If you are one of those few remaining souls who still gets music the old-fashioned way, and if you live in one of the twenty states home to at least one of Tower Records’s eighty-nine American stores, chances are you’ve heard the news: Tower, the last and largest of the great “brick-and-mortar” record store chains, is going out of business. After more than four decades as one of the leading music sellers in the country, Tower Records is just weeks away from death, leaving many in the industry–from label executives and independent record store owners to music critics and fans–wondering just what it all means.
Despite the company’s illustrious history, it hardly came as a shock when Tower announced in August that it would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for the second time since 2004. After recovering from its first bankruptcy, Tower had failed to improve on desperate sales numbers amid fierce competition from retail chains, popular online sellers like Amazon.com and, most significant, the rapidly growing digital market. The company started losing money in the late 1990s, at about the same time that CD sales began declining and music downloads took off. Since then, retail music sales have dropped roughly 20 percent. Last year alone, album sales fell nearly 8 percent, while legal digital downloads increased by 200 percent. By the beginning of August, three major record labels had stopped shipping CDs to Tower because the music seller had stopped paying its bills, and when Tower filed for bankruptcy later that month, it was $210 million in the red.
But if Tower had become an outdated relic, it remained a cherished one, and the dirges began soon after an October auction left the fallen music industry icon in the hands of a liquidation firm. Anthony Tommasini, who writes about classical music for the New York Times, described in somber tones the “final pilgrimages” made by him and other loyalists to the “dying” and already “funereal” classical department at the Tower near the concert halls of Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. Others sought cathartic release by recalling Tower trips of yesteryear–like one bereaved writer in the Philadelphia Inquirer, who described journeys of “self-discovery” to Philadelphia’s South Street Tower and even credited the record store with bringing him and his future wife together (no, they did not work there, and never bumped into each other while browsing the stacks. The store’s mojo was just that powerful).
It was the same story on the West Coast, where Tower Records got its start in a Sacramento pharmacy called Tower Drugs. A columnist for a Northern California paper, trying not to sound like “an old guy raging against the future” but doing so anyway, remembered Tower as “the ultimate in cool, hip, badness.” On the Huffington Post, none other than Alec Baldwin bemoaned the loss of the famous store on Sunset Boulevard, a La-La Land institution just down the block from the Viper Room and apparently one of Baldwin’s “favorite stores to get lost in.” As the liquidation sale got under way at Tower Sunset, the store’s marquee summed up the general mood with some well-chosen words from pop veterans R.E.M.: “The End of the World As We Know It.” Conspicuously absent was the flip irony of the song’s next line: “And I Feel Fine.”