A GIANT PASSES —From The Sacramento Bee: Talk about the perfect coda: Tower Records founder Russ Solomon died with a drink in his hand and a smart-aleck remark on his lips.The swashbuckling, visionary entrepreneur who built a global retailing empire and the most famous company in Sacramento history died Sunday night of an apparent heart attack. He was 92. Solomon was watching the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night at his Sacramento-area home when he was stricken, said his son, Michael Solomon, the former chief executive of Tower. Ironically, he was giving his opinion of what someone was wearing that he thought was ugly, then asked (his wife) Patti to refill his whiskey,” Solomon said. When she returned, he had died. Russ Solomon was the guiding force behind Tower, the chain that revolutionized music retailing until it was swamped by iPods, big-box stores and other dramatic changes in the industry.
Tower went out of business in December 2006 after a second stint in bankruptcy. As if to defy the digital forces that reshaped the music business, Solomon opened another music store just a few months later, on the very site of one of Tower’s flagship stores in Sacramento. But the encore fell flat, and he gave up after three years. Nonetheless, Solomon enjoyed a redemption of sorts as the star of All Things Must Pass, a poignant documentary on Tower’s history produced by actor and former Sacramentan Colin Hanks. The movie debuted in March 2015.
Hanks, in a Twitter post Monday, said “the world lost an absolute legend.”
Solomon was honored in other ways in his later years. He was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2016 (with the likes of Harrison Ford and Maria Shriver) and two area entrepreneurs announced plans to open a Jewish deli in his name on the site of an old Tower store in downtown Sacramento. The Sacramento Kings installed a neon Tower store sign in the lobby of their new arena, Golden 1 Center.
And on Monday, it was if the music had never stopped. Accolades poured in from around Sacramento and the recording industry as news of his death spread.
Long aisles were packed with bins containing thousands of titles in every imaginable genre. The stores stayed open late and became evening hangouts, wrote Variety magazine in an outline obituary. The Towers on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and Broadway in New York’s Greenwich Village were landmarks in their own right.
Singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb tweeted, “Tower Records was such a huge part of my growing up.” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, also on Twitter, called Solomon ‘a Sacramento and National icon.’ Gov. Jerry Brown’s press office tweeted condolences.
A pioneer who was admired by employees and competitors alike, Solomon made Tower a $1 billion-a-year business stretching from Boston to Bogota, Colombia, with major outposts in Tokyo and London. He operated on a philosophy that was obvious to him but extraordinary for its day: Build big stores and pack them with as much music as possible. The company eventually branched into books and video.
Rival chains sprung up, borrowing heavily from Solomon’s notion that ‘big was beautiful,’ said Glen Ward, former head of the Virgin record stores in North America. He was probably the inventor of the mega-store.
But in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Tower was overwhelmed by big-box discounters, Amazon.com and digital downloading. The company also over-expanded and was partly to blame for its downfall.
We borrowed too much money, Solomon said years later. It was unsustainable.
Russell M. Solomon’s story was a Sacramento legend: In 1941, the 16-year-old began selling used jukebox records at his father Clayton Solomon’s drug store in the Tower Theater building at the corner of Broadway and Land Park Drive. He called the business Tower Record Mart.
Russ’ shop soon had its own street entrance. Later came listening booths for previewing new records. Solomon opened a wholesale business, too.
Nothing stopped him – not a two-year Army hitch during World War II, or the failure of the company in October 1960. He quickly borrowed $5,000 and persuaded creditors to supply him with new inventory.
He went right back to the same guys, the same creditors who put him out of business, said Dick Harris, an early employee. It was the power of personality.
Solomon incorporated the new business weeks later as MTS Inc., after his son Michael Toby Solomon, and music fans resumed their trek to the Broadway drug store.
Soon after, Solomon opened Tower North on Watt Avenue, his first stand-alone store. (It wasn’t until 1965 that the original location, in dad’s drug store, moved into its own building across the street).
What Tower achieved was a sensation. Until the 1960’s, there weren’t many record stores outside of the Sam Goody chain in New York. Music was sold mostly in the remote corners of department stores. Inspired in part by dad’s drug store, which sold a wide variety of goods, Solomon offered music fans a veritable feast, with generous helpings of the offbeat and obscure. Word soon went out: Tower sold records you couldn’t find anywhere else.
