The Random Griffith

Notes on an evening with the wisdom of Solomon

Posted in Uncategorized by Jackson Griffith on 20/01/2010

Last Sunday night, I went to the maiden event in this year’s Sacramento Living Library series at Time Tested Books, the first in a series of monthly events that take place at 7 p.m. the third Sunday of every month in the bookstore’s Midtown Sacramento location, at 1114 21st Street. On this night, the featured interviewee was Russ Solomon, founder and owner of the new-defunct Tower Records, Video and Books chain. The house was packed, or as packed as I’ve ever seen Time Tested — which, given the tremendous affection this town still has for Solomon and his contributions to retail and popular culture, from local to international — came as no surprise.

David Watts Barton, the onetime pop-music critic and then feature writer at The Sacramento Bee, now Editor at the Sacramento website, was a capable choice as Solomon’s interviewer; Barton* — like so many of us in Sacramento — once worked at Tower, and early on, he wrote a pop-music column for Tower Records’ Pulse! Magazine, the free music monthly that employed me as an editor, writer and columnist for 16 years.

They covered plenty of familiar ground, starting with Solomon’s current venture into business, R5 Records, which occupies the old Tower Records location at Broadway and Land Park Drive, and then backward in time, from selling 78s at his father’s Tower Drug store (where the Tower Café is now located) through a failed one-stop distribution company across the street, in what later was the music room in back of the old Melarkey’s club (it’s now a sushi joint), and then to Tower Records, which began in 1960.

Solomon also described the circumstances that led to his expansion into San Francisco in 1968, which segued to Sunset Boulevard in what’s now West Hollywood two years later; he didn’t really go into the big move to New York in 1983, but talked about some of the chain’s international expansion, including Buenos Aires, which turned out to be a debacle, and the Far East, which was so successful that the bankers who’d begun the process of seizing the Tower chain around the end of the last century demanded that that be one of the first assets offered for sale to help pay down debt. It’s still successful, and still branded as Tower Records.

Solomon was reasonably straightforward with what he called the failure of his company, candidly discussing some of the painful postmortems that came in the wake of Tower’s downfall. And here the difference between interviewer and subject became apparent: While Barton gleams with a patina of confidence that occasionally edges into the self-congratulatory, Solomon was self-effacing by comparison, taking pains to point out when others should get the credit for ideas that sometimes get attributed to him — for example, full-catalog record retail, which was pioneered by the original Sam Goody store in midtown Manhattan. (Still, it can be argued that if Solomon didn’t invent the full-catalog store, his Tower stores perfected it.) And there were plenty of “I didn’t know that” moments, like when Solomon explained how the ad-man pal who developed Tower’s back-slanted logo chose the company’s red-on-yellow color scheme: from Shell Oil gas stations, because you could spot them from far away.

If there’s a criticism from me, it’s that Barton’s perspective is somewhat rockist, which imposed a limitation on the narrative to “Wow, a lot of Beatles and Pink Floyd records sure got sold,” and tended to overlook the significance of customers who developed music-buying habits that branched into other sections of the store. But Barton and Solomon did touch on the shift away from singles into albums, which Solomon decried, and the recalcitrance of the labels to offer songs to customers apart from full albums, which hastened the demise of record retail. It’s something that Apple’s iTunes service was able to break open, allowing the a la carte purchase of album tracks via digital download — something that gave online retail a distinct advantage, even if the sound quality wasn’t nearly as good.

After Barton and Solomon’s back and forth, the audience was invited to ask questions. Some of these were cheesy, perhaps inspired by old feature stories on how Solomon would take the neckties from visiting bankers and executives. Others were touching, like the woman who’d worked for Tower, whose husband got sick and Tower kept her on the payroll while she cared for him during his convalescence; these kinds of stories abound, like the man I worked with who died from AIDS-related complications, and was kept on the payroll and company health insurance plan through his long illness until his death; I should state flatly here that Russ Solomon was and is a mensch.

I raised my hand, but unfortunately Barton never got around to calling on me. What I’d wanted to address was Tower’s role in shaping the marketplace for non-rock and pop recordings, specifically catalog reissues.

