September 1, 2006

Schadenfreude Friday: How The Mighty Fall

Sure, there are lots of potential targets for my scorn this week. I'm even reaching back a bit, ignoring the arrest of the crazy Mormon and the Kentucky plane crash (although I can't claim to take any pleasure in that one). And I already talked about Dumbsfeld once this week...

No, instead, I bring you something which is simultaneously heartbreaking and enjoyable to me.

According to the Washington Post...

Tower Records, the iconic chain where generations of music lovers have gone to lose themselves in record-store reveries, is up for sale in bankruptcy court, forsaken by consumers who favor digital music and discounts at big-box superstores.

Tower represents a time when music had a different cultural status than it does today, as songs vie for attention with newer pastimes such as video games, Internet sites and instant messaging. Its financial faltering -- this is its second bankruptcy filing since 2004 -- signals not only corporate problems but also a shift in how people shop and think about music in their lives.

Tower's operations started in the back of a California drugstore in the late 1950s, and its founder, Russ Solomon, cultivated its reputation as a communal place for hanging out to train and trade musical tastes. Its huge yellow-and-red stores became part of the music album culture. Stores hosted live concerts, and employees were hired for their expertise in music arcana.

But over the past decade, as larger retailers such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target undercut record-store prices and combined shopping for music with shopping for a variety of other consumer products, the music-focused stores started to die. Although Tower began selling music downloads on its site in June, digital music sales through such services as iTunes and have also taken a bite.

You know me - I love music. Consequently, I love my local Tower Records. You know those studies that kindly inform you that, by the time you're about ready to start pushing up daisies, you'll have spent 37 years of your life asleep or 19 years commuting to work? Similar studies would reveal that, in my 33 years of life, I've spent about a quarter of them in Tower. I'm serious.

One summer, a friend of mine and I used to go every day. I can't tell you how many times I've shopped drunk in Tower because, in all honestly, I don't remember.

[Aside: But I do remember this one time I was at a lame party and decided to leave. With a friend driving I shotgunned a six-pack during the 20 minute drive (welcome to "Reasons I No Longer Drink") to Tower. Once there, I led a pack of hot women (this was pre-Beth, thank you) through the entire store, giving them a complete tour of each and every section in the store, highlighting their best purchasing options. I was so drunk, it was really late and I had to pee so I pissed in the empty parking lot after the tour only to have them all walk out at the same time which made waving very difficult but not impossible.]

Going to Tower, to me, is like looking for buried treasure. There are thousands upon thousands of CDs and, while most are fairly pedestrian, occasionally there's something you can't live without, something you'd been looking for forever, something you never imagined you'd find.

Of course, the availability of so much music online - either through downloading services or retailers like Amazon - has made finding music much less challenging and less expensive. It's bittersweet for me - I can find what I want more easily but some of the fun's gone. For years, Tower failed to roll with the punches. Their prices mirrored their selection - extreme. In this day and age no one should be expected to pay $18.99 for a single CD anymore. And no one will. Apparently that's a concept Tower now grasps...the hard way. They never changed with the times. Their biggest mistake, perhaps, was assuming they'd forever have the loyalty of their hardcore shoppers, like me.

While I still do walk the aisles of Tower, rarely do I buy prefering instead to find whatever it is for a better price. It's kind of like religion to me. I don't really get anything spiritual out of pretty church. It's a nice building and it's interesting to look around. But the effect isn't so profound that I'd stick with it, no matter what.

Tower Records is an institution and I'd be sad to see it go. I'd understand it, but I'd hate to see it.

Posted by Chris at September 1, 2006 6:49 AM

I've never been in a Tower records. There isn't one anywhere near me. I've seen them only on TV. I guess maybe now I'll never have the chance...

Posted by: Alissa at September 1, 2006 8:13 AM

No Tower Records near me. For me it's HMV - Yes I used to work there, so that accounts for the 8hour days spent amongst the cd racks. And I hardly ever buy an actual CD anymore, but I still love to go and wander through... Sorry your store is closing.

Posted by: suze at September 1, 2006 8:29 AM

I used to hang out in the classical section of Tower in the San Francisco financial district. Great bargains there and a good way to use my lunch hour.

I contributed to the downfall of it and the others I'm afraid. I pay $10/month for a Rhapsody subscription which has everything I could possibly want and it's legal. Once in a while I buy a cd but not often. The only time I get to listen is when I'm sitting here so why spend the money.

