There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers All Things Must Pass: The Rise & Fall of Tower Records, which is streaming over on Amazon with a Showtime add-on.
There’s an undeniable mysticism to the job of “music store clerk.” From John Cusack in High Fidelity and Liv Tyler in Empire Records, on down to Annie Potts in Pretty in Pink, there’s a very specific cache of cool that comes from the job title. Hell, even Clockwork Orange made the role of “techno-Beethoven-restocker” or whatever down in that plastic neon cavern look funky as hell. Sadly though, the times have changed. We might be in what you’d call a vinyl boom right now, but the market for brick and mortar retailers has dried up substantially in the past decade. To dig a bit deeper into how great things once were for the folks slinging records, as well as the people who signed their paychecks, one need looks no farther than Colin Hanks’s wildly entertaining and informative All Things Must Pass: The Rise & Fall of Tower Records.
Tower, founded by Russ Solomon next to his father's drugstore, got its start in Sacramento, California right when the market for seven inch singles was transitioning to full albums. With The Beach Boys’ Surfin Safari (called out by name here as the bellwether that tipped things entirely towards the LP format) dropping in 1962, Solomon and crew were in the right place at the right time to make a killing. To hear him tell it in the film, the early years of Tower are a series of dumb luck moments, most notably the expansion south west into a San Francisco storefront Solomon happened to stumble upon while profoundly hungover following a one-night stand. When people describe the past as being “simpler,” the ease with which Tower moved to the heart of hippie holler is what I think they’re talking about. That almost recklessly freewheeling attitude, though, would end up leading to the mega-retailer’s downfall a few decades later.
So much hay has been made about the internet, and Napster-style peer to peer piracy in particular, killing the brick and mortar store, but for Tower specifically, things were a bit more complicated. I cannot imagine how cool it must have been to have gone from that first store and then had the opportunity to expand out to Japan and Europe and all over the rest of the world, and all kind of doing it your own way with crazy home-brewed promo art in the windows, but it was that spreading themselves thin which got the company in almost as much trouble as Shawn Fanning’s little app-that-could cutting into their bottom line. True to their family aesthetic, by the time things were irrevocably bad, the upper echelon of Tower executives were still mainly people who had been there since the beginning, and even tho they were now making hundreds of thousand a year you still feel for them as they explain how much it hurt to watch the thing they had so much sweat and blood equity in come apart at the seams in front of them. That tightly knit family vibe is the glue that held the business, and by extension All Things Must Pass, together. These folks really cared about each other and cared about the music they were selling.
That said, if there’s anything that I could knock this doc for, it’s that no one really takes the upper management boys club to task for their overtly sexist acts. Solomon touts the lack of a dress code as being one of the main draws for incoming employees, but we find out later that in fact women were required to wear skirts so that men could catch glimpses of their underwear when they were restocking shelves? I get that it was the 70s, but fuck that noise. There were the casual hookups among lower staff in the back rooms, sure, but for certain higher ups to look back on the ways that they leveraged their power over female employees almost pridefully might rightfully raise a few eyebrows.
There are still literally hundreds of great record stores out there across this great nation of ours, but when Tower crumbled in the mid 2000s it was the biggest canary in the coal mine for that business model, and marked a tipping point that even a decade on we’re still feeling the effects of. Hell, I work part time at a record store and some folks, almost surprised that we’re still doing our thing, will lean in over the counter and ask in a low tone “How’s business?” as if to imply “You can tell me... how bad is it?” when for real no joke things are pretty great actually. I doubt we'll ever go back to the days when a place like Tower was able to stock practically every album ever made, and then then move a thousand copies of an individual album in a given week, but with All Things Must Pass we get a pretty excellent time capsule of what it was like to be alive in those few and ultimately fleeting hog-high decades.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.
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