THE LEFSETZ LETTER: Tower Records

Oh, admit it. You gave up on Tower Records long ago. Your lamenting its loss is akin to finding out your mother threw out your baby toys. They reminded you of a time gone by, but you hadn’t played with them in eons. Hell, given the option of staying an infant or growing up EVERYONE chooses the latter. If for no other reasons than the freedom and the choice, the POWER to decide your own direction, your own fate. That’s what computer music gives you. You don’t have to get in your car to acquire it and you’re not limited to what a retailer can stock, either by physical space or financial demands.


Bob Lefsetz, Santa Monica-based industry legend, is the author of the e-mail newsletter, "The Lefsetz Letter". Famous for being beholden to no one, and speaking the truth, Lefsetz addresses the issues that are at the core of the music business: downloading, copy protection, pricing and the music itself.

His intense brilliance captivates readers from Steven Tyler to Rick Nielsen to Bryan Adams to Quincy Jones to music business honchos like Michael Rapino, Randy Phillips, Don Ienner, Cliff Burnstein, Irving Azoff and Tom Freston.

Never boring, always entertaining, Mr. Lefsetz's insights are fueled by his stint as an entertainment business attorney, majordomo of Sanctuary Music's American division and consultancies to major labels.

Bob has been a weekly contributor to CelebrityAccess and Encore since 2001, and we plan many more years of partnership with him. While we here at CelebrityAccess and Encore do not necessarily agree with all of Bob's opinions, we are proud to help share them with you.

I remember reading in "Creem" that they opened Tower Sunset early so Elton John could shop. And he’d buy hundreds of albums at a clip. I yearned for the same power. Not only to be able to own whatever I wanted, but to do it in a forum that oozed music, a veritable museum to the art.

And when I arrived in Los Angeles and endured the Strip gridlock to finally see that garish yellow store with the giant album covers hanging on its sides, I felt I’d finally gotten to Mecca.

Tower was like the great acts of yesteryear. No production, no artifice, just meat and potatoes. No barn board, no rugs, just fluorescent lights and paint. The attraction was the albums. Stacked impossibly high just as you entered the door.

But getting to that door was not easy. For you could never get a parking place. Talk about marketing… Doesn’t everybody want to go to a place they can’t get in?

And after waiting your turn, after enduring the beeping horns, after finally sliding into a space in the lot or giving up and parking at a meter blocks away, you walked in. And were confronted with not only the product, but the zombies. I remember just after I moved here, in the fall of ‘74, close to midnight on a Friday, encountering Morris Micklewhite and his exotic wife in the aisles. Michael Caine was not posing, was not looking to be ogled, rather he was combing the bins, looking for gems.

That’s the way it was. You’d see stars. Not doing in-stores, signing product that you had to buy, rather shopping for albums themselves!

And that’s what they were, albums. Not cassettes, and certainly not CDs. Oh, in time there was a small section on the far wall of those tiny little plastic boxes with ferric oxide inside. But most of the store was filled with rack after rack of vinyl records. Bearing titles that you hadn’t seen in a retail joint in many a year.

Yes, Tower had the act’s complete catalog. You might already own it, but you wanted to visit a place so cool, a place dedicated to your addiction.

And the new albums, they were as cheap as anywhere in town. And they were never sold out, there was always a copy to be had. After all, they had fifty copies on the floor of an album only YOU thought you knew about.

There was a fervor, a sensation, that made you buy like in a supermarket. Having come all this way, and you had to drive, almost nobody lived nearby, and hyped up by the excitement, you purchased multiple records. Tower Records was a dope dealer, and we were addicts. And I’ve never heard of a hospital that can cure music addiction, there’s no rehab for this affliction.

Amoeba isn’t the same. It’s a treasure trove of the past.

Indie stores have some of the cred, but without the garishness. Tower was sans atmosphere. There was no smoke and mirrors, rather the records radiated an enrapturing aroma that was ENOUGH!

Tower, like its customers, got old. It was about rock and classical. In an era that was suddenly about beats and boy bands.

Boy bands were purchased at the big box. When parents were shopping for other items. Rap was bought either there or at the hipster store, akin to a nightclub.

Boy bands died out. But hip-hop survived. Oftentimes brittle in sound, totally unlike the rich aural tapestries emanating from the vinyl Tower Records purveyed.

And then rap was no longer about social consciousness and the plight of the black man and more about getting ahead. Lifestyle triumphed over the music. And here we are today.

