I think a tipping point for my love of music was the first time I visited the Piccadilly Circus store of Tower Records in 1992. Up until then, my record retail experience was limited to the awful chain stores around Philly, and the little shops in Ithaca that carried a few stacks of used and promo CDs and not much else. So, it was a blast to have a huge space to wander around in and explore all kinds of great stuff — Tower and HMV became my haunts when I wasn’t working, and my ideal for what a great, big, fun record store should be. Four years later, Tower would be the first store to offer online CD sales. And, you could say, it went downhill for them ever since.
Today, I tell my readers and seminar attendees all the time that record stores are no longer great places to sell records. It’s hard to find spaces big enough and comfortable enough to let folks just explore and listen to anything, the way that Tower would let me so many years ago. (And yes, I expect a flood of e-mail from folks telling me that Tower didn’t even scratch the surface, that Tower Records sucks, and that Store X or Store Y was, and hopefully still is, awesome. Back in the day, I loved ’em.)
Today’s music buyers mostly get their music online, and older shoppers hit places like Borders and Sam Goody and Best Buy for whatever’s on the charts anyway. (I was surprised to see Best Buy run a reggae promotion this month, though!) While retailers still get the best piece of the list price pie, stores like Tower find it hard to compete with big box retailers that sell chart hits for a penny above wholesale.
So here’s another gong of the funeral chimes — the major record labels are suspending shipments to Tower because they can’t pay their wholesale bills. This is, in fact, the second time that Tower has had to turn out its pockets, and the labels won’t be fooled twice. The real estate vultures are circling over Tower’s properties, and it might not be long before another institution fades out.
If you want to see pictures of the last time in American history that folks went to record stores just to grab the latest stuff, check out these great images from Tower Records’ online museum.