When I walked into that store, I pretty much said, Wow,’ said John Radakovitz, founder of the Dimple Record chain in Sacramento. “My hair caught on fire. It was the size, the scope, the display. … I fell in love at that moment with the record business.
It was a Sacramento-only phenomenon. Then, one morning in 1968, nursing a hangover at a diner in San Francisco, he looked up from his breakfast and spied what he called a vacant, derelict building near Fisherman’s Wharf. He quickly rented it. The store opened just as the golden age of San Francisco rock was peaking.
The whole Fillmore scene was going, the whole music scene was going, the whole dope scene was going, he said years later.
Sunset Strip in West Hollywood followed in 1970, and became a magnet for rock stars and industry executives. Mick Jagger dropped by; Elton John was practically a regular.
A decade later came the first overseas store, in Tokyo. By the mid-’90s the company had $1 billion in annual sales and more than 200 stores.
In 1990, at age 65, Solomon came in at No. 335 on Forbes’ famous list of the 400 richest Americans. The magazine pegged his wealth of $310 million. Is that all? he quipped to a reporter.
Tower headquarters in West Sacramento’s warehouse district was plain on the outside but bursting with color on the inside, emblematic of Solomon’s love of art. (Tower owned an art gallery.)
The headquarters artwork included hundreds of neckties confiscated by Solomon from any visitor silly enough to wear one in his presence, then tagged with the offender’s business card and placed in a glass display. He took the ties with him after Tower folded.
He gave people a lot of freedom, said longtime Tower executive Stan Goman. Did he care what time people came to work? No – he had no idea.
Dave Fouche, an employee during the 1960’s, said Solomon liked to have a good time and came across as loose … but he knew where his i’s were dotted and his t’s were crossed when it came to business.
Solomon loved new stores. When a grand opening in Austin, Texas, ran overtime, he reportedly told an underling, Just keep the booze going.
He rarely gave interviews, saying, I hate personal publicity. But when the self-described aging hippie did talk to the press, he exuded a swashbuckling spirit. Like the time in 1990 when he opened a Tower Books in ultra-competitive Manhattan.
I figured it was a pixie, chancy thing to do, he told the Wall Street Journal at the time. But I always wanted my stores in big cities.
After undergoing open-heart surgery, Solomon in 1998 surrendered the chief executive job to his son Michael, who’d been Tower’s general counsel. The elder Solomon remained board chairman.
By that point, music retailing was undergoing a major revolution. The Solomons were slow to react, and it possibly hastened Tower’s downfall.
It was a perfect storm: competition from big-box stores, Amazon, the major bookstore chains. College kids gleefully downloaded music for free on the rogue website Napster.
Tower had a website, too, but its heart was in brick-and-mortar. It kept opening new stores, in the U.S. and overseas. The internet is certainly never going to take the place of stores, Solomon told The Bee in 2000.
The going-out-of-business sales began the next morning. And on Dec. 22, 2006, the lights went out at the last remaining Tower store in Sacramento, on Watt Avenue.
Tower didn’t completely disappear. Its overseas stores, now owned by franchisees, continued in a handful of countries, notably Japan. The last remaining Tower in Europe, a store in Dublin, Ireland, tweeted an appreciation of Solomon on Monday: We’re keeping the flame well and truly lit.
Solomon didn’t stay retired for long. Six months after the liquidation sale ended in the U.S., Solomon was at it again. Working in partnership with his second wife, Patti Drosins, he opened a single shop called R5 Records, at the old location on Broadway. The name came from his first initial and his favorite number.
You may be crazy but you do it anyway, he once said, explaining his decision to go back into business. It’s a little like a painter that gets to retirement age and doesn’t retire.
Solomon was trying to prove to the world he was right, Goman said. He never lost vision.
PR-man David Salidor would begin every L. A. trip with a stop at Tower. “Once I was checked in at my hotel, Tower was my next stop. When Debbie Gibson was in L. A., her first trip out there, once we were settled I took her to Tower and that became a ritual for every visit out West. We also managed to stop in Sacramento and see that very first store too. I’d go into the West Hollywood-store at all hours and see everyone from Elton John to John Belushi there. It was always just so rewarding. A door has definitely closed.”
CD DAZE END — From Pop Matters: Thirty-five years after the format was introduced as one of the greatest audio advancements since the birth of recorded music — and unwittingly unleashed digitized music into the wild — the once indestructible compact disc received another existential wound in early 2018 after a report that two big box retailers were reassessing their approaches to physical CD sales.