Posted by: ann adams at September 1, 2006 8:35 AM

That'd be like if they took away my local bookstores like Borders and B&N's! NO!!!

I'm just kidding, though. I do like TR. Sure beats Best Buy. (:

And lastly, I'd forgotten about the days I'd shotgunned anything until you reminded me. And like you, while it was fun, in retrospect seems like a REEEEAl good reason to join a monkery. (i know. monastery. monkery's funnier.)

p.s. I'm back, bitches!

Posted by: andy at September 1, 2006 8:42 AM

There used to be a Tower store right down the street from where I lived through most of my college years. I went all the time for a while, but then this creepy guy I knew from my hometown started working there, and he always insisted on giving me a tour like you describe, everytime i came in the store. So I stopped going to avoid the creepy guy.

Funniest part? He's friends with my husband and I'm sort of now friends with him too. He's much less creepy now that he knows I'm off the market.

Posted by: Jessie at September 1, 2006 8:44 AM

While I really enjoy music, I don't have a great love for it so I never understood paying 20 dollars for a CD at Tower when you could get it cheaper elsewhere. I'm actually surprised it's taken this long for it to go down.

Posted by: pea at September 1, 2006 9:00 AM

I bought my first tape at a Tower-- U2's Rattle and Hum.

Or maybe it was the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. ;)

Posted by: Liz at September 1, 2006 9:08 AM

We don't have Tower Records here, either. When Pete and I went to San Francisco we spent an entire day in Amoeba Records. It was like I'd died and gone to heaven. They had listening stations! And *such* a selection of punk.

I remember going to the mall when I was in high school. We'd spend hours upon hours in the record stores. Nothing as large as Tower or Amoeba, but still.

Posted by: candace at September 1, 2006 9:08 AM

there's so don't know...tactile goodness in places like tower records. can't explain it. there's something about searching through all the cd's that you just can't get when you download your music for free...

Posted by: ali at September 1, 2006 9:47 AM

Never been to a Tower Records, I go to Vintage Vinyls to browse - or buy less mainstream stuff - and then head over to Best Buy or Target for most purchases. (Not sure if VV is a chain, but think something along the lines of Rob's store in High Fidelity and it's a little like that. Just not quite as cool.(No Jack Black.) Killer used CD selection though.)

Anyway, this post made me think of the movie Empire Records - just can't decide if Tower Records is the "Record Town" or "Empire!" I think I'm going to have to watch that this weekend.

Posted by: erin at September 1, 2006 10:11 AM

Sorry to hear that Tower records is no more . . . it's I know that it is tough to lose a sacred space like that.

As a child, I would ask for the same birthday present every year; to go to the Paramount Pizza Palace. I know if we had more "play money" when I was a child, my parents would have taken me there more often. I planned on getting married there, I wanted to work there, not to spin pizzas, but to take care of the property and all it contained.

The Pizza Palace was a building specifically built to house a GIANT old Wurlitzer organ, the kind used in huge theaters before movies went "talkie". The organists took requests, and were fluent in 6-year-old handwriting; if I wrote anything resembling "Haunted House", they'd play Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. I still get teary-eyed to hear that piece, because I have memories of the bass organ pipes physically rattling my spine.

The organists were like Gods to me - they commanded a large orchestra's worth of sounds from a gorgeously ornate organ, more like a shrine to the power of music than an instrument, more like a portal to another world than a shrine.

I have no clue where the organ is, I remember being told it was purchased by a casino. Years later, I'm still hoping someone is taking excellent care of it.

And now? The building which housed the mighty Wurlitzer organ is a f*cking Don Pablos.

Posted by: Betti at September 1, 2006 10:16 AM

I always loved Tower. A bunch of my friends worked there, so there was generally some guy I had a crush on that I would go see and try to make idle conversation with while buying music. And they did have an excellent selection of music, books and magazines you couldn't find anywhere else. But you're right, they were so used to being able to get the serious music fans (aka my husband) to pay a lot for their products that they didn't keep up when music went online and people had other options.

The first time I read your aside, I wasn't paying enough attention and thought you said you peed in the store. :) That makes the whole peeing in the parking lot and waving sound much better.

Posted by: bad penguin at September 1, 2006 10:26 AM

It's hard to lose a loved one. Hugs.