Tower Records is an anachronism. Like the horse and buggy. Like the Smith Corona typewriter. It outlived its usefulness. And is now disappearing.

Music is struggling to reinvent itself. It’s just that those who used to shop at Tower, who are grieving its loss, are in charge of the business today. And want nothing to change, while they continue to make their nut.

It’s survival of if not the fittest, those conniving enough to find a chair as the others get pulled away. But now chairs are disappearing at a rapid clip. Which is why those still in power are so vociferous in their complaints. For soon, they’ll be gone too.

The idea of spending $100,000 to make a record, if not a multiple of that, GONE! Plying your wares to a vast network of far-flung radio stations of every format imaginable, GONE! Making mini-movies to serve as marketing on MTV, GONE! It was a shell game. Making you buy the album to get the one hit song you wanted. Even though that was the only good song on the CD.

The Net killed the old business model. Suddenly, you could get ONLY the track. And it was about tonnage as opposed to the individual purchase. Suddenly EVERYBODY was Elton John, shopping at a Tower store of seemingly infinite size, open 24/7. With communication amongst customers never seen in a brick and mortar establishment. Sure, the arrogant sales clerks at Tower were part of its charm, its magic, but once you could communicate with your team, the other buyers/fans, you felt power, and had no need for the old dictators.

Big box retailers are going to jettison music as quickly as DVD replaced VHS. They’re into what’s selling, not nostalgia. And that’s what the CD is, nostalgia. The last artifact of a dying age. The digital creation that killed the golden goose. Perfectly digitized, perfectly rippable, ad infinitum.

I loved the old days. I still play the music I acquired at Tower Records. But rarely the vinyl or CDs. Mostly the MP3s of those tracks I’ve acquired P2P.

Not that I haunt the P2P services as much as I used to. Because over the years I’ve stocked up on my greatest hits, I’ve got what I NEED! Now I’ve got to find new music that I desire. Via new avenues. Ones that presently are not endorsed by the powers-that-be.

It’s a topsy-turvy world. First goes Tower, then goes the major labels. It’s the end of an era. An era that rotted from the inside out long ago.

If you think the death of Tower Records means anything, then I’m surprised you’re reading this, I’m stunned you know how to use a computer.

Evolution is not the rule of the day. It’s revolution. This is anathema to the old guard. But just like Google triumphed over not only AOL and Yahoo, but put a serious dent in Microsoft, the old record companies, the old employees, are no match for those savvy in the new ways of doing business. If you abhor these new ways, if you believe something’s been lost, if you can’t lend a hand, get out of the new road for the times they are not only a-changin’, they’ve changed.


Melissa Ward:

Geez, guess I'm out of the loop or something. Reading all these rave accounts of Tower. I was never that impressed! It was the last place I ever shopped for music. One happy experience was when I went to the Classical Tower on Sunset and they gave me two tickets to see Wayne Shorter at House of Blues, a show I'd wanted to see but couldn't afford tickets to at the time.

Growing up in Orange County, California I always shopped at the smaller record stores like Licorice Pizza and others I can't even remember the name and also went up to similar stores in LA. Oh, Sound Spectrum in Laguna Beach was a good one, and I believe they are still there!

They were mostly run by the owner and they would order stuff for you if you asked. I earned my record money through babysitting, and still have my little spiral notebook with the list of records in the order that I would buy them, with the ones purchased crossed off.

We even got someone's mom to take us up to LA to shop at larger independents for hard to find music that we heard on underground radio, which was mostly what we listened to.

Moving to LA in the late 70s I continued to shop independent, and bought many wonderful records at Aarons, Pennylane, Moby Disc, etc. Tower was the place we went to when you wanted a more common product and a quick buy. It seems so commercial, flourescent lights and all the plastic. I know they stocked lots of product, but I found it more pleasing to sift through racks at the stores that had both new and used product and didn't push hype at you, and who gave personal service, and who played good music in the store!

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Bob Gannon:

I agree with both sides on the Tower issue.

When I think of Tower, I'll always remember the Lou Reed in-store signing at the Sunset store. He was promoting "Set the Twilight Reeling." It's a horrific record, but it was Lou so I headed off with a few LP's under my arm. A buddy and I waited in a line with a few hundred fans talking about his records and live shows. It was a crowd of Lou fans excited about "meeting" him but also really enjoying simply sharing their love of his music. The word came down the line that Lou would only be signing the new cd due to time constraints. (Seriously, how else were they going to get 400 people to buy THAT record?)

