...it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there...

November 26, 2006

The End Of The CD Era

My parents grew up listening to the 33 rpm vinyl album. Their parents bought music in little boxes of 45 rpm records. I grew up in the CD age, which died last month on October 7th.

Tower Records, the music industry's most famous retail brand, will be liquidated beginning tomorrow (Oct. 7).

After a 30-hour auction, the process was won by the lead-bidder, Great American, who put together a consortium of other suitors who were bidding on different components of the retailer. The winning bid was $134.3 million.

“It's a sad day for the music business and I feel badly for all Tower employees," says Jim Urie, president of Universal Music Group Distribution. "Tower was probably the greatest brand that will ever exist in music retail.”

The original Tower Records was (and still is, for a few more days) located south of Downtown Sacramento, next to the Tower Theater that gave the store its name. Here's a panoramic view of the famous corner, Broadway and Land Park Drive, where the world's greatest music store was born.

When I lived in San Francisco, I used to love walking to the Tower on Columbus and Bay, where the neighborhoods of Russian Hill, Fisherman's Wharf and North Beach all intersect, and where half my music collection was purchased. I can still remember the first time I saw Pulse's blinking red diode, it was in that store.

I was a senior in high school when I stood in the Coumbus and Bay store watching the overhead tv with REM's Monster in my hand, as Joe Montana (then a KC Chief) executed his most famous two-minute drill against John Elway.

The most famous Tower Records outlet is of course, the Tower on Sunset. My parents have a cartoony lithograph in their den, all in primary colors, of the Sunset Strip at night with Tower Records in the center under an Angelyne billboard. Tower Sunset was a music industry legend.

Bruce Willis spent $15,000 in one glorious shopping spree.

Elton John was practically a regular. Mick Jagger, Ella Fitzgerald and Jack Nicholson were known to drop by.

There’s never been anything quite like the Tower Records on LA’s Sunset Boulevard. It’s been an elemental part of the city’s music scene, a place where rock stars and record company executives came to shop, mingle and check how their records are selling.

This is where Tower became a global icon.

“Probably the most famous of all the record stores,” said music executive Miles Copeland, who has overseen the careers of such bands as R.E.M. and the Police.

I've been in that store once. I didn't see any celebrities, but I was probably there on an off night. Tower Sunset was a celebrity hangout, it seems.
In-store promotions at Tower Sunset – autograph sessions and short concerts by artists such as Lou Reed and Prince – became part of the Strip’s landscape. An appearance by rock singer David Lee Roth in the late ’80s clogged the street with thousands of fans.

Titans of Music shopped there

But employees say their favorite memories are of the celebrities who dropped by to shop: Bobby Darin, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and many others. Stan Goman said Brian Wilson, known for his battles with emotional demons, came in a bathrobe. Actor George Hamilton once wrote a personal check to pay for his purchase and was a bit miffed when the clerk made him produce a photo ID, Goman said.

A disheveled-looking Waylon Jennings showed up early one morning, hours before the store opened. “He was still recovering from his night’s activities,” said former manager Charlie Shaw.

When another former manager, Bob Feterl, transferred to Sunset from suburban West Covina in 1989, he got a hint of the store’s significance in his first week. “I see Ella Fitzgerald walking straight toward me, and I was totally blown away,” Feterl said.

Another time, he said, a stubble-faced Bruce Willis spent hours in the store, crawling on the floor to pore over the CDs that wouldn’t fit into the main stacks. By the time he was done, he’d spent $15,000.

Elton John probably was Tower Sunset’s most loyal fan. The store would open an hour early so he could shop in peace, often accompanied by a chauffeur or assistant.

“Elton would come in and he had an account,” said Howard Krumholtz, who recently was laid off after 34 years at Tower Sunset. “He would charge $5,000 worth of stuff. He had three houses, so he’d buy three of everything.”

In recent years celebrity sightings have become less frequent. But the stars haven’t forsaken Tower Sunset. On the outside of the building is a white billboard that says, “Shop the legend.” In the past few weeks, fans and industry types have been scribbling farewell messages on the board.

“37 years of music,” reads one of them. “This is so sad! Elton John.” Though the math was off – the store opened 36 years ago – store employees said the message is what counts.

What killed Tower Records is what killed the CD; I blame Steve Jobs. The personal computer, and now the iPod have made music store shopping irrelevant. Despite the crackdown on illegal downloading, is there anyone who can't spare .99¢ for iTunes when there's a song that you just gotta have? Adn why fight traffic and parking when you can hit Overstock.com and get what you want at a huge discount, delivered to your door? I've been doing that for years. Of course now I feel guilty; I always thought Tower would be there.

