While the title of Colin Hanks‘ directorial debut documentary, “All Things Must Pass,” refers to the message on the marquee that the employees of Tower Records left for their customers at their Sacramento store after it closed, it’s also the name of George Harrison‘s classic album, the kind of artifact the late great music store was designed to sell. The triple LP, released in 1970, came housed in a beautiful cardboard box, something of a novelty at the time for rock records, when gatefold covers were the norm for multiple discs. But All Things Must Pass is the perfect example of the tactile experience of buying music that today’s era of streaming and downloads has lost. Indeed, all things must pass, and no one knows that more than Tower Records. Hanks’ insightful tribute to the retailer, and chronicle of their history, is the story of the music industry, who had it all, and believed the good times would last forever, only to see it all slip away.
The documentary kicks off with a rather staggering piece of information: “In 1999, Tower Records made over one billion dollars. Five years later, they filed for bankruptcy.” In order to understand what happened to the company whose yellow and red logo was familiar for decades of music fans, it’s important to go back to the beginning, and Hanks’ exhaustive film does just that. Sitting down with founder Russ Solomon, many of the company’s longtime executives, music industry personnel, and famous faces like Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and Dave Grohl, a few things about the early success of Tower Records become clear. Russ arrived at the right place at the right time, founding the company just as music consumption went from buying singles to buying albums in the late ’50s and early ’60s. And by establishing Tower Records stores as cavernous, music loving places where you could get anything you were looking for, staffed by people whose musical obsessions (and sometimes snobbery) would match you own, it didn’t take long to dominate the landscape. But it was the company’s family atmosphere that was maintained over the years, where executive positions were filled by those who climbed the ranks from store clerks to major management roles, that kept Tower’s homey, almost individual feel even as it expanded around the globe (though some early employees may have missed the heady days of drinking, smoking weed, and “ordering handtruck fuel” in the back rooms of company’s first few locations). So what brought it all down?
By now, the various missteps made by the industry in the face of the advancing threat of the internet are well documented. Sure, as music industry veteran Jim Urie notes, music companies didn’t help themselves by keeping CD prices astronomically high, while eliminating CD singles, but the demise of Tower is a much more complicated affair. The arrival of big box retailers who would sell music at cost or at a loss to get customers in their door, proved to be a problem. Tower’s aggressive expansion saw them taking on a level of debt that would to be too big to overcome as customer habits rapidly changed with the arrival of Napster. Even their attempts at an online presence were misguided — the first Tower Records website was on AOL and you couldn’t buy anything from it. Issues like this continued to escalate in the ’90s, and once you toss in bitterness at traditions being ignored and family relations being promoted over longtime employees during the company’s crucial make or break years, you have the perfect storm of ingredients that began to chip away at the foundation of Tower.
While Hanks sticks to the standard talking-heads-plus-stock-footage structure for his documentary, he wisely knows that the film’s true color comes from the participants. Even at 80 years old, Russ is a great raconteur with a sparkle of mischievousness that’s easy to glimpse. Long-haired Mark Viducic, the former shipping clerk who is responsible for encouraging Russ to go abroad, nearly bests his boss with his honest, don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, and a lively spirit that makes it seem like he’s about to stop the interview to go roadie for a band. Yet Hanks doesn’t spare the pain, particularly in the film’s latter third as discussions turn toward the fraught internal wrangling at Tower. It speaks to how important the store was for many involved, that genuine tears are shed and conflicted emotions rise to the fore.
However, Hanks’ movie does fail to reach one crucial bar. While those old enough to remember Tower Records and stepping into one of their mega-locations will easily fill in the experience of what it meant to flip through racks of CDs, explore the world of imports, or dig through stacks of vinyl, it may fly over the head of younger viewers. The cultural legacy of Tower is understood, but not so much explored. It’s also slightly overlooked that while major music retailers collapsed in the ’90s, independent stores mostly stayed above water, and there are a variety of reasons why that happened. While Tower promised everything under the sun, they were also a store that tended to push mainstream acts, particularly in the ’90s, when the independent music scene really began to evolve, and fans found other outlets that really catered to their specialized tastes at more affordable prices.
“No Music, No Life” was Tower’s slogan, but what the company failed to realize is that for customers, that didn’t also mean, “No Tower, No Life.” The music world and its fans moved on, and the company unable to keep up, and an industry unwilling to adapt, were left behind. Corporations that take their customers for granted don’t earn much sympathy, but what Hanks’ movie does so well is appreciate the people who built Tower, and in doing so, transmit that in this case, they did care. Not just about the people coming into the store, but those behind the counter too. And while the yellow and red sign may be gone, perhaps the lasting legacy of Tower is that in their customers they bred a generation of curious and enthusiastic listeners who continue to follow the music, no matter where it comes from next. [B]