On the other hand, "Take No Prisoners" was always a guilty pleasure of mine. If you're not familiar with it, Lou spends most of the live double LP telling stories or bad-mouthing the audience while the band vamped endlessly. So of course I brought it along with "Berlin", "Street Hassle" and a few other obvious LP's.

As I got closer to the table where Lou was signing the new CD, I could see that he was barely looking up, writing a quick scribble on the disc and moving people through in fifteen seconds. With a few hundred people in line, I couldn't blame him.

My buddy said that I should stick an LP under his nose and see what he would do. I asked him which one I should pick and without hesitation he said,"The comedy record." Still not sure what to do, I walked up and gave him the new disc to sign and and he wrote his name in handwriting worthy of a doctor's prescription. I said, "Thanks" and as I reached for the CD, I put the LP on the table. He looked at it, and cocked his head up and made direct eye contact. He had a shit-eating smirk on his face and chuckled slightly. He took the LP and asked my name. He wrote, "To Bob – Thanks, Lou Reed" in almost perfect penmanship. I still cherish that record.

I don't live in the past, but sometimes I think we forget what we lose in our quest for convenience. So, I'll miss the in-stores and other things that brick and mortar record stores gave us. And I'll go to Benway Records in Santa Monica, knowing that my friend's shop is on the endangered list and enjoy it as long as I can.

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Mark Smotroff:

Well, if I want a real record store, I can always go to Village Music which is still one of the greatest shopping experiences as stores go http://www.villagemusic.com/ But I have to echo some of the mixed thoughts here: Tower was a fantastic FUN place to shop when I first moved out West in the late 80s. But the place got stupid and the people working there got stupid and they lost something in the mix: the FUN. I stopped going there years ago when the prices got ridiculous, and the stupidity made it no longer worth going there. It was no longer FUN. It was a hassle. I stopped going there way way before downloading existed. If anything Amazon was the biggest catalyst for change in the retail scene (and now that they sell used stuff and collectors items and such, eve going there is more fun for a hardcore music collector/fanatic like me — I don't bother with eBay anymore as it isn't FUN!). Amoeba Records is still FUN and it is seemingly still thriving. Streetlight Records still has a fun vibe thing going on there — I was there just last month and bought a bunch of stuff (new and used!). FUN: what a concept.

After all, this is about entertainment, right?

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Andrew Drouin:

Re: The Tower Records closure, I agree with many of the others who have written in to you as of late: "Who gives a fuck!"

The future of music resale is right in front of all of us that are sitting at a computer terminal right now. My humble little hobby site features loads of absolutely amazing recording artists who, quality-wise, are light-years ahead of the "top 40" we are bombarded with each time we flick on a radio, and yet, they linger in obscurity in small venues around the world. Surely, if I was able to track down there artists, anyone with an hour to kill could do the same, nevermind the major labels and their multi-staffed PR departments full of stuffed egos.

Where are have the 'majors' done for the little guy? what has tower Records done for them… squat!

Fuck the shirts – all hail the Internet!

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Rodger Coleman:

I never expected that my email rant to you would wind up being sent out on your mailing list. If I'd thought so, maybe I would have toned down the profanity! But, to have Michael Fremer respond to something I said – wow, what a rush. Fremer is largely responsible for making me realize that vinyl is truly superior to CD and that you don't have to spend a fortune on playback equipment to realize this.

But, anyway, after sending you that email and talking with my wife about all this stuff, I had a dream that night about shopping in a funky record store, crawling around on the ground searching through every nook and cranny for weird and wonderful treasures. The next day, I decided to make a trip to Grimey's here in Nashville, a funky record store where the staff is actually friendly, helpful, and enthusiastic about records. I bought the last four Robert Pollard LPs (all of which were released this year!) and Sonic Youth's latest on LP. Yep, that's right – brand new vinyl records. With Pollard's latest LP on Merge you also get a coupon to download the album AND a free CD of a live gig opening for Pearl Jam this past summer. Now THAT is getting some value for your money (a whopping $13.99)!

I couldn't wait to get home from work and peel off the shrink wrap, savor that new vinyl and printer's ink smell, and spin them all in a row. I drank too many beers and sat enraptured to the glorious sound – or, got up and danced around the living room. It was an experience I hadn't had in a long time, and it was thrilling in a way that no CD has ever been, no matter how much I like the music.