Tower Records always had the best selection and prices of all the chain stores, and when I did go out to buy music, I never shopped anywhere else. It was the only place to buy classical and jazz CDs, because that's the type of music where computer browsing just doesn't cut it. For classical especially, I really need to hold the jewel box in my hand so I can compare the different versions of the same works. And in the jazz section, I'd always check the endcaps first. Invariably, there'd be a previously unknown gem for me to discover, on sale. Try that at Borders, or Barnes and Noble. Their jazz section has what, 20 artists?

Now that Tower is gone, I think it's the symbolic end of the CD. The most annoying thing about CDs was having to buy a bunch of shitty songs along with the one or two good ones that you heard on the radio. (Vitalogy, anyone?)

But now, with iTunes, I'm afraid the pendulum will swing too far in the opposite direction. Who is going to download individual songs you've never heard of, based on the few seconds of preview that iTunes gives you? And how can you really appreciate that odd song within the artistic context of an album for which it was intended — imagine if Dark Side of the Moon were to come out today! No one would buy the instrumentals, even though they are essential to the whole album.

Well, it's a new era, and the music industry will have to figure something out. They've not been terribly good at understanding the market. But what really worries me is the fate of independent music, jazz and classical. Tower Records was their biggest ally, and I hope the music doesn't disappear from the face of the earth along with that great store.

Posted by annika, Nov. 26, 2006 | TrackBack (0)
Rubric: Arts


We love the familiar, because we fear the unknown. Don't be a Ludite. Never fear economic dislocation. You're making the argument against the horseless carriage, and for the buggywhip manufacturers.

The artists have always made their money from live performance, not record sales. Information technology has done for music what it has done in every other part of society... devolved information/power to the individual. The end product will mean more choices of different better kinds.

Posted by: Casca on Nov. 26, 2006

One of first things I did when moving to a new city was find where the Tower Records was located. When that was done I could breathe easy and focus on other less important things.

I was always looking for old blues.

(By the way, Casca 'Luddite' is spelled with two d's)

Posted by: Brad on Nov. 26, 2006

ITunes contributed to the end of Tower Records, but what really killed Tower was Amazon.

Posted by: Jake on Nov. 26, 2006

Video killed the radio star. I'm just sayin'.

Posted by: The Buggles on Nov. 27, 2006

Itunes signals the death of the album, not just the CD. While some records might have only a good song or two, I have tried to buy full records because there are many gems that the pigs in the exec offices don't think are good that are great. With the advancement of Itunes and individual songs shopping, people are just buying what record execs get played on radio and not exploring the breath of music out there. This is the most disconcerning thing to me.

Posted by: Talmadge East on Nov. 27, 2006

While I agree it is sad that Tower Records, a physcial location where you actually met people, and could flip through bins of vinyl...and perhaps, as in the case of the L.A. location, see a celeb, I am not as profoundly sad about it. You see, the Interent has opened so many new avenues for vinyl record collectors that were not available, say 10-12 years ago. There is a whole new world to explore, and for me it is quite exciting. iTunes? Never downloaded a song in my life....never will. And, yes I show my age here a bit, but I'll be darned if I have to hear my music through a bunch a bits and bytes, I'll play my vinyl and use my turntable until the day I die. And you know what? I am still playing records that were recorded in the 1930's. Now, I want you to try and play a CD in the year 2050 that you purchased in 1990! If you are looking for vinyl resources and places to explore, visit my site www.collectingvinylrecords.com.

thanks for listening

Posted by: Robert Benson on Nov. 27, 2006

It's so ironic that you are promoting the old technology of vinyl records with the new technology of e-books and websites!

Posted by: annika on Nov. 27, 2006

I'm horribly nostalgic about this kind of thing too, and with both siblings in the business of distributing recorded music we talk alot on this subject. (Sis used to drive the incomperable Miss Spears to Mall and radio gigs when she still worked at Jive)

I'm proud that my Brother works for EMI and Blue Note which is great for the old and new jazz players. The industry has definately taken a hit in the last several years but he says it's suprising how much sales can come from the old standards- and the Beatles ofcourse.

Casca's really right though, the labels haven't gotten with the new technology until they were forced to. Don't worry about jazz dissapearing Annika- wouldn't be prudent.

Posted by: Mike C. on Nov. 27, 2006

Don't worry about the new jazz and classical and all of that. Another bit of technology comes to the rescue. I have XM radio, I love Reggae, so I listen for the hours when they have the new artists on and I jot down the ones I like, I can either download the music, or if they have enough good songs, I will order the cd.

