At the beginning of the documentary All Things Must Pass, a question is raised about its subject, Tower Records: “In 1999, Tower Records made $51 billion. In 2006, the company filed for bankruptcy. What went wrong?”
What follows is an exploration not only about one record store chain, but about the death of record store culture and the impact of technology on the music industry. Through interviews and archival footage, director Colin Hanks (son of actor Tom Hanks) pens a love letter to music stores and their fans while documenting the rise and fall of a retail giant.
Tower Records was never a sure thing: Its maverick founder, Russ Solomon, gave his employees an astounding amount of freedom and was living his dream of being surrounded by music. Solomon’s father, a drugstore owner, allowed his son to open an offshoot of Tower Drugs in 1960. The record store’s first Sacramento, California location benefitted from the rapid growth of two bands: the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Record sales exploded, bringing scores of teenagers into the stores to purchase not just cheap singles, but entire albums. The advent of freeform radio in the late 1960s also drew passionate fans into the store; some of those fans eventually became employees.
After a drunken 1967 trip to San Francisco, Solomon opened his second location there. By the 1970s, Tower Records had transformed into a powerful force in music retail, winning over high profile customers such as Elton John (who brags he once shopped there four times a week) and Bruce Springsteen. Employees struck up lasting friendships with patrons, a key feature of record store culture. “Everybody in a record store is your friend for 20 minutes or so,” Springsteen recalls.
As the business grew, Tower Records opened stores throughout the U.S.; many former employees share behind-the-scenes anecdotes of no dress codes and booze and cocaine-fueled parties in the staff room. Dave Grohl, who once worked as a Tower clerk, cheerfully recalls working there because it was the only place that would accept his long hair and tattered clothes. Russ Solomon apparently turned a blind eye to such things, only stressing that the workers should show up and do their jobs.
Record sales boomed in the 1970s thanks in part to the disco craze, and Tower Records rode the wave. They began expanding internationally, opening highly successful stores in Japan. In addition, they entered the publishing business through Pulse!, a highly respected magazine that interviewed musicians from the avid music fan’s perspective. After disco declined in 1979, sales briefly slumped, but eventually rebounded courtesy of MTV, Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, and the introduction of the compact disc. Solomon proved to be an early champion of the CD, embracing it when few other retailers would.
Alas, the good times would soon end. By the late 1990s, Tower Records found itself overextended, borrowing money to open less successful stores in Buenos Aires and Mexico City. Next came “big box” stores such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart who sold CDs at bargain bin prices, thus cutting into Tower’s sales. The death knell came with the introduction of Mp3 technology; stores such as Tower were slow to adapt to changes, and Napster’s file sharing software allowed fans to download music at no cost. Ultimately, Russ Solomon was forced to sell the overseas locations, and the banks ultimately took over the U.S. business. After numerous layoffs and store closings, Tower Records finally ceased to exist by 2006.
As George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” plays wistfully in the background, Solomon travels back to Japan to see how the Tower Records name still flourishes. He may not own the name anymore, but Japanese employees give him a hero’s welcome. Amazingly, record store culture has endured in that country, and Russ Solomon’s broad smile and twinkling eyes reveal how much that means to him. After all, Solomon helped transform the industry, and his impact on music retail lingers. The scene brings a tear to the eye.
Colin Hanks clearly understands the fierce passion fans and musicians still hold for record stores, and All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records is a love letter to that enduring feeling. The film may tell the story of Tower’s demise, but it also celebrates a fondly remembered time for music fans of a certain age. The end of Tower Records also marked the end of the music store era, and All Things Must Pass is a nostalgic reminder of the retail industry’s glory days. Watch this lovingly created film and travel back to the days when record store employees and other customers were indeed your friends for 20 minutes — or more.
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