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Tower Records Founder Russ Solomon Dies at 92

Russ Solomon, founder of Tower Records, arguably the first nationwide record supermarket, died Sunday night in his hometown of Sacramento, Calif., He was 92.

According to the Sacramento Bee, Solomon was watching the Academy Awards ceremony when he apparently suffered a heart attack, said his son, Michael Solomon. “Ironically, he was giving his opinion of what someone was wearing that he thought was ugly, then asked [his wife] Patti to refill his whisky,” Solomon said. She found him dead when she returned.

Solomon’s operation developed from a business he founded as a teenager to re-sell 78 rpm jukebox records in his father’s Sacramento drug store into a record retail behemoth that operated dozens of stores across the U.S. and in territories from London to Tokyo.

From the ‘70s through the ‘90s, Tower was the reigning music retailer in the country, in some years grossing more than $1 billion. While other prominent chains like Musicland sported more stores, Tower’s enormous volume, backed by its canny merchandising, placed them at No. 1 among U.S. music merchants.

Prior to Tower’s expansion from its Sacramento base, record stores were relatively small and held limited inventory; Solomon pioneered the concept of the deep-catalog destination record store where a music fan could find anything, and often did, with assistance from the experts that could be found in nearly every outlet (many of its long-term executives began their careers as shipping clerks). An artist’s complete catalog was usually in stock, along with imported items and singles; in many cities, there were few other places to find certain independent and overseas releases.

Upon entering a Tower store (the outside walls of which were usually festooned with gigantic hand-painted billboards touting new releases), customers were greeted by tall stacks of the latest albums near the front door. Long aisles were packed with bins containing thousands of titles in every imaginable genre. The stores stayed open late and became evening hangouts for thousands of music fans, who’d stop in and buy a few items as part of their nights out: The Towers on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and Broadway in New York’s Greenwich Village were landmarks in their own right. The chain also expanded into the book and home video businesses, sometimes opening adjacent free-standing stores.

The origin story of Tower Records was worthy of Horatio Alger: As a 16-year-old in 1941, Solomon began marketing records at the family pharmacy abutting a local movie house, the Tower Theater. Though he continued the business for years, it crashed in 1960, but he persevered with a small loan.

The modern Tower Records concept took off with Solomon’s inauguration of a large store, with generous parking, on San Francisco’s Columbus Avenue in 1968, and an equally spacious location on Sunset near Holloway, in the heart of the Strip, in West Hollywood in 1970.

The firm’s everything-under-the-musical-sun style moved east in the ensuing decades. In 1979, Tower opened its first Japanese store; a Tokyo outlet is the only one to bear the company’s shingle today. Operations in a dozen other international territories followed. By the company’s (and the music business’) late-1990s peak, its Greenwich Village locations occupied the entire south side of West 4th Street between Broadway and Lafayette Streets — an implausibly large store dedicated exclusively to international music was next door to the main branch — and across Lafayette was Tower Video.

Yet it’s difficult to think of a business that was impacted more by the rise of file-sharing, the Internet and Amazon than Tower. Napster and other illegal file-sharing services made music widely available at no cost;  Amazon enabled customers to shop from home; unlike Tower, big-box retailers like Best Buy (which, ironically, announced only last month that it will cease selling compact discs in July), Wal-Mart and Target drew the majority of their profits from other products and were able to offer lower prices for music to people who still went to stores.

Most catastrophically, Tower continued to expand its reach internationally as physical sales of music began to feel the pinch. Bank loans of more than $300 million to open foreign outlets proved to be more than the company could handle.

Tower filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2004, but no turnaround was in the offing; in 2006, on hold with major-label suppliers who had forgiven some debt two years earlier, the company was forced to liquidate its assets after a second filing. By that time Solomon, who underwent open heart surgery in 1998, had handed the day-to-day reins of the company to son Michael. Other megastores that arose in the wake of Tower’s success, such as Virgin Megastore, FYF and HMV, held on for a few years and then too gave up.

Yet it was difficult for Russ Solomon to say farewell to the business of selling records: Just a few months after Tower’s demise, he opened a single mom-and-pop store, R5, not far from Tower’s first location in Sacramento. But he gave up the endeavor after three years, selling out to a local competitor.

Though Solomon was a no-nonsense business player, he enjoyed a freewheeling lifestyle. Like many of his employees, he sported a beard and wore his hair down to his collar. An enduring part of his legend was the wall display in Tower’s Sacramento home office of the neckties he had clipped off his visitors. He loved a party as much as his staffers. He was quick with a quip, had a sophisticated appreciation for art and photography and liked nothing more than talking about a current or favorite book.

The deep impact of Solomon’s vision on music retailing was captured in the elegiac 2015 documentary “All Things Must Pass,” produced by Colin Hanks, which featured Solomon and other Tower execs.

Solomon is survived by his second wife, former music executive Patti Drosins, and his son.

Jim Donio, president of retail trade group the Music Business Assocation (formerly the National Association of Recording Merchandisers), said in a statement, “Russ was quite outspoken and having a conversation with him about the music business was always a priceless education. He never ceased to amaze me with his unique wit and wisdom. I had actually just spoken with Russ a few days ago about a special tribute we’re planning for him at our 60th Anniversary Conference in May, and he planned to be there.”

 

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