If you're looking to buy music these days, you can do it instantly online. But before you could download or stream music, there were record stores. And in California none was bigger than Tower Records. The chain, known for its big red-and-yellow logo, was born in Sacramento in 1960 -- and it peaked in 1999 with sales of $1 billion. But just five years later, Tower declared bankruptcy.
The rise and fall of Tower Records is the subject of the new documentary "All Things Must Pass." The California Report's Scott Shafer talked with the film's director, Colin Hanks.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
What was it about this story that said to you, and to producer Sean Stuart, "You know, we gotta make a documentary about Tower Records?"
Colin Hanks: When I found out how Russ Solomon started selling records, that was as close to a lightbulb moment as I’ve ever had from a creative standpoint. In 2006, an old family friend of mine was visiting me in New York and we were talking about what a bummer it was that Tower was closing. And she said, sort of in passing, 'It’s hard to believe that this all started with Russ Solomon selling used 78s out of his father’s drugstore in the 1940s.’ And I said, ‘Excuse me?’ I didn’t know about the way that it all started. And then the fact that no one else had tackled the subject was kind of a shocker to me.
You grew up in Sacramento, right? And that's where Tower Records started. What are your own memories of those stores?
Hanks: Tower was always a point of civic pride for Sacramento. The fact a company as big and as renowned as Tower was not only started in Sacramento, but had been based there. Growing up, I bought my concert tickets there, I bought my first CDs, my cassette singles. I spent a lot of time in Tower, getting my musical history lessons.
The heart and soul, not just of Tower Records, but of this documentary is founder Russ Solomon. He created the store out of the back of his dad's drugstore in the Tower Theatre building in downtown Sacramento and ran with it.
Hanks: Russ is such an amazing character. When you meet him, he's incredibly full of life. He's sharp-witted, quick-witted. And he's one of these guys who's constantly talking, constantly asking questions. He's a very curious individual, he's a very funny individual. And when we met Russ we just, you know, as soon as we met Russ, we knew we had something here. We had a lead character that was going to be engaging, that was going to be able to tell his story. And we just wanted to sort of get out of the way and capture that as best we could.
Shopping at Tower Records was an experience, but working there was a real experience, too. Virtually everyone it seems, at least according to the film, started there as a clerk and worked their way up, staying for, in some cases, 20 or 30 years. What was it that kept them there?
Hanks: I think just the overall vibe of the place. You know, when we were starting out the whole process, we were really interested in the fact that here is a company that could pretty much hire anyone it wanted. Insomuch as, at that time, especially in San Francisco, specifically in Sacramento, by that time the, you know, mid-'60s, late '60s, if you wanted a job in any sort of store, any place in which something needed to be sold, you needed a nice haircut. You needed to be in a suit. As "Mad Men" as it gets, that's what it was like.
And for Tower, none of that mattered. You could dress however you wanted. Your hair could be long. It really was the tip of the spear of the sort of counterculture vibe. So people who got jobs early on, in the company, in that period, you know the mid-'60s, late '60s, but even later on, as the company grew bigger, if you got that entry-level job you could stay there and work your way up. And that is incredibly special. I mean, especially if you look at companies nowadays, they don't have that kind of job security, the majority of the time.
And that loyalty ran both ways.
Hanks: And it ran both ways. It was not only respected by the company, it was encouraged. And so that is very special territory. And so, when our story ostensibly is about the beginning and middle and end of a company, what is that like for those people who worked there for 30 years? Twenty years? To have that kind of connection to the company and have that be severed? What is that heartbreak like for, you know, for people?
That part of the story I don't think started me off on this journey, but as we dug deeper we found these elements of this lineage of Tower that we just thought was incredibly special and unique. And was another reason why this film needed to be made. ’Cause we wanted people to realize that is part of Tower's legacy. It's not just where you bought that one CD a long time ago.
They had a good run. They peaked in 1999 taking in $1 billion and then in 2005 they filed for bankruptcy. What was that management style? Was the laid-back management style part of their downfall, or was it really bigger issues within the music industry?
Hanks: It was most definitely bigger issues, not only within the music industry but within the company themselves. I don't think that alcohol or drugs brought the company down, but there were definitely decisions made by Russ and by the powers that be at Tower that helped lead to its downfall. One of the things that we really wanted to explore in the film was the concept that Napster destroyed Tower. That's not 100 percent accurate. Napster was a part of it for sure. And you know, it definitely took a large bite out of the industry and Tower's receipts as well, but Russ and some of the people at Tower expanded into countries far and wide and over-expanded and made decisions that were not necessarily prudent.
That were really sort of based on hubris more than anything else, thinking that the party wasn't ever going to end. And you gotta remember, at that time, in the late '90s, you wouldn't necessarily think that any of this stuff was going to go away anytime soon. But technology is, you know, it changes. It evolves very quickly, and Tower was never really able to adjust.
Shafer: Nowadays people buying music aren't looking through bins of records or CDs. They're shopping online on places like iTunes. What is the loss to our culture?
Hanks: There's so much conversation there about that, the personal connection is lost. There's the literal connotation of the personal connection of you buying music off of someone specifically, and then maybe a friendship being made from the clerk. And there is that, I don't deny that at all. But when I talk about the personal connection to music, I talk about the memories I have buying records.
I'm a little bit weird in that I remember where I was when I bought a specific album that means a great deal to me. I remember the city, I remember the store. There's an imprint on that music. And so, that personal connection to music I think is important because, look, I stream music, I buy music online. I don't remember where I was when I streamed a certain record or when I downloaded a certain record. But I remember where I was when I bought that CD that changed my life. So that personal connection definitely is hurting with this new era.
But the flip side of that is, I will never want for another record for as long as I live. I'll never be told, 'We just can't find that record anymore, you're never gonna be able to hear that one pressing from that one thing,' because it's all being digitized now and you can find it anywhere. So it's not necessarily bad. It's just different.
"All Things Must Pass" screens at San Francisco's DocFest on June 4.