Thoughts on the Demise of Tower Records

Tower Records Closing "You hear that Mr. Anderson?... That is the sound of inevitability... It is the sound of your death... Goodbye, Mr. Anderson... "

The Matrix (1999)

Like the subway car about to roll over Neo in The Matrix, Tower Records was run over by the Internet. Unlike Neo, Tower did not adapt or get out of the way—it just got crushed, owing creditors about 200 million dollars.

The demise of Tower Records stores is on almost every musician's lips. My take on it is that it is a good thing. The Internet is the new unifying force, and luckily, independents are thriving in the digital world. Even Tower Records will probably still survive online.

Tower Records was never that friendly to independents. Sure, you would find a few local bands in the bins, maybe a few independent classical CDs, but they did not know how to market anything other than the largest names on the biggest labels, and that is primarily because they had the money to provide them with display cards, posters and other advertising paraphernalia. Half the time I walked into Tower, the staff had no clue about classical music, jazz or anything other than mainstream pop.

What is truly scary about Tower closing is that Wal-Mart might be taking its place, online or not. Wal-Mart is not the friendliest, except to its investors and the millions of people who want something cheap, or to its sadly brainwashed, horribly paid workforce. (Ironically, you may purchase something cheap at the time, but the cost to everything—local and small businesses especially—is staggering.) Without the occasional mom n' pop store or the Internet, independent musicians and labels would die.

My lovely wife Victoria recently started a record company, Lumiere Records. Luckily, Tower closed right before she began distribution, so she did not send any units to Tower, never to be seen again. If it was not for the internet, she would not have a business. It is just too much work to go to every single independent record store (the ones that still exist) and market her CDs, one store at a time.

On a related note, yesterday we saw High Fidelity on Broadway, the second to last show (it just closed last night). We really enjoyed it, by the way, and I think it is better than Rent, as rock musicals go. If you have never seen the movie or read the book, the story takes place in and around a record store. In the old days, the release on an album was a big deal: people lined up outside record stores, performers and bands showed up, and the albums themselves were more spectacular. There were big, bold covers, often lyrics and lots of liner notes, and you really felt like you were holding something substantial. But best of all, there was a sense of community. I am not saying that there is not some sort of community online, or that there will never will be (with video chatting, this will probably change), but right now, it is just not the same.

Why is this significant? I think that physical stores that sell CDs will be celebrated the same way in the not too distant future. Everything is going digital. There are over thirty sites that sell, stream or rent digital downloads and this is only going to become even bigger. Soon (if not already), you will bring your iPod or other device to a concert and upload the concert instantaneously, having your credit card charged instantaneously. You will not even have to pull out your wallet, and you will be able to do it via a wireless connection. Live concerts will not only be processed in real time, but you will leave the concert will a cleaned up version as you leave the arena or concert hall. You might even leave with program notes, lyrics and other goodies already uploaded to your device. To my mind, that is difficult to beat.

The one aspect of physical stores I will really miss is getting advice from knowledgeable staff. Of course, with stores paying minimum wage, this went the way of the Dodo anyway, but I really think the wave of the future will include hiring people with expertise, online or not. Perhaps this is already happening in a micro-meshed way with millions of real people giving their two cents, their 15 minutes of cyber fame to an Amazon review, but someone needs to separate the wheat from the chaff, and currently, it is not Amazon or even sites like Wikipedia. They are trying hard, and even I go on there occasionally to find some little tidbit of information (and yes, it is often pretty darned good), but that is not always the case. Intelligent people are key, whether with an online encyclopedia or a record store, physical or not. People believe too much of what they read without intelligently sorting things out.

It sure will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years.