FILM: All Things Must Pass: The story of Tower Records

by Brent Cole

All Things Must Pass opens Friday, Nov. 20 at the Limelight. For more about the film, see www.towerrecordsmovie.com. 

Colin Hanks’ All Things Must Pass is a documentary that tells the story of Tower Records, the once mighty record store change that ran like an indie shop. From its humble beginnings in 1960 to its crushing end in 2006, Tower Records was a mainstay for music fans in cities all over the world.

When I was 15 back in 1986, my best friend’s mom drove my buddy and I from the suburbs of Seattle to the University District. I’m not sure why Todd and I knew we should go there to buy records, it was probably a friend’s older brother, but we knew to get the good music we wanted to listen to, we had to go to the U-District, specifically Tower Records. I had bought records before – Bay City Rollers, Village People, AC/DC – but to get the cool stuff, the music I was starting to get into, you had to go where they sold GOOD music. I remember buying a bunch of records that day, most notably The Clash’s first record. My mind was blown and I’d found a new home away from home.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one. For many years, Tower Records was THE place to pick up music. Seattle had two Towers, one near the Seattle Center and my beloved U-District location, but there were locations all over the US, Japan and, eventually, most of the world (which lead to its eventual demise).

Back during that time, the record store was where you went to find out about music. Imagine all the information of the internet put into 20-30 outcast and derilict clerks. They were encyclopedias of music knowledge; you could ask them about some obscure Australian band and they’d know any band associated with them. In truth, the record clerk was an artist and a historian mixed into one and that was what made Tower so incredibly successful. If you loved music, you loved Tower, it was as simple as that. For a music nerd, it was heaven.

Tower Records somehow managed to be a huge corporate store – a large chain of them –while maintaining indie cred. In 1960, the chain started out with a single store in Sacramento, CA. Russell Solomon had been selling records out of his dad’s drug store and it was time to find his own place. After opening a second location in the area, Tower branched out to San Francisco in 1967, finding a home in an old grocery store. By the time they opened, there was a line out the door, a frequent occurrence when a Tower Records store opened. The chain grew organically, adding locations up and down the West Coast, them moving to New York in the late 70s where they helped revitalize the East Village with their four-story store. The theme was common throughout the 70s and 80s: when Tower moved in, the area was cool within a couple of years; its presence would turn downtrodden areas of cities around.

In the early 80s, Tower expanded internationally, opening a store in Japan, doing $65,000 dollars in sales on the first day. The company continued to successfully open new stores all over the United States, as well as in United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Ireland, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, and Argentina. By 1999, they had a billion dollars in sales, but were also heavily leveraged, entering partnership agreements in countries that would be part of their eventual downfall.

Tower had become a bloated beast, one that couldn’t change with the times. As the US economy went through the recession of the early 2000s, the music industry was also quickly changing – you could get music online and for free from companies like Napster. Sales stopped growing and stagnated, leaving the company unable to deal with their massive debt from so much expansion. In what felt like the blink of an eye, Tower’s top management was let go, replaced by those that would eventually help close it down. By 2006, seven short years after having a billion dollars in sales, Tower was gone.

And with it, a piece of our youth – a piece of the music fan’s identity for so many years – was gone. Other stores have popped up in Seattle and some of them are fantastic, maneuvering through the online world, but there’s still nothing like Tower. The closest I’ve ever found is Aomeba Records in Berkly, but even that isn’t quite the same.

Tower does live on, though, in Japan, where it had been sold off before the collapse. A total of 85 record stores, including the original, still thrive today, selling the popular and obscure to music fans across that nation.

(Editor’s note: While I miss Tower Records and reference Seattle in this article, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Bellingham record stores, including my two favorite, Everyday Music and Avalon. Both have been keeping the fire going for music lovers as long as I’ve been here (Everyday previously under different names) and both are very much appreciated by music fans in town)! Thank you.

Published in the November 2015 issue of What’s Up! Magazine