery) has fallen 25% since 2000, the CD is almost dead as a format, people spend less of their income on music, commercial radio stations won’t play “proven” hits and have trimmed their play lists to around 250 songs in rotation, and MTV is a channel that has very little to do with music.  Talk about a recession!  But missing on that list are record stores.  You know, those brick and mortar entities that actually employed people to market and sell records to the general public.

Many regions in the country have (or had) record stores that where a lot like the one featured in the book and movie, High Fidelity. Those places, however, were usually located in urban areas where coolness seemed to abound.  But I grew up in the suburbs of the Bay Area and the one place where I could find an impressive collection of music was Tower Records. Started in 1960 in Sacramento by Russ Solomon, Tower was a place that not only sold records, but at the time I was a frequent customer, videos, books, and magazines as well.

Even though I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, the suburbs in the early/mid-‘80s were a fairly backwater place when it came to cultural consumption. Tower Records, however, was one place I was able to browse interesting books, unique magazines, and sift through the racks of albums looking for enticing artists to listen to.  To me, it was a kind of oasis in a cultural flatland.

But my little Shangri-La in the ‘burbs wasn’t always an ideal place to spend my off hours every week. For example, the employees weren’t always the most helpful (I had a couple of friends who worked there, and one of them said to me half-jokingly:  “ ‘The customer is the enemy’ is the motto at Tower.” )  Sometimes that was clearly the case.  When the Sugarcubes released their first album (which MTV was saying was the “best album of all time”) I was at the San Francisco Tower Records (on Bay and Columbus) and they were playing “Birthday.” I went to the counter and asked if that was the Sugarcubes playing over the house speakers, and clerk just rolled his eyes, huffed, and hissed a “yesssssss.”  I asked if I could find the album in the rock category or if it was an import.  He just pointed to the stack of albums at the front of the store where the new releases were. I quickly ducked away, got the albums I was there for, paid for them and went home to experience this so-called “best album of all time.”

Sure, the clerk was an asshole about my questions, but that was part of the Tower culture. Some of the clerks were music snobs (or just had big egos), but the majority of them were cool once you got to know them.  Sometimes there was an elitist judgment about purchases when paying at the cash register, but mostly these were music fans that loved being around the physical products artists created.  That enthusiasm, deep knowledge, and, yes, snobbery about music helped me in my own musical education.  If it weren’t for stores like Tower Records, I wouldn’t have been exposed to some jazz artists, classical music, soundtracks, comedy albums, and compilations that had rare recordings. Also, if there wasn’t a place where I could spend a few hours just browsing, talking to the staff, leafing through music magazines with friends, I don’t think my love of music would have been as deep.

You see, the record store was more than just a place where you could buy physical copies of recordings, or a place where you could read liner notes on the back of an album (if that’s where they were printed), they were places where you received your music education from people who made their living selling this stuff.  Even in our highly connected world, the power of a face to face interaction with people who know more than you about music has a deeper effect than a thumbs up on You Tube, a Like on Facebook, or a favorite Tweet.  Launching the iTunes store or buying mp3s from Amazon is certainly convenient, but what made a visit to Tower so special is that you had to make an effort to get there, have a list (if you couldn’t remember what you were looking for) and then pull out actual cash and slap it down on the counter in order to experience the music.  Plus, if you didn’t have a cassette or CD player in your car, you had to wait to listen to the album when you got home.  That process builds anticipation – which in turn makes what you purchased valuable.  Sure, I was working in radio at the time I was a frequent customer at Tower Records, and I got some promo copies of albums and singles, but when I bought the music, I savored it more.  I treated my albums with a lot of care.  Yes, I made cassette copies so I wouldn’t wear out the vinyl, but my music collection I was something I built out of love for the art form, the artists who created the music, and the pleasure of listening to the songs.  Building that collection took time, money, and effort, and having a place like Tower where I could buy music by artists that I read about in BAM!, Pulse, Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, and many of the other publications was part of the reason why records stores like Tower were such an important part of my life. It was an investment I was making in something I valued.  I didn’t understand the economics of the music business back then, but I knew that the money I spent at Tower (and other record stores) went to pay the staff at the store, the labels, and, yes, the artists who created that music.   It wasn’t hard to see the effect spending money on records had on my friends. It kept them employed.

