Tower Records: Seeing the Music
This was inevitable: Tower Records, for many music lovers the place where passions were born and raised, is going down the tubes--bankrupted by the digital revolution.
In just 15 years, the number of chain record stores in the country has plummeted from 9,000 to 2,500, and there's no end in sight. Sure, it's easier and faster to download music, and you don't even have to put on pants to do it.
But for more than 70 years, the physical act of going to the record store to discover and buy music has not only supported the recorded music industry, but has provided millions of Americans with entree to roads untraveled. This is a loss we won't really feel until it's way too late. I love music blogs, suggestion engines on amazon and other music sites, and other newfangled ways to spread the word about new sounds. But none of them come close to the experience of finding a record store clerk who is deeply schooled in a world of music that I've never heard before.
I grew up in New York City spending many Sunday nights at the Tower Records outlet in the East Village. This sprawling store had all the charm of a discount supermarket--it was essentially an enormous barn full of obscure classical and jazz records dumped into bins in no particular order. But the place was full of staffers and customers who not only knew what treasures were hidden in those bins, but felt it was their mission in life to win total strangers over to the soaring possibilities that awaited listeners. It was at Tower that I, like so many other teenagers, escaped the confines of radio-driven pop fare and wandered into alleys of delicious aural obscurity.
I still run into music evengelists like those clerks and customers, but only in random reporting visits to people's houses--I was at the home of a Montgomery County political candidate this week and got into a good talk about his cool collection of CDs and vinyl. But the loss of a place to go where you can reliably find new sounds is sad. Music blogs are coming up with ever more creative ways to replace the record store clerk--Mack Collier's 100 CDs for 100 Bloggers idea is an encouraging sign that music blogs may yet prove to be supportive of the recording artists --but to benefit from music blogs, you have to have some notion of what you're looking for. You have to know that a musical genre exists and might be of interest before you are likely to search for that particular kind of sound.
Whereas at Tower, all you had to do was walk in the door and through the magic of serendipity, you might stumble upon a clerk who simply had to put the latest Glenn Gould recording on the PA system, and so a kid who had never before known that you could do something entirely new with Bach suddenly discovered a sound that might change his life.
For all its splendors, the web has yet to overcome that basic advantage that the physical world has, whether in print or in a bricks and mortar store--the power of chance, of your eye wandering on the page to an article on a topic you didn't know you were interested in, of your ears luring you into a record store to hear sounds you would never know to seek out on the open web.
I will miss Tower, but to be totally honest, I should add that I haven't set foot in a Tower store--or any record store--in more than a year. The machine I'm typing on right now is simply too easy, too instantaneous, and the effort it takes to get down to Foggy Bottom and go to Tower hardly ever seems worthwhile, even though I know somewhere inside that it would pay off.
That's why Tower is dying, and that, in some way we can't entirely see today, is a bad thing.
Tell me why I'm wrong....
By Marc Fisher |
August 24, 2006; 7:47 AM ET
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