Long ago, in the days before social media and online streaming, brick-and-mortar record stores fulfilled the many needs of music fans — especially those with varied tastes and voracious appetites for new sounds on vinyl. The best record stores also served as community centers and cultural meccas, rare places where you were sure to encounter likeminded people while knowledgeable store employees turned you onto music too daring for corporate radio.
In the words of Bruce Springsteen, interviewed in Colin Hanks’ documentary All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, “Everybody in a record store is a little bit your friend.”
That was the world Tower Records helped create, even though it gradually became a giant chain with almost 190 stores in the U.S. and many more across the globe. But Tower was different. While other chains survived by selling the hits, Tower offered music of every imaginable kind. The giant flagship stores on the coasts were divided into smaller stores by type of music, each with its own vibe and experts behind the counter ready to guide a patron’s musical journey. Though the record industry’s self-inflicted wounds were on full display at Tower at the end of its four-decade reign, the stores generally maintained regional flavor and held onto their independent roots.
All Things Must Pass traces Tower’s history from its humble beginnings as part of a drugstore built into the side of Sacramento, California movie palace The Tower Theater to the company’s demise in 2006. Tower Records founder Russ Solomon (whose father owned that drugstore) had an idea to create the world’s biggest and best record store, and opened the first Tower Records in Sacramento in 1960. How Solomon built Tower into a global force while maintaining its family-business aesthetic makes a colorful and entertaining story, but All Things Must Pass also shows how that personal tale reflects seismic shifts in music, technology and business over the last five decades.
First-time feature director Colin Hanks (star of current CBS sitcom Life in Pieces and son of Tom Hanks) builds a fast-paced and entertaining film from archival footage and interviews with both former Tower employees and admiring musicians such as Dave Grohl (who worked at Tower) and Elton John (who went to Tower every Tuesday morning for years to buy the week’s new releases). But company visionary Solomon quickly emerges as the focus of the story. His practice of hiring, nurturing and promoting music fans resulted in many 30- and 40-year Tower employees, and contrasts sharply with the relatively impersonal (and ineffective) management style of so many large businesses today.
Those employees now shed a lot of tears when recalling Tower’s slide into bankruptcy, but All Things Must Pass refuses to sugarcoat the many reasons for that failure. While it’s easy to blame the Internet, other key factors included the music industry’s combined overpricing of CDs and refusal to sell singles (customers had to buy an $18 disc when they wanted one song), big-box retailers selling music at cost to get people through their doors and Tower’s too-rapid expansion into shaky international markets. Solomon and Tower had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, at least until their luck finally ran out. But the loss is all ours.
All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records begins an exclusive run at Chalmette Movies next Friday, Dec. 11.