Plus, if you had an interest in the music business, you could get your start at a record store. If you were in a band, a record store like Tower could help you sell your LP or EP by putting your DIY record next to an established artist – which, by association, had a certain level of “Look Ma! I’ve got a record that’s next to The Rolling Stones!” prestige.  There were also in-store appearances by bands who would play a few songs, sign autographs – usually on the albums fans bought at the store –and do their part to stimulate the local economy and their own livelihood.  This, children of the I Will Never Pay For Music culture, is what made that part of the economy run and allowed people who didn’t want to be day traders, office drones, lawyers, or computer programmers work in an area where their passion for the art form allowed them to live.

So when folks like me get accused for being nostalgic for record stores, physical copies of LPs, CDs, and maybe even cassettes, there’s certainly a sense of loss for a place where one could hang out ‘til midnight and be surrounded by music lovers.  But there’s the hard reality that if you don’t pay for music and expect it to be free for consumption, artists will eventually stop making music and suffer the same fate as Tower Records did.  Or, as David Lowery, said in his reply to Emily White:   “Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!


While Tower Records may never come back as a physical store, you can support the Tower Records Archive Project and preserve an important part of music culture for people to remember.

  • skeptick

    musicians will always create music

  • Ted

    Yes, but will they bother to fund a recording project if the money they put into it nets them zero dollars in return?

  • Jon Chaisson

    Sing it! My teenage life was heavily influenced by three Massachusetts stores: Strawberries in Leominster, Al-Bum’s in Amherst, and Main Street Music in Northampton. All three were a good 20-30 miles away from my home, so I know of the trip to musical mecca very well. I’m downloading albums from Amazon and eMusic, but thankfully Amoeba SF is a short bus ride away if I feel the need to happily spend a ridiculous amount of money on the physical cd (I say that with no sarcasm, btw). I haven’t missed a Record Store Day event since it started a few years back.
    I’m 41 and still listening to new music via the Sirius channels and Save Alternative, but I stll listen to the old 80s stuff I grew up with–to the point that I’m actually writing a book about it, it influenced me that much.
    So yeah…I know where you’re coming from, chief.

  • Ted

    Oh, I’m not throwback. I listen to music via Spotify, download music, and, yes, buy CDs. I know most people find music from the mediums you mention, but I’m glad you get my drift about what the act of purchasing music from a record store meant on a large and small scale.

  • Keith Creighton

    For most of my years in Chicago, the Tower Records on Clark Street was the place to be for new release Tuesdays, midnight CD releases and in-store studio performances from the likes of Barenaked Ladies and Throwing Muses. I loved the Import bin which was a treasure trove of new artists. I bought Amy Winehouse’s first CD single (pre-Frank) just because she looked interesting.

    But it was the indie indie stores that did it even better. Rolling Stones records in the Chicago burbs was like a crack hit for the CD collector. They deep discounted everything and ran a $2 off “every CD you buy” coupon in the Illinois Entertainer. I rarely walked out of the store with less than 10 new discs, it was like Christmas year round. I miss all of the discarded cellophane and all of the mint condition booklets to pour through while I listened.

    But I also agree with the haters. Even worse than the smug Tower records employees, the labels have always had a “customer is the enemy” mentality. Selling us the same titles over and over again on scratchable vinyl, cassettes that blew up and finally the CD. I drunk the CD kool aid and bought more than 4000 of them. I don’t buy as many these days, the “eco paks” degrade too easily, there are rarely booklets worth reading, liner notes are a dead art form and they are just ridiculously overpriced. I went to a store on Tuesday to buy the new Smashing Pumplins CD that I already reviewed for Popdose, it was $17.99 (for an eco pak no less). I went to Amazon and got it for $2.99.

    Even if I never buy another CD, I have a deep library to enjoy. A library that will outlive my hard drive.

    The kids won’t miss it at all. They are not wired that way. They are wired for multi-tasking and social media and shitty cable TV shows and dubstep music that sounds like a Macbook having a seizure. And someday, they will lament that their kids are missing out by ignoring it all.

  • Keith Creighton

    Oh Amoeba. The first time I stepped into the LA store I had to leave almost immediately. Too overwhelming, I could not process it all. It was like a dream come true. You can spend an entire day going through a single section (and most of the real treasure isn’t in the bins, its in the boxes at foot level).

