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The stirring story of Tower Records

Actor/director Colin Hanks talks about his documentary on record chain, Tower Records: “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records.”

By Allison Johnelle Boron

Part brick-and-mortarmusic store, part cult-like mecca of audiophiles from the Midwest to Japan, Tower Records once stood as the figurehead of the music industry. No, even better — it was the standard to which all other physical retailers strived to achieve: a record store that felt like home, manned by people who felt like your family. Under the guidance of founder Russ Solomon, Tower grew from a small record outlet in Solomon’s Sacramento, Calif., family drugstore to a bustling worldwide conglomerate, amazingly, without losing the close-knit vibe of its genesis. When the music business came crashing down in the late 1990s, however, Tower found itself at the brink of extinction, particularly when Solomon’s crew was replaced with MBA-touting suits who tried to steer the Titanic from the iceberg, but ultimately failed.

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All Things Must Pass,” a stirring documentary, chronicles the rise and fall of Tower’s massive empire, documenting not only its glory days as the blockbuster megastore, but also attempting to figure out why exactly it sunk so damn fast. Was it the rise of free-music-sharing platforms like Napster, or did Tower simply grow too big for its britches too fast? One thing’s for sure: the film will definitely awaken the warm fuzzies inside those vinylphiles who lament a now-bygone era when your local Tower clerk knew your name, you could spend hours digging through bins of deep cuts and “Spotify” wasn’t even a word. The bulk of footage involves Tower’s long-standing employees, along with candid one-on-ones with Russ Solomon himself, now in his 90s, which gives dimension and personality to what looked like, to many people in its heyday, a faceless retail giant.

Actor Colin Hanks (yes, son of Tom) directed the film and grew up patronizing Tower’s flagship store in Sacramento. We spoke to Hanks about his decision to make the leap from acting to documentary directing, what he learned from Russ Solomon and why Tower Records’ iconic “No Music, No Life” slogan is his personal motto.

GM: Was there a certain moment in time when you realized that there was a really interesting, documentary-worthy story wrapped up in this retail shop, or was it something you sort of kept in your back pocket for a while?

Colin Hanks: There’s so much about Tower that we talk about in the film that I didn’t necessarily know as concrete fact or evidence when I was a kid. But a lot of the stuff that we talked about — this idea of the doors always being open, and it being a welcoming environment, a place where you wanted to work (or) you could hang out, where you could buy things, it being a store that had deep inventory and a large catalog — I picked that up when I was in the store by, like, osmosis. I didn’t know these things, and I didn’t really stop to think about it until after it was gone.

The more I researched the company, the more I got to know people who worked there and really started to talk with people about what (they) loved about Tower. Some of these people are in the film, and some of them are just conversations I had. I didn’t really know any of this stuff growing up, but man, it really did leave an impression — that very subtle sort of impression. One of the really great things about Tower was that they weren’t always claiming, “This is the best way to (run a business, sell records),” it was just the way that they did it, and it worked. It obviously affected me, and it affected a lot of people.

The great golden era of Tower, if you will, the early ‘70s on the Sunset Strip, that era of people coming and hanging out at the store, and Tower being a destination, a place that you went to — that really perfectly describes my Tower Records in 1991. I mean, it’s the exact same thing, it’s just a different time, different era. I had CDs, I didn’t have vinyl. Yet, it’s still the same things, all those Tower principles years later. For me, it wasn’t until the stores were closing, and I found out about that drugstore, a fascinating piece of history that I knew nothing about. I went, “Oh well, that’s a story! That sounds like the beginning of a documentary.”

GM: When you first decided to make the film, did you have a goal in mind? Was it simply to tell the Tower story or to speculate about what exactly it was that brought the entire chain crashing down?

CH: At the very early stages, I was very cognizant of the fact that we wanted to tell the history of Tower, the rise of the company and things that made the company special and unique, which at that time were much more (than) just historical. Obviously, we were pretty fortunate in that we had a company here that was quite iconic that had a beginning, a middle and an end — a three-arched structure that we could follow. But one of the things that I was very adamant about early on was that Tower was, for a majority of people, the first casualty of the death of the music industry, if you will. I did want to be able to find the reasons for Tower’s demise.

But there were three things that became very obvious. One wasthat not only did we have an incredibly engaging main character in Russ Solomon, who is a character (laughs), who was adamant that the Tower Records story was not just “the Russ Solomon story,” but was really the story of this family and these kids that came on board very early on and spent a better chunk of their lives working for this company.

There was the other important facet of wanting to have them tell their story and not have a narrator or some third person telling the story of Tower. I wanted Tower to be able to represent itself. But I also wanted to make sure we were able to have a voice or voices that could speak to the overall music industry at that time. At which point I discovered the Steve Knopper book, “Appetite for Self-Destruction,” and really got a lot more interested in the overall ramp up to why things happened the way they did (in the music industry), how that affected Tower and what part Tower played in those kinds of things. Those were probably the biggest discoveries, some of which were self-imposed and some of which were happy accidents and, quite honestly in some cases, just pure luck, pure chance.

GM: The film’s take on the fall of Tower Records is interesting, because I think most people are quick to blame death of the music industry on free file-sharing services like Napster, but the film theorizes that maybe it was Tower’s own fault because they overextended their resources, opened too many stores too quickly and their own hubris contributed to the the company’s demise.