Also, don't be surprised if music stores make a comeback in a different way. I can see a real need for a place to meet with other people and talk about music and then make purchases. I would not be surprised if it happened in a sort of coffeshop atmosphere with live bands and such, and people meeting, then either buying or downloading songs.

Posted by: kyle8 on Nov. 27, 2006

I think the first corner Tower Records turned was in the early Eighties when the Campbell, CA store closed the posters and paraphenelia (read: head shop) side and started renting videos.

You could still be mistreated by angry goth-kids but it became much harder.

Great memories...

I built my record collection with their $4.44 sales. The albums like Who's Next had been out for a few years but they were brand new to this 16 year old.

BTW, that is one of my favorite trivia questions. Where was the first Tower Records. London, New York and L.A. are the most common responses.

Posted by: Gordon on Nov. 28, 2006

This blog post has been nominated for inclusion in The Blog Watch article published Sundays in The Sacramento Bee's Forum section. As part of a demonstration program, readers are invited to help rate the candidate blog posts. The highest-rated posts will get top consideration for the limited space available Sunday. To participate, visit ipsosacto.com/bw Voting ends Thursday afternoon.

Posted by: John Hughes on Nov. 29, 2006

very cool

Posted by: annika on Nov. 29, 2006

The closing of Tower is frequently credited to the growth of downloading and/or online stores, most notably Amazon. Often unmentioned is the issue of pricing. I don't so much download for convenience as I do for cost effectiveness. If I can download an entire album for $9.99, I'm not going to purchase it for $18.99. (Unless it's some really knockout packaging.) And Tower's pricing seemed to me to get way out of control by the mid to late 90s, several years before downloading became prevelant beyond kids on the cutting edge of technology. Much as I once loved Tower, I began looking for alternatives, whether in the big box store or an indie outlet that sold new CDs at more reasonable prices. When Tower's DISCOUNTS started to be priced at $15 or $16, I knew they were in trouble.

Posted by: Jim Chadwick on Nov. 30, 2006

By the way, in response to Casca's lofty lecture, I want to add that it is possible to have a certain sadness for the passing of the old without being a technology fearing Luddite. Something valuable is always lost, even if the next thing brings certain advantages. You have to be a heartless, soulless robot to simply accept every new development as more wonderful than the last. There are certainly things I like about the new way of aquiring music much better than how I used to do it. But I miss the surprise discovery and the social interaction with fellow music geeks that comes from shopping at brick and mortar locations. And I don't always know if the giving all power of choice to the individual consumer is always a good thing. We are talking about art to a certain extent, not sausages. The visionary artist might be ahead of the consumer who just wants the hits. With a musician I respect, I prefer the idea of he or she taking me on a journey through their latest musical landscape. If I just go for the songs that make the best first impressions, then I risk missing the tune that may prove to be my ultimate favorite several years down the line.

Posted by: Jim Chadwick on Nov. 30, 2006

Jim, you need to read more carefully. The new paradigm in the music biz creates MORE opportunity for art and artists, than the old corporate driven hype/hit machine. Think of all the music, that you've listened to on MP3, that you'd have never carried home from the record shop.

Posted by: Casca on Dec. 1, 2006

Casca, as usual, you've got it backwards.

The recording aritsts make the tours to sell records; seldom do touring artists even break even.

Stick to killing bad guys; you are good at that. Leave show biz to them what knows what itz all about.

I've got a son-in-law who is about to be CEO of Justin Timberlake's new label. He's been explaining the tour biz and the sale of discs to me for years.

Check it out.

Posted by: shelly on Dec. 1, 2006

So much to say.

First, I tried to vote but the voting website wouldn't load.

Second, my first experience with Tower Records was in Portland, Oregon. In addition to music, I'd buy my Zippy comic books there. Ah, a simpler time.

I've been to the Tower Records in Brea a few times over the last few years, but there is no Tower Records that I know of in the Inland Empire, so I'd end up at the Virgin Megastore at Ontario Mills more often than not.

Perhaps it's because of my age, but I would still prefer to buy a CD rather than download a song. The only song that I've purchased myself is Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." My daughter, however, has the opposite view.

Posted by: Ontario Emperor on Dec. 1, 2006

Shelly, I love you man, and I don't doubt that Justin makes more from the label than touring. I wouldn't go to see him for free. However, in the old paradigm, most artists got pennies in their recording deals. The lawyers always seem to make a buck though, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Posted by: Casca on Dec. 3, 2006