Launched in Sacramento, Calif., in 1961, Tower Records blossomed into one of the world’s most prominent music sellers over the ensuing four decades before a crash that concluded with the closing of its final remaining stores in December 2006. “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records,” which had its world premiere Monday at the ZACH Topfer Theater as part of South by Southwest.
The demise of Tower probably was inevitable with the onset of the digital age, though the film makes clear that the chain’s slide had already started in the 1990s as a result of some questionable business decisions. Though early expansion to Japan proved to be quite successful, subsequent attempts toward further globalization didn’t fare as well, and Tower eventually overextended itself financially, becoming vulnerable to a bank takeover that took place in the early 2000s.
First-time director Colin Hanks takes a highly personal approach with the film, a method that seems fitting given that Tower was known for its personality and its connection with customers. The story is told largely through interviews with about a dozen people, most notably Tower founder Russ Solomon, but several other longtime Tower associates help flesh out the story, along with Rolling Stone contributing editor Steve Knopper.
Some star power comes from three musicians who weigh in on the importance of Tower to them. Bruce Springsteen romantically characterizes an artist’s view of the store as “the place where your dreams meet the listener.” Dave Grohl claims that in his youth as a punk rocker in Washington, D.C., he “got a job with Tower Records because that was the only place I could get a job with my haircut.” And there’s some fascinating mid-1970s footage of Elton John shopping at Tower’s landmark Sunset Strip store, plus a recent interview in which Elton declares that “I spent more money at Tower than any other human being.”
Among the Tower staff, probably the most significant comments come from Mark Viducich, a heavily mustachioed character who played a major role in launching the Japanese stores, and Michael Solomon, the founder’s son who became heavily involved in the store’s operation in its later years. A couple of staffers speak with some resentment about Michael’s role, but his own comments throughout are measured and thoughtful. Also figuring prominently in the story is the late Bud Martin, who played the realistic businessman to Solomon’s colorful visionary for most of the store’s run until his retirement in the late 1990s (he passed away shortly thereafter).
It’s telling that the closing credits run for several minutes as a list of more than 1,000 Kickstarter contributors scroll across the screen. I spotted at least two names of former Tower employees I knew in that massive list, and one person asking a question of Hanks and producer Sean Stuart after the screening identified himself as a Kickstarter contributor.
Tower’s presence in Austin was short-lived. It prospered during the 1990s in the old Varsity Theater location at 24th and Guadalupe streets but had a tough task going up against longtime local institution Waterloo Records, which still survives at Sixth and Lamar (with a slew of major SXSW in-stores in its parking lot this week).