How Tower Records Committed Suicide

The calamity caused by the liquidation of Tower Records doesn’t just consist of the 2700 workers fired and the dozens of small label releases that will lose their most important national outlet. It isn’t just that Tower will certainly take down with it some indie labels and distributors to whom it owed a fortune. It certainly isn’t just the eight-figure losses each of the major labels will absorb, probably resulting in more firings at those that aren’t already pared to the bone.

You’re going to feel the demise of Tower too, even if there isn’t a Tower anywhere near you. Tower died not because of illegal downloading or any other record biz boogeyman. What killed the chain, in the final analysis, is the breakneck expansion and consolidation of the past 20 years. Although Tower didn’t participate in the merger and acquisition of other chains which have led to so many other bankruptcies, it did attempt to spread tentacles coast to coast and continent to continent.

Tower CEO Russ Solomon is revered in the music industry. But why? In the name of profit, Solomon made Tower one of the chains that most avidly championed Tipper stickers and record label lyric screening committees. Combined with the equally crazy campaign to condemn fair use of copyrighted material to the dustbin of history, this shrewd maneuver choked the most exciting record-making climate since the dawn of rock’n’roll. Then he expanded his California business all the way to New York and Tokyo, without managing to figure out how to do anything but lose money.

Now, consider what you’ll do for an alternative. Probably, if you’re a big music fan, you’ll do more ordering from the Internet–meaning a wait of a day to a week before you can hear the music you’ve paid for.

What you won’t be doing is going to your town’s record store with the knowledgeable staff . That store doesn’t exist any more. Most likely, price competition from the chains drove it out of existence. So what we get out of the process is a temporary set of lowball prices, vastly fewer musical options, and a long-term lack of convenience and absence of expertise.

This phenomena operates throughout our society. It’s the reason airlines and oil companies, insurers and drug corporations, even electricity providers, jack up prices and strip down their services. Most of the time, the only people who come out smiling are the financiers, who peel off a part of every dollar in order to hire sometimes great artists to play at their birthday parties.

Tower Records was a poster child for “hip capitalism,” a fig leaf term meant to cover a system which justifies itself by providing “competition” that leads to “innovation”–until the reckoning comes and the cartel or monopoly begins to take shape, driving out all not on the inside. The idea that this has made our society wealthy, efficient and convenient is lunacy, as Tower’s demise confirms.

Tower Records was a suicide.

The choice we face is whether we’d like our entire society to do the same or whether we will begin working to change it fundamentally.

LEE BALLINGER is coeditor of one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, Rock and Rap Confidential, where this article originally appeared. He can be reached at: Rockrap@aol.com

For a free copy of the latest RRC issue, email your postal address to: RRC, Box 341305, LA CA 90034 or send an email to: Rockrap@aol.com




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Lee Ballinger, CounterPunch’s music columnist, is co-editor of Rock and Rap Confidential author of the forthcoming book Love and War: My First Thirty Years of Writing, interviewed Honkala for CounterPunch. RRRC is now available for free by emailing Ballinger at: rockrap@aol.com.

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