Tower Records: Death by Internet

Retailers come and go. So the passing of yet another retailer should not bother me at all. Yet somehow today, when I passed the Tower Record store here in Fairfax, Virginia and saw the giant “Going Out of Business” and “Everything Must Go!” signs in the windows, I felt both sad and nostalgic.

Tower Records was a nationwide music retailer with a counter culture attitude and a huge selection of music. It always felt avant garde. You knew, even if you were in the classical music section of the store (which was typically walled off by high glass walls) that the clerk at the counter probably had a stud through his tongue and piercings through his ears or lips. He or she was probably dressed in clothes from Hot Topic. If there were counter culture newspapers in the area, they would be in a rack near the checkout counter. It was a “record” store with a nonconformanist attitude.

It is tempting to suggest that its name killed it. Vinyl records, except for the few who regale in being retro, went out of fashion in the 1980s. Despite being hip, Tower Records never bothered to change its name to Tower CDs and DVDs. It would be understandable if the latest generation just passed by the store. They could credibly ask, “What the heck is a record anyhow?” Today’s generation grew up on CDs, not 33 1/3 RPMs. (“What’s an RPM?”) Not surprisingly, it was this latest generation that killed Tower Records. They grew up in an Internet age. Once the Internet’s bandwidth and data speed problems were conquered, there was no need to go and buy music anymore. In fact, paying for music became old fashioned. Instead, you downloaded Napster, or Kazaa, or most recently, BitTorrent, found the music you wanted and generally did not pay a dime. This was much less expensive, and more convenient than going to a “record” store where you would shell out $15 to $20 for a compact disc just to get a song or two by the artist that you really wanted. That such fire sharing was in most cases technically illegal only made it more alluring.

It was not the “record” in Tower Records that killed it. It tried to keep up with the times by creating its own online web site, where you could choose from an like selection of music. No, it was the Internet that killed Tower. Try as it might, it could not adapt to this new paradigm.

I feel nostalgic about this transition. When I needed music, Tower Records was my destination of choice. I knew I would often pay $5 more for a CD than I would at a place like Best Buy. Yet I also knew that if I were looking for something eclectic, it would not be at the Best Buy anyhow.

I should have seen it coming. Over the last few years, I had been less and less in the Tower Records habit. This was mainly because I am one of a dying breed of classical music aficionados and their classical music department kept shrinking. It used to take up two aisles, and I could also find an extensive opera collection against the back wall. Also along the back wall was the compulsory copy of the Schwann Catalog of Classical Music. You could thumb it and find every recording ever made of the 1812 Overture. If you wanted some obscure 20-year-old recording, there was a good chance you could find it at Tower Records.

Tower learned that its money was not made selling classical music. What a shame. I could spend an hour or two very blissfully in its classical music aisles while some gorgeous classical music, often an aria by a famous soprano, played through the overhead speakers. Then it became one aisle. Then half an aisle. Then they stopped playing the classical music altogether because the back of the store had morphed into something else. Then the DVDs arrived and took up the front part of the store. They were followed by their eclectic but very limited selection of mostly odd books. And they were followed by the naughty but not too naughty adult videos and skin magazines.

All killed by the Internet. Today as I walked the halls of my local Tower Records, likely for the last time, a third of the stock was gone. What remained had justly been left behind. The good stuff had been quickly sold. The classical music that remained took up a single rack, and it was all mediocre stuff. What was left of the Rock Music section consisted largely of groups you have never heard about. Of those of whom you have heard, there were plenty of recordings representing them at their worst. Tower Records was dead. The clerk did not have a stud through his tongue. The music coming from overhead was still hard ass rock and roll, but the few patrons like me wandering its aisles were simply looking for bargains. In reality, there was none to be found. What music that remained was not worth spending any money on. The patrons were not the counter culture teens or young adults I remembered. They were older, harried looking adults, the type I see at garage sales, not at Tower Records.

While Tower Records is dead, retail music has not wholly disappeared. Borders Books has a fine selection of music. Arguably, for the last few years its classical collection has been the best in my area. Yes, while its selection feels voluminous, it cannot compare with Tower Records in its prime. Moreover, Borders is a soulless place. I never felt that way about Tower Records. In its prime, going to Tower Records was like going to Starbucks is for many today. It was as much a destination and a place to feel at home with your own kind (the eclectic music lover) as it was a place to shop. It had, in its own quirky way, a sort of ambience. Now, the Internet has put a stake through its heart.

I wonder if Vinton Cerf, the inventor of the Internet, is also a Tower Records fan. I wonder, as his invention of the late 1960s enters its full flowering and makes things like this blog possible, whether he is shedding a tear that his invention killed such a wonderful business and destination.

Tower Records is gone, mourned and appreciated, but should never be forgotten.

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