Posted by: alektra at September 1, 2006 10:29 AM

i decided to stop buying CDs after my CD case was stolen from my car...there was so many and i cant imagine trying to buy them all again and how much that would cost. luckly i still have the CD cases, so i can find the whole record online and burn it if i want to. what it really comes down to is 'why does stuff have to cost so much?' i mean really, do they still try to get $20 for a CD these days?

Posted by: Michelle at September 1, 2006 11:04 AM

I live in the home of Tower..the original Tower is my place to shop for tunes. I have my "guy" I talk to when I go in--he's an old hippie dude who has worked there 30 years. He's also the guy I go to when I want to buy music for my hip-hop loving teenagers--he knows what to recommend and knows if there are "clean" versions. He also can find me the Aztec Two Step or the Holly & the Italians I might be looking for. I'm going to miss them if they go.

Posted by: Lori Hahn at September 1, 2006 11:38 AM

I felt the same way when my local mom and pop bookstore closed b/c of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. End of an era! Sad.

Posted by: Polichick at September 1, 2006 11:53 AM

OMG! That was YOU? I remember that night vividly! AHAHHAHAHAHA!

So sorry for your loss. I admit that as I have been to Tower many times, it really wasn't my favorite place to buy music. And now I can't remember the last time I was in any kind of music store. Still, it's the end of something substantial I think.

Posted by: Kate at September 1, 2006 12:09 PM

As usual, you've captured the essence of something perfectly. The joy of browsing through Tower, and the frustration of the ridick prices. I'm thinking now of the time I dropped $25.99 on Louder Than Bombs in high school. Ah well, cheaper than therapy, I guess...

Posted by: Vaguely Urban at September 1, 2006 12:22 PM

I grew up where Tower started - the original Tower stores, the Tower theatre, the Tower Cafe...

The actual Tower is a major landmark. You can see it from I-50. Seeing it on the way back from the airport is how I know I'm home.

Posted by: ku nkiko at September 1, 2006 1:06 PM

The Tower where I live went out of business about 2-3 years ago, probably b/c of their high prices.

Chris, I can't believe you didn't mention that Dubbya assassination video. New Post...LOL!

Posted by: at September 1, 2006 1:30 PM

sorry to hear about Tower. We never had any good music stores around here.

I know you already covered Dumsfield, but did you catch Olbermann's response to it on MSNBC? i have it on my blog, but you can read it at his blog on msnbc or search it in YouTube. Its Awesome.

Posted by: kristied at September 1, 2006 2:08 PM

Just one more reason why I hate Wal-Mart for messing with our stuff.

We all have "that place" in our lives where we spent a lot of time. Mine was the local convenient store where I grew up. They've changed it now and I hate that.

Posted by: Isabel at September 1, 2006 3:07 PM

My local Tower is at the end of my street. It is an Iconic Tower. The most famous Tower on the planet. Tower on Sunset.

No way no how can anything replace that yellow and red marquee at the corner of Sunset and Holloway in LA

Posted by: amy at September 1, 2006 3:39 PM

Did you know that the movie Empire Records was based off of a Tower Records store? (I believe it was the one in Tempe, AZ)

Posted by: ::c:: at September 1, 2006 3:51 PM

No Tower up here (that I'm aware of, anyway).

So ... ummmm ... yeah.

Posted by: s@bd at September 1, 2006 8:14 PM

No Tower here either, although we do have a Vintage Vinyl (don't know if Erin lives in StL or not). The only real record chain I know of in this area is Sam Goody, which is not that goody. Now I'm going to have to watch Empire Records again - great movie.

Posted by: Beth in StL at September 1, 2006 8:24 PM

Going to Tower was a weekly ritual for me back in the day. I can't tell you how many times the listening stations got me hooked on a new post-modern band or some ululating banshee from exotic lands.

I enjoyed the Tower at Jones & Columbus in San Francisco and the giant store that opened by the UCSD campus the most. Easily would kill a few hours each time, especially the last half hour parsing through the 10 CDs in my hand and whittling them down to 1 or 2 at the most (although I never really succeeded at this and would spend $60 on my student budget anyway).

Ah, the memories. Now that I'm in Phoenix, I see Tower all of nowhere. Ah, how I will miss thee.

Posted by: O at September 3, 2006 4:08 PM