So, I got to thinking. Maybe the death of the CD is necessary to have the music industry move forward. Maybe the labels will move towards DVD as the delivery method. Maybe they'll embrace lossless compression schemes like FLAC for downloads, price them reasonably, and have DVDs (with or without video content) for physical goods (any DVD player will reproduce a high-resolution PCM soundtrack). Maybe pricing could be more dynamic and fair. Maybe the equipment manufacturers could adopt a uniform standard that will play any 5 inch disc you throw at it. Maybe the MP3 could serve as a free promotion tool, whetting the appetite for the high-quality product.

In any case, it sure looks like vinyl LPs will outlive the CD. Whoulda thunk it a decade ago?

So, Tower is dead. Long live the indie record store!

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Kevin King:

Thure gray's comment about retail "take a drive and see" is such a great line. Because I now have the equivalent of EVERY reatail store in the enitire world in the palm of my hand – come on people my 87 year old grandmother thought that was amazing too. Seriously everyone, grieve a bit, but let's move on and open your ears to the millions and millions of songs out there that YOU have the power (now) to seek out – its not pushed on you anymore – get a rhapsody account – your memories of record retail will diminish rapidly – sign up for an instant message account and have music filtered out to by regular people, college kids even. I've been involved in record retail a third of my life, both at retail and label side. I gotta tell you, the digital side is just way more exciting because I feel like a pioneer!

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Paul Zullo:

I'm enjoying / lamenting the Tower missives, having a long consumer and business history with Tower & their people.

Russ Soloman's willingness to try new ideas gave MANY music related business ideas their first & sometimes only chance.

Certainly that was the case for Muze. I brought the first Muze info system to Sacramento in Sept. 1990. My invite was based on a single brief phone call with Stan Goman, he said " yeah, yeah people are always telling me they have a computer with all the artists, album, songs accessible, show it to Russ when it works!" I said it did & got on a plane.

Russ is late coming back from L. A. Frannie (his assistant) tells me " if you want to keep that nice tie your wearing take it off." She then shows me his office with Plexiglas boxes lining the walls with hundreds of "cut off" ties biz cards pinned to them, the names, a who's who of the great record men of three decades.

Russ arrives rushed, white hair and beard flying, I thought of Santa Claus on LSD, "what's this?" " A computer with all current recordings indexed & up to date" I replied. He bolts from the room, comes back with solicitation sheets for new releases from rather obscure labels. He tried & failed to stump the system. "we'll try it and if people use it we'll put it in all the stores"

Russ left the room, he was there about 10 minutes, and Muze was in business!

At a NARM convention years later I asked him about the Tower Books inventory selection, " simple Sex, Drugs, & Rock n' Roll" was his obvious answer.

Great musicians, fans, and business people created this culture. We need to preserve OUR history.

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Alfred Masciocchi:

Honest-to-God 100% true story. Happened at, I think, Virgin Records or maybe HMV in NYC last year but you know it could just have easily happened at Tower. I go up to a clerk and ask him "Where's the country & western section?" He answered, after a long pause, "Well, the country section is downstairs. I'm not sure where the western section is; ask that woman over there."

For kicks I was then going to ask him where the rhyhtm & blues section was but figured that would just be cruel…

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BenJK:

Maybe I'm beating a almost-dead horse here….I went to the Sunset Strip store Friday night to check out the deals and my own personal nostalgia…Since it was the weekend, I had to park in the lot a block east and, after fidgeting and fucking with a user-unfriendly automatic pay-by-yourself machine that didn't tell me how long I could park but was crystal clear about the price ($6 EXACTLY – and didn't accept credit cards, otherwise I would be towed to God-knows-where…

Once at the store, I see it is fully and completely stocked with virtually everything on the shelves (did not look like a close-out sale at all) and the discounts were laughable. 15% and 20% off overpriced CDs means fuck all. No savings here, just hype and rude people that are still working there. They must be pissed off about losing their job, so who can really blame them?

Anyway, I walked around and considered buying a lot of stuff that I didn't have, but I didn't bother. Wasn't in the mood. I thought back to the days when the ALBUMS were stacked high and it was fun to shop for music at a store. Ended up picking up a Byrds compilation because I happen to be reading a book called "Eight Miles High" (by Richie Unterbeger). Clearly, I would've been better off personalizing my own (and better) hand-picked mix of Byrds and McGuinn and Crosby songs from iTunes or somewhere else online. And I wouldn't have had to try stuffing six dollars of exact change down a goddam parking lot machine.

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