By the 1980s, the decade when compact disc replaced the vinyl long-playing album, the music business had consolidated into six major distribution combines (for my fellow nerds, these were BMG and CBS, both now owned by Sony, EMI, MCA and PolyGram, both now owned by Vivendi Universal, and Warner-Elektra-Atlantic). Those companies went on buying sprees, snapping up smaller labels and defunct catalogs, with the idea that huge troves of tracks could be cleaned up, remastered, packaged in new contexts and sold to an audience hungry for quality reissues and compilations. The CD made it possible, because of its added time-length capabilities as a sound carrier, and because multiple-disc packages — boxed sets — could be put together that combined copious amounts of tracks with illuminating essays, photos and background information.

The beneficiaries were any music fans who wanted to go deep in various genres — country, folk, blues, jazz, folk, world music styles, classical, old rhythm and blues, doo-wop, Latin; you name it, and you can add non-warhorse classical music and the works of modern (post-1900) composers to that list. In many ways, these were the first time these collected bodies of work were packaged for sale, and much of the material had been off the market for years — because the issuing labels were defunct, or the titles were out of print; some records had never seen distribution outside of regional markets. Rhino Records, which started in the 1970s as a reissue and weirdness label out of a West L.A. independent record store and ultimately became the wholly owned catalog-reissue arm of Warner Music, was an early driving force in re-contextualizing vintage titles for a new audience.

But without Tower Records, those companies probably wouldn’t have had the retail distribution setup to sell their wares, and it’s safe to say that the majors — along with large independents like Rounder and Rykodisc — may not have gotten into the deep-catalog business if Solomon hadn’t rolled out its emporia of full-catalog record stores in urban centers across the country, and later, in Europe, Asia and Latin America. If no Tower, then the entire focus and thrust of the mainstream music business may have been much more present-focused, and centered around far narrower parameters of music — unless another retailer had stepped in to drive the market the way that Tower did.

Now, with the rise of the Internet, starting with Amazon-style retailing — which Tower had pioneered, first with an America Online store, and then with an Internet presence — and, later, with digitized file sharing, beginning with the free but intellectual property-disrespecting Napster-style file-sharing matrixes, and then royalty-generating digital retailers a la iTunes and Amazon or subscription services like Rhapsody, what Tower accomplished is easy to minimize. But talk to any modestly voracious music fan in his or her 20s or 30s, and there’s a depth of knowledge about many genres, and an understanding not only of musical history but of interconnectivity of various styles, that doesn’t exist on such a mass scale with older generations. Much of that can be credited to Internet access, but Tower laid the groundwork, both by providing a retail field for a much more diverse palette of musical forms to be merchandised and sold, and by encouraging and even demanding that the suppliers — the record companies — provide something more deep and tantalizing than mainstream big-sellers.

Left to radio programmers and swing-for-the-fences record executives like Clive Davis — whose tenure at Arista Records perfected the marketing of the sort of superstars who sell to people who only buy one or two albums a year, a model adopted by the American Idol franchise — the music business would die eventually. It is dying, in a sense, or it’s almost dead. What Tower provided, and what the Internet now provides to a degree, is access to music’s vast Library at Alexandria.

The problem that hasn’t been solved yet is how to duplicate the accidental discoveries provided by thumbing through the racks at a Tower store. Apple iTunes Genius or Pandora-style recommendation engines can only go so far, but (and this is only my opinion, mind you) there’s still no equivalent to the tactile thrill of pulling albums out of a rack and looking at the artwork and wondering what the record sounds like. The beauty of the Internet, however, is that you can listen, without having to convince one of Tower’s notoriously helpful clerks to play the music for you.

It would be easy to credit the Internet for the spread of musical diversity and knowledge on can find today with ease, but there is at least one pre-existing factor in the cultural penetration of that knowledge, and that factor is Tower Records. I’m proud of the work we did there, and I was only one employee among many. Russ Solomon, for his vision and persistence in manifesting that vision, deserves a lot of credit. Anytime you hear music that falls outside the parameters of American Idol mediocrities or pummeled-to-death radio fare, you can thank Russ Solomon and Tower Records. —Jackson Griffith

* I feel the need here to make a point about David Watts Barton, because in the text above I called him self-congratulatory. He does exude confidence, sometimes to the point where someone historically less brimming with confidence, like myself, might get a little rankled. But that’s what I really like about the guy. And I also need to point out that in my crash-and-burn experience of 2009, David was one of those kind people who stepped up and was a real friend to me, who offered some sage advice, and who pointed out that a little swagger is not a bad thing. So, post-haste, a gentle thank you. –JBG, 23 January