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


9 Responses

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  1. James Anthony said, on 20/01/2010 at 07:42

    Great Article! This is your best piece yet.

  2. Lisa Pahl said, on 20/01/2010 at 09:11

    Nice post, Jackson! Wish i could have been at the event to hear the exchange. Russ did have a huge influence on the music world, and it’s great that you’ve been able to chronicle a few of those impacts here. I loved working at Tower. It was one of the best times of my life! Hmmm – isn’t that where i met you?

    • jaxong said, on 20/01/2010 at 09:25

      Hi, Lisa. Did we meet at Tower, or at Chez Hohn, back when Steve was the Johnny Carson of Lodi?

      • Lisa Pahl said, on 20/01/2010 at 14:04

        I believe it was Tower, but i have the worst memory in the world, so it’s absolutely possible you are right. I did hang out at Steve’s along with everyone else for MANY years. LOL – The Johnny Carson of Lodi – I think Steve would like that description. 🙂 Hope to see you again one of these days. Let me know if you ever make it down to the south bay.

  3. Mindy Giles said, on 20/01/2010 at 14:24

    A packed house (at least 100+ folks, mostly 50 and over) and 20-30 turned away.
    Do you think Peter has had to wince at fire marshal codes before ?
    Actually David and Russ did talk about American roots music (blues and jazz) as being extremely important to the Tower customer base, and how it informed their knowledge of rock and roll. That was a subject I would have loved to talk more about too. I’m sure it will happen though.
    Being an ex-Tower person, but spending most of my adult life working at both major and independent labels, I can attest that this chain WAS a big deal to us all, both nationally and in individual regions. Knowledgeable folks shopped at Tower and SOME clerks were on their game too. At corporate offices, the branding was strong, the advertising machine was organized and relentless, and we labels responded with the ad dollars. There WAS synergy–a physical place for community to happen, get informed and get happy with music.
    Tower’s deep catalog national predecessor that I am most familiar with is Discount Records, a huge chain that I think topped out at 360 stores in America in it’s heyday in the 1960s-70s. I worked in one store part-time as a college student. The inventory was vast in every genre and we opened any LP we wanted to and played it in the store. That’s how we upsold records and got into terrific conversations with people who then became faithful customers. It did not hurt that LPs were $4.99 and up. If you wanted to make accidental discoveries, you could afford to.

    And as far as labels into deep catalog, i’m an ex-Rounder Records person too. In 1970, three college pals decided that they HAD to release an LP by an obscure North Carolina old-timey banjo picker named George Pegram whom they had seen at a bluegrass show. Business plan? Nah. I think Ken, Bill and Marian would have carried on with their music passions regardless of anything. But how serendipitous that the label and retail forces converged as they did. [Here’s the section where we wax on how groovy being a boomer was/is.]

    So I’m not so positive as you that Tower shaped the deep catalog store or the behavior of label owners, but during the years of it’s reign, no one did it with as much style. When I would tell folks that Tower had under 100 stores in the U.S., it was always shocking to people, no matter what part of the country they lived in. The assumption was that Tower was a much, much larger chain.

    I miss it and the music community it created.
    I shop at R5 Records regularly and strongly encourage anyone reading this to do the same.And if I may paraphrase the wise words of Solomon– “Now go out and listen to some live music!”

  4. jaxong said, on 20/01/2010 at 15:39

    I used to shop at the Discount Records store in Menlo Park in the late ’60s and early ’70s, just up the El Camino Real from Stanford, whenever I’d visit my grandpa there. Discount had a nice selection; I remember they carried all the Delmark blues and jazz titles, French BYG Actuel imports (crappy pressings) and lots of cool stuff. Wasn’t Discount owned by CBS? And Hale Milgrim (later at Warners and Electra, then president of Capitol) managed the Discount store in Berkeley, if I recall correctly.

    I’m reasonably confident that by the time the label consolidation happened (late ’70s, when a lit of large and mid-sized independent labels left indie distro and either got picked up or outright bought by majors) to the CD rollout (mid-1980s), Tower was the dominant full-catalog player, and the chain’s expertise in selling non-center-aisle titles motivated labels to go deeper with the more esoteric stuff. I could be totally wrong. But that’s how I remember it.

    And I love R5. If I had a job and wasn’t so damn broke, I’d be buying records there. So somebody hire me, so I can buy records and keep Russ in business! (Or at least throw me some writing jobs.)

  5. Jeff Clark said, on 20/01/2010 at 16:40

    I have ideas for two chapters of “the book”…

  6. […] the attention span of a highly animated insect. Couldn’t stay on task. Wrote a postscript to my blog post on Russ Solomon speaking at Time Tested books last week, because something was bothering me and I […]

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