Electronics outlet Best Buy will stop carrying most CDs in their stores, and Target is attempting to negotiate with distributors to switch to a consignment model, according to sources in the music business that declined to speak on the record for fear of jeopardizing business relationships. The news was first reported by Billboard.
The shift further confirms the format’s precipitous fall: Since peak plastic in 2001, CD sales have dropped 88 percent, from 712 million units to 85.4 million in 2017, according to Nielsen Music.
With casual music fans done with discs in favor of streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music, Best Buy is ceding the market to online retailers including Amazon and independent stalwarts such as Amoeba Music.
Which prompts the question: As with 78 rpm records and 8-track tapes before them, does the news further the compact disc’s march toward redundancy? Are CDs now on their way to becoming a niche product in the same manner as the cassette?
Best Buy will pare its CD selection over the next four to six months and at some point stop selling CDs through its online store, according to a label distribution salesperson who services music chains.
After it eliminates its racks, the store will likely sell discounted discs in much the same way as it does DVDs. (Best Buy did not respond to requests for comment.)
Independent retailers, meanwhile, have found there remains a consistent appetite for CDs. Sales of new CDs have long been trending down, but the used market is on the rise. In 2017, for instance, CD sales at secondary marketplace Discogs jumped 28 percent over 2016.That’s an increase that’s outpacing vinyl, which rose 19 percent.
With streaming services the way of the present, the news isn’t a shock to the system for the music industry. In 2017, chain stores such as Best Buy accounted for a mere 11 percent of CD sales, according to Nielsen Music.
By comparison, in 2004 that same retail sector, which then also included Borders, Circuit City and other now-shuttered sellers, accounted for 48.5 percent of CD sales. Their dominance was often cited as a primary reason independent outlets and midlevel retailers such as Tower Records suffered.
“I think Best Buy is unfortunately coming to the realization of why those retailers aren’t in business anymore,” says David Bakula, analyst for Nielsen Music. “They’re trying to be smarter about moving into the future, and that future is access to entertainment, not necessarily permanent storage of entertainment.”
For its part, Target already signaled its ambivalence to the format in the fall, when it reduced CD rack space to a mere 4 feet wide, a far cry from the glory days when music occupied multiple aisles.
Still, each week thousands of discs still move through Amoeba Music in Hollywood. The store’s co-owner, Jim Henderson, seemed nonplussed about Best Buy’s disinterest.
But there still could be fallout. For him, the news furthers a misperception that record stores and physical formats are an endangered species.
“I don’t know if you can look at this one signifier as symbolic of how everybody’s going to react to the viability of the format,” Henderson said. “The world is so much more complex than it was. With people’s buying habits, individuality really rings true more than in previous generations.”
Teens, for example, don’t need to buy LPs when they’re more easily accessed via Spotify, yet they have embraced the analog format’s tangibility.
When it was introduced, the CD was marketed as a durable, sturdy replacement for what the music business characterized as warp-prone long-playing albums and unstable cassettes.
Behind the marketing spin, the format was considered the savior of struggling record labels whose main material expense at the time, vinyl, fluctuated with the price of petroleum. The compact disc promised major labels higher, and more predictable, profit margins, one reason why the digital reproduction system had the full backing of the industry.
“The system is real, it works, and the consumer won’t have to worry that in six months something will come along to make it obsolete,” PolyGram Records then-marketing vice president Emiel Petrone raved to The New York Times in March 1983.
He wasn’t wrong; it took about 15 years until Napster crashed the party. Billions of discs have changed hands in the interim, even if the argument of the format’s superiority to the LP remains a hotly debated topic among audiophiles.
Permanent Records’ two vinyl-heavy locations in Los Angeles still carry a small selection of used CDs, says owner Lance Berresi. When he opened Permanent’s first shop, in Chicago in 2006, 80 percent of its business was in used CDs.
Now, says Berresi, it’s under 5 percent — but people still buy them.”It may be the end of an era for Best Buy, but that doesn’t mean that people are done with the format in general,” he says. “It just means that it’s not profitable enough for them to make it worth their square footage.”
A lot of cars still have disc players, Berresi adds, and despite Apple Music’s best efforts, he says, not everyone is in a huge rush to upgrade.
Asked about trends at Amoeba’s three California locations, Henderson conceded that CD sales continue to experience a gradual decline, while vinyl sales have maintained their striking rise over the past decade. He added that discs still account for a third of Amoeba’s business and that the slowdown has tapered in the past few years, after a period when first-generation streaming services initially cut into downloads and physical sales.