  • Charles Thompson

    My feelings and practices regarding downloading MP3’s cemented against
    the industry when they started suing 12yr. old girls for millions after
    downloading Britney Speares’ latest. My sympathy for the artists
    involved wasn’t helped by rants from guys like Stephen Tyler,
    complaining that his royalties had dropped from 12 million a year to a
    mere 3 million.
    Artists and the companies that work with them
    certainly have a right to profit from their efforts, but that’s not
    synonymous with earning a MASSIVE profit. The whole recording industry
    (movies and music) would be much better served by trying to figure out
    how to profit from the new paradigm, instead of suing children and resisting technological change.

  • Ted

    In a way, I don’t blame the RIAA for protecting their property. The heavy-handed way of handling piracy in an age where it’s very difficult to control, is to go after individuals. The most noted cases are this one: and this one:
    Rock stars complaining about losing millions to illegal downloading is also confined to a minority of artist. The vast majority of music artists don’t make millions, so for those who don’t make a lot of money, but are passionate about their art, I think they should have the ability to make a living without feeling like a recording project is going to bankrupt them because people refuse to pay for music.

  • Jon Chaisson

    Heh. My first reaction to the SF one was “oh dear…this will not end well.” ;-)

  • Ted

    What store did you buy the new Smashing Pumpkins CD? $17.99 seems pretty pricey for a new release. But since CDs are on the way out, maybe the stores that are carrying them are doing a huge mark up on them because people really don’t buy CDs in large numbers so they have to charge a premium for the shelf space.

    The major labels aren’t angels (what corporation is?), but when they realized they could make money by reselling the public albums they already had, the money they once put into nurturing a music acts was reallocated to moving units of older titles or used to pay superstar acts a lot of money to make sometimes mediocre product. The public caught on pretty quickly, and you had the revolt of consumers who grabbed free mp3s off the Internet.

    Also, I agree that some kids are more wired to multi-tasking, but there are some who are rediscovering the lost pleasure of listening to music on something called vinyl. My daughter is 16, and a huge music fan (kind of like her old man), and while she does listen to music while doing other things (as do I), she will often be in her room listening to songs and connecting with them on a deep level (as did I at that age).

  • Keith Creighton

    I went to Easy Street Records in West Seattle for the Pumpkins title. They usually have good deals on new release Tuesdays, and I will happily buy a CD on sale for $11.99 from them versus $8.99 online just to give them the business. I fill up and cash in their “Buy 15, get 1 Free” frequent buyer card at least once per quarter. I think the only reason they could not give me a good deal was they got a bum deal (price per unit) from the label.

    It was actually priced at $17.99 with a sale sticker for $14.99 – and I might have still bought it had it not been a flimsy eco-pack CD. They really do look like shit on the CD shelf – plus you nearly snap the disc in half trying to get the eco-pack to release it’s icy grip. Bend it too much, you lose all the data.

  • Keith Creighton

    P.S. Really looking forward to Colin Hanks’ Tower Records documentary:

  • Ted

    Aren’t most new release CDs in ecopaks? I know the new Van Halen isn’t, but the insert with the lyric and liner notes doesn’t fold correctly so, it kind of rips the edges when trying to put it back into the plastic case.

  • Shannon

    I miss getting up early and waiting at Towers ticketmaster window to get concert tickets. Buying them online sucks. You spend way too much only to find your seat is behind a pole and you get stupid event emails for the rest of your life even though you checked the don’t send me this box.

  • Ted

    Online purchases really decrease that sense of anticipation and excitement about an event like a concert.

  • jefito

    It’s true. That’s one of the things I like about Kickstarter — the way it re-introduces the element of anticipation while increasing a fan’s sense of ownership in art.

  • Mark

    I love this post, and linked back to it on mine. The resurgence of vinyl is probably the best thing that has happened in the music industry in years – at least that’s my own humble opinion, a guy who grew up with vinyl – gave it up for the glossy, technologically “superior” and “convenient” CD – and then realized the folly of his ways years down the road. Today, I am lucky to actually work in the music industry, and I have to say I agree with you: I miss Tower Records more than you can imagine.