Saturday, December 16, 2006

Farewell, Tower Records

Let me begin by thanking Time Magazine for making me person of the year. I appreciate it, guys. But I wish you could have used a better picture of me for the cover. :)

Speaking of me, it seems that “I” (or somewhat tech-savvy people like me) have been blamed for the demise of Tower Records, one of the largest independent music stores. The week of December 17 should be their last week of business. Responding to a local ad last week touting their huge sale, I visited two regional Tower Records stores. Sure enough, by this time most of the “big name” music stars had left the building. But being the scrounging expert that I am, during my 2-store Tower shopping spree I was able to find (but not always buy) material from Kelly Clarkson, Enrique Iglesias, Heart, the Roches, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Pete Seeger, John Denver, Raffi, Enya and the soundtracks to both “Superman” and “Follow that Bird.” That's not too bad for stores that were probably nearly 75% empty.

With any luck, soon I will make my last visit to a Tower Records near my family's home. And if I'm not too hurried by crazed shoppers, I'll take a moment to be thankful.

Why am I bothering to make the trip when the stores are practically empty now? Ah, that's the glory of music stores. There's always that tiny chance that you'll find a real treasure. And that was the power of Tower. Music fans shopped Tower Records because of the great potential of finding something special. Most of the places you buy music today (including many Internet sites) don't have that kind of draw. They may have a large selection, but they don't have a UNIQUE selection, or even a GOOD selection. There is a difference.

Tower's demise has been blamed on the rapid rise in Internet music downloads. I don't have an iTunes account (yet), and I don't download much music from the Internet. Yet I haven't been doing much music CD buying either. Why not? Two main reasons:

1. The high cost of music CDs
2. The lack of music I want to buy

I'm not too old yet, but I already feel that I'm out of the loop as far as modern popular music is concerned. Although there are certainly some fine artists out there, most of the acts hold no special appeal to me. And I don't think I'm alone. Do you know what the number one single in the nation is right now? Do you CARE? Hey, how long has it been since you even bought a single? How long has it been since ANYONE has?! I'm only partly kidding. The demise of Tower is visible evidence of a general “who cares” attitude toward collecting popular music that is permeating our culture. It's sad. Music is usually a good thing, and diversity in music is appealing. With Tower gone, some of our choices are also gone. It's like we're being punished for not spending more money on music.

The music CD craze was a great opportunity to get good-quality copies of some of our favorite albums. But now, we've already got most of those albums on CD. While I may like a band, if I've already got all the songs by them that I want, I probably won't make the effort to buy a lesser-known album by them. So with us old guys completing our collections and the young guys moving over to the Internet, Tower Records was in a bad position which it ultimately couldn't recover from.

But there are plenty of albums out there that STILL haven't made it to CD. And I would definitely have purchased music from Tower Records if they had carried classic albums by the Centurymen, the Gamble Folk, Lorin Whitney, Marj Snyder and of course – THE UNRELEASED 1970-1985 SESAME STREET RECORDS! (You knew that was coming, didn't you?) But sadly, because these are such “niche” markets, I have to rely on my analog stuff.

On a somewhat related note: The success or failure of the new HD radio will rest on how important it is to the average listener. But if consumers think that paying too much for music is bad, it's doubtful that they will be willing to pay too much for more music – or more talk shows. Hence the initial weakness of HD radio. Frankly, I haven't heard of much material on it to justify getting it. There we have the two reasons again: Too costly, and not enough good material.

What's the future for pop music consumers? Internet downloads bring the price down. But at the cost of album aesthetics and the enjoyment of browsing the record bins. Will future generations miss the fun of picking out who is who on the Sgt. Pepper cover?

As a longtime music collector, I regret the passing of Tower. The store had a lot of potential. That's what brought us in. Let's hope that some other stores will be able to at least try to carry the tradition by providing a good selection of the music we can't find anywhere else.