As when CDs supplanted LPs starting in the late 80’s, perception among fans that a new future has arrived has prompted a mass exodus. It’s currently a buyer’s market for used CDs, with indie shops paying only a buck or two for secondhand stock.
There could be an upside for mom-and-pop shops, says Nielsen Music’s Bakula: “The independent stores who benefited from the LP boom, when you couldn’t get them anywhere else, maybe they also benefit from the CDs.”
The trends do raise another question: How much longer will it make financial sense for artists and labels to manufacture CDs?
While the industry’s future may be in streaming, the compact disc still has a pulse, says Bruce Resnikoff, president and CEO of UMe, Universal Music Group’s global catalog business.
“Make no mistake, streaming will continue to grow and become even more central to how fans discover and listen to music,” Resnikoff said in a statement. “At the same time, CDs and vinyl remain a significant part of our business and will be around for a very long time.”
He added that plenty of overseas markets are still rather in tune with CDs.
“Our industry is global, and CDs remain an important way for people buy music in some of the world’s biggest markets like Japan, Germany and France,” Resnikoff wrote. “As long as there are music fans who want CDs and vinyl, and there are plenty of those customers out there, we will make sure our music is available in those formats.”
Harout Hovsepyan, owner of compact disc duplication company Hollywood Disc in Glendale, hadn’t heard about Best Buy’s retreat, but he said that so few musicians ever landed their work in the chain’s racks that it won’t likely affect his clientele, who normally order a few hundred at a time to sell at gigs.
“Now I have so many customers who are doing short runs. Small quantities, but they do a lot. It’s crazy,” he said.
Gone, he explained, are the days when those same acts were placing orders for 5,000 copies. They’re now committing to runs of 200-500.
Amoeba’s Henderson said he can imagine a time when CDs experience a resurgence, but he wouldn’t go so far as to suggest the format will become as beloved as vinyl. nor does he expect a CD collector’s market to rival LPs.
Part of it is the sheer quantity of used product available. Equally important, most compact discs lack the signifiers that create demand: different pressings, unique packaging and artful covers — the markers that make LPs collectible.
The format’s future mostly faces a less objective hurdle, Henderson says. “Ultimately, it’s a really good product. It’s just that right now it’s being squeezed a little bit and has a little bit of an identity crisis.”
Which is to say, it’s not hip to brag about your pristine, impressively deep CD collection — yet.
SHORT TAKES — How could they leave Glen Campbell, Adam West, Powers Boothe, Tobe Hoper, Della Reese and Robert Guillaume and Sandy Gallin out of the In Memoriam segment? Shameful. btw: Eddie Vedder, signing Tom Petty’’s “A Room At The Top” was just terrific. What a voice! … When Kimmel
pulled his show-stunt – going into a nearby theater to surprise the audience, Gal Godot said not once, but twice, this is so much better than the Oscars …geeze, will someone tell her what a hot mic is … Anyone see Netflix’s Lost In Space trailer for their new series released yesterday? Looked great. The robot was there and this time around, bad-guy Dr. Smith is a woman – Parker Posey. Here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzmM0AB60QQ …More than 80 stars of film and TV walked the red Carpet at the 3rd Annual Roger Neal Hollywood Oscar Viewing Party and five-course sit down dinner soiree at the historic and legendary Hollywood Museum. Here’s producer Joel Diamond and singer/actress Rebecca Holden and, author Mark Bego sat with Variety’s Roy Trakin yesterday for a talk about Bego’s “Eat Like A Rock Star”-tome at Katsuya in Studio City , CA …Last night at Feinstein’s/54 below was Mia Moravis’ Session Girls. What a tremendous night of superb
performances and music. I was really knocked out – details Friday. Seen in the audience were Broadway Records Van Dean; Kelly Hall-Tompkins who’s new album The Fiddler Expanding Tradition is just out on Broadway Records; PR-pasha David Salidor and Gia Ramsey. What an awesome show … Happy BDay to Mary Wilson!
NAMES IN THE NEWS — Roy Trakin; Deb Caponetta; Dina Pitenis; Bill Murray; Tom & Lisa Cuddy; Guitvic; Eppy; Dan Kellachan; Peter Shendell; Rob Shuter; Andy Skurow; Paul Iorio; Fred Goodman; Jim Bessman; James Edstrom; and CFS.