CH: I see two big misconceptions. One is most definitely that Napster killed the power and the music industry. It definitely killed a part, but it’s not the sole reason, at least not for Tower. Also, this idea that Tower (was a) huge corporation that put mom-and-pop record stores out of business. You could definitely make that argument that that’s true, but that’s why I also wanted to make sure we were having the conversation as to the price wars between Tower and, say, Wal-Mart or pretty much anyone else selling CDs at that point, because it really becomes this free-for-all.

I really wanted to make sure that people remembered, or at least discovered, that Tower actually started off as a small, mom-and-pop record store. Just because they ended up having 192 stores around the world doesn’t mean that there wasn’t this incredibly unique thing going on within the company and within the culture of that company. That’s actually something that’s really impressive and unique. (They weren’t) just this evil, bland corporate monster in yellow-and-red signage. It was really a balancing act, wanting to be able to make this for the people who loved Tower, (but) we also wanted to be able to make a film that was engaging enough for people that don’t remember Tower, that maybe weren’t around at that time. Just as we wanted to make sure that the people who are really knowledgeable of the music industry and people who are not knowledgeable but want to be are getting (something out of the documentary), that there’s a song for every kind of person out there.

GM: What was it like to spend so much time with Russ Solomon? Did he impart any life lessons on you?

CH: Oh, absolutely. Very subtly, much like the way I sort of learned about Tower through osmosis just by shopping there. He greatly influenced the way I directed the film. Look, I’m an actor. I wear makeup and pretend to be other people for a living. It pays the bills. But here I was trying to take on this artistic, creative endeavor because I wanted to do something I was interested in and had the time, but obviously, I had no experience in making a documentary before. I watched them a lot, I loved them but I was never a journalist. I never interviewed people or anything like that. I’d been interviewed, but that’s very different. So I ended up pulling quite a few pages from “the Russ Solomon playbook,” if you will. Of bringing on people that I admired (and) respected that were smart, were very knowledgeable about their field of expertise and really trying to make it a communal effort in which everyone has a voice and really give people a sense of this being their film and not just mine. I really wanted to make sure that this was a group effort. Those kinds of things that I guess Russ would call “the Tom Sawyer theory of letting someone else paint the fence,” it definitely let people paint their sections of the fence. But it was all toward a common goal. Trusting your gut, listening to ideas and not being afraid of new ideas — all of those are things that Russ was really adamant about during Tower’s day and were things that I was bearing in mind when I was making the movie.

GM: Can you tell us a little about what it was like to spend seven years making this film? What was that process like, especially for a first-time documentary maker?

CH: Yeah, it was seven years from the initial idea through completion. Films take a great period of time, and there were definitely some lean moments where there really wasn’t much to be done, and it was sort of collecting dust. But it was always in the back of my mind (as) something I was thinking about and something that I knew was going to be finished in some way, shape or form. I just had to fight to make sure it wasn’t something that, eventually, you kind of gave up on and just put out. At any stage, we could’ve just cut our losses, edited something together, put it up on YouTube and called it a day, but I felt that the Tower story was one that was worth telling that would be interesting to a great many people in my opinion, and I wanted it to be the definitive Tower story — the document of the company. And I didn’t want that to be just shot on a Handycam and then thrown out online never to really be seen or heard from again.

GM: As you said, you’re primarily known as an actor, but is music a huge part of your day-to-day life? Are you a vinylphile?

CH: Absolutely! When I go away on location for work, I’ll bring a portable turntable with me, and I won’t bring any records so it forces me to go into whatever city I’m in (and look) for record stores. I buy records and label the city I buy them — that’s my level of crackhead addiction.

Music is something that I always want to have on in the house in some form or another, whether it be my collection or the radio. Ironically, I discovered streaming while I was making the film about record stores, which I actually find to be a great and fantastic, awesome personal listening station. But it doesn’t stop me from going out and buying physical records in stores and swap meets and things like that. I’m constantly listening to music, both old and new. In a strange way, the thing that I love about music is also the same thing I love about acting: I’ll never be able to sit there and shake my head and go, “Oh great, I’ve done it, I’ve learned everything there is to learn about acting!” That day will never happen. There will constantly be something that I’ll be wanting to fine tune to learn more about. Obviously, it’s spreading out more now into storytelling and directing and things of that nature.

Music is the same way. I’m never going to be like, “Oh, that’s it! I’ve heard all the good music there is to hear. I’m never going to listen to any new music ever again. I’ve learned all there is to know.” It’s constantly changing, growing, and evolving — discovering stuff that’s 40, 50, 60 years old. It’s definitely a huge part of my life, and in a strange way, that (Tower Records) “No Music, No Life” slogan speaks right to me. That’s definitely a core belief in my household, for sure.


The article above was published in Goldmine‘s April 2016 issue (at left), which also includes interviews with Ritchie Blackmore, Paul Stanley (KISS) and Peter Frampton; articles on the Eagles, The Flock, Sly & the Family Stone, the 10 best David Bowie bootlegs, in memoriam Paul Kantner and Glenn Frey; and a 10 Albums That Changed My Life with Reverend Horton Heat, is on sale on Barnes & Noble newsstand now.