Chattering Class

5 Takeaways from Tower Records’ Wild Times and Fast Fall

Actor Colin Hanks makes his directorial debut with "All Things Must Pass," which explores how Tower Records became billion dollar enterprise and what led to its timely demise.

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(Image Courtesy of Colin Hanks.)

Tower Records stores once served as mainstays for music devotees who would shuffle through their bins of vinyl records and stacks of CDs to find new and favorite sounds.

Actor Colin Hanks was one of them. Known for roles in films like “Orange County,” and in television series like “Fargo” — for which he earned an Emmy nomination — the Sacramento native makes his directorial debut with “All Things Must Pass,” a documentary about the rise and precipitous fall of Tower Records.

The film hit theaters earlier this month. Below, you’ll find a few memorable nuggets from Colin about the music retail chain’s origins, its intrepid young employees, and the industry shifts that ultimately led to its demise.

Before it became a retail behemoth, Tower Records got its start at a Sacramento drug store.

Tower Records founder Russ Solomon above his Sacramento, Calif., store in 1989. (Image Courtesy of All Things Must Pass.)
Tower Records founder Russ Solomon above his Sacramento, Calif., store in 1989. (Image Courtesy of All Things Must Pass.)

Tower Records sold music, records, LP’s, cassette tapes, and 8-tracks, singles, things like that. [Its founder Russ Solomon] ended up opening 192 stores around the world, and they were the predominant music retailer over the course of about 40 years.

The main reason why I really wanted to tell this story is: I was having dinner with an old family friend of mine, and we were talking about what a bummer it was that the stores were closing, and at the end of the conversation she said in passing, “Gosh! I can’t believe it all started in that little drug store, that’s just crazy!”

And I said, “Excuse me? What are you talking about?” And she told me that Russ Solomon started selling used 78s out of his father’s drug store in the late ’30s, early ’40s. And that was about as close to a light bulb moment as I’ve ever had, and I just said, “That sounds like a documentary.”

Solomon empowered his young employees and bucked the typical business model.

 (Image Courtesy of All Things Must Pass.)
(Image Courtesy of All Things Must Pass.)

Russ Solomon sort of created that store upon this foundation that the stores are run by the kids that work there. They stock what they want to listen to, they design the stores the way they want to design it, and they tell the higher-ups, “OK, this is what we’re doing, this is what’s working.”

So it was very much an organization that was run from the bottom up, not from the top town. Then, of course, it involved the music industry, so you had your nefarious characters that worked there, you know — questionable business practices and all of that sort of stuff. Definitely not a corporate culture going on behind the scenes at Tower Records.

Its very un-corporate environment included mysterious budget expenses like “handtruck fuel.”

 (Image Courtesy of All Things Must Pass.)
(Image Courtesy of All Things Must Pass.)

“Handtruck fuel” was an expense that was put on the expense ledger by the employees. Not all employees, but some. When the employees would have to stay overnight to put in new inventory… they needed some energy, so “hand truck fuel” was a controlled substance that gives you energy. [Ed note: ex-employees say in the documentary that handtruck fuel was code for cocaine.]

The rise of the Internet and MP3s weren’t the only reasons for its demise.

 (Image Courtesy of All Things Must Pass.)

A lot of people have this misconception that Napster is the thing that killed Tower Records, and that is not 100 percent accurate. There are a bunch of different factors. The music industry stopped selling singles and they lost an entire generation of kids coming into a store, that’s part of it.

Then you have, you know, the big box stores like Best Buy and Target selling CD at cost. That ends up becoming a big deal. Then you’ve got sort of the hubris of Tower opening up these big, mammoth Apple store-like places, where you need a forklift to change a light bulb, those kinds of things, in cities that maybe would not support a big music store like that, that’s it. But it’s never, you know, because of someone’s drug addiction or anything like that.

What didn’t make the documentary’s final cut? This possible DVD extra.

 (Image Courtesy of All Things Must Pass.)

There was a promotion in San Francisco that they did for the band’s music from Big Pink, and someone had the idea of spray painting an elephant pink and riding it into the store, and so they did that.

The doors were big enough, and someone rode an elephant in– we got, you know a picture of it — and there was this whole question as to whether or not the elephant had relieved itself inside the store.

Russ was adamant that it was outside of the store. [Former Tower Records COO] Stan Goman was adamant that it was inside the store. Russ says, “No I know it was outside, because I was the one that was giving the elephant all the champagne!”

I mean it was just like, we kept editing it and kept trying… I mean you know, we got this thing down to like bare bones at like one minute, and I still couldn’t get it in [the movie].

Correction: a previous Web version of this story incorrectly listed 8-tracks as A-tracks.