Established in 1960, Tower Records was once a retail powerhouse with 200 stores, in 30 countries, on five continents. From humble beginnings in a small-town drugstore, Tower Records eventually became the heart and soul of the music world, and a powerful force in the music industry. In 1999, Tower Records made an astounding $1 billion. In 2006, the company filed for bankruptcy. What went wrong? Everyone thinks they know what killed Tower Records: The Internet. But that’s not the story.
Directed by Colin Hanks, and featuring music icons like Dave Grohl, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, All Things Must Pass is a feature documentary film examining this iconic company’s explosive trajectory, tragic demise, and legacy forged by its rebellious founder Russ Solomon. For seven years, Hanks took on the documentary that lamented and celebrated the Sacramento-based record store that grew from his hometown into an American retail powerhouse.
What We Thought:
I’ve wanted to see All Things Must Pass for a while now and it didn’t disappoint. Colin Hanks’ documentary on the rise and fall of Tower Records was entertaining and educational.
Tower Records wasn’t super big in Massachusetts, at last not to me. I usually went to Strawberries, Record Town and then Circuit City and Best Buy when they came about. We had a Nobody Beats the Wiz at one point and I think FYE too (we might still have FYE, I have no idea). I grew up in the 80s & 90s so music stores (like comic book shops, baseball card stores and video rental stores) were my safe haven. I remember buying cassingles (cassette singles) and my first ever CD was Cypress Hill’s Black Sunday.
But I took a trip out to Los Angeles in 2001 (I would later move there before heading back to Boston) and on that trip I made sure I hit Tower Records on Sunset. It was like visiting The Whiskey or Mann’s Chinese. It was a must see for me. The documentary showed why it was a must see, celebs like Bruce Springsteen and Elton John went all the time and Elton used to have the place opened just for him!
I had no idea how Tower Records got started. Do we ever really pay attention to how big chains start out? Well this certainly educated me. Turns out, the first one was started in Sacramento, CA at an old-time pharmacy with a soda counter. They sold their used 45’s and when those sold out they bought new ones and sold those. That lead to extending the store and ultimately its own location. We may look bad upon franchises in today’s world, but every franchise started small somewhere.
The craziest part about Tower Records was, as they grew on the West Coast, they expanded to Japan before heading east. Yeah Japan had a store before most of America did. As the move from vinyl to CD started to take over, Tower expanded throughout the US and most of the world. They were making money hand over fist and then, like most subjects of documentaries, all things must pass.
Tower made a lot of bad decisions that would eventually land them in bankruptcy. Sure you can blame Napster for creating a generation of kids that didn’t want to pay for music, but Tower didn’t adapt to changes other places made. They kept their CD prices high when big stores like Wal-Mart were only $10 and they expanded way too much and put themselves into debt. Most brick & mortar stores are out of business now, but Tower could have lasted longer than it did if it was smarter and adapted to technology.
I’ve seen a lot of documentaries recently about the decline of physical media and physical stores. As someone who grew up on them (and still prefer physical media) it makes me sad. VHS Massacre shows the decline of video stores and how technological changes reshaped the movie industry. Well All Things Must Pass does the exact same thing for the music industry. Tower was once a leader of the industry and now you can only find physical stores in Japan. A very interesting documentary from Colin Hanks.
Cast & Crew:
- Colin Hanks
- Dave Grohl
- Bruce Springsteen
- Elton John
Recommended If You Like:
- Sound City
- Brick and Mortar and Love
- Rock/Music Documentaries