Packaged-media retail icon Tower Records is back in (e)-business — 14 years after declaring bankruptcy and shuttering 200 physical stores in 2006. The Sacramento, Calif.-based retailer, which launched in 1960 in the iconic Tower Records building on Broadway by the late Russ Solomon who died in 2018 at the age of 92, will now market vinyl records, merchandise and cassettes online only.
The chain is bringing back its Tower Pulse! music magazine (in digital form), with plans to launch pop-up Tower Records shops (once the pandemic is controlled), and host artist events online.
“[The launch] has been met with tremendous success, feedback,” new CEO Danny Zeijdel said in a statement. “A lot of people are so happy taking pictures of when they receive an order from Tower Records, posting it on Instagram.”
Editor’s Note: In a Web exclusive, we are reprinting an interview with late Tower Records and Video founder Russ Solomon, who died earlier this month. The interview appeared in the November 1990 issue of Video Store Magazine, under the headline, “A Towering Presence: Last month, Russ Solomon celebrated Tower’s 30th anniversary and made the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans. What’s he do for an encore?”
It’s a few minutes past 2 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, and Russ Solomon, the founder and president of the 59-store Tower Video chain, has just come into the office, battling a fierce hangover.
You can’t really blame him: He’s been partying all week, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the opening of the first Tower Records store, in Sacramento. It’s a festive occasion – and a resounding send-off for Solomon, 64, as he enters his 50th year in the entertainment software retailing business.
It all started in 1941, when Solomon’s dad decided to carry 78s in the family drugstore, also in Sacramento, and put his 15-year-old son in charge of the new “department.” In 1952, Solomon struck out on his own. He went into rack jobbing, then ran a one-stop, before returning to retail in 1960.
“As near as I can figure, I’ve been in this business longer, continuously, than anyone I know of,” Solomon says. “Almost 50 years – jeez, it hardly seems possible.”
Ah, but it is. Solomon grew up with the record business – and, since 1981, with the video business as well. And the wisdom that comes from those many years of experience – the wisdom of Solomon, if you will – is something his competitors both admire and envy, particularly since he’s applied that wisdom twice: first, toward building a successful chain of record stores, and then, a successful chain of video stores.
And how successful are they? For starters, Solomon just made the Forbes 400 list. According to the Oct. 22 issue of Forbes magazine, “Were MTS (the corporation that owns Tower] a publicly traded company, it would probably be valued at $325 million, a figure that puts Solomon on Forbes’ 400 list for the first time.”
There are currently 59 Tower Records stores and 59 Tower Video stores, in 15 states. Last year, Tower Video, with 52 stores, had video revenues of $54 million, or an average of $1 million per store. That total was more than any other audio-video software “combo” chain in the country except for Wherehouse Entertainment, which reported video revenues of $118 million in 268 stores. But unique among the combo retailers, Tower has video-only stores, totaling 45 of its 59 video units. Most are next door, down the street, or across the street from Tower Records stores; 14 are under the same roof.
This year, Solomon says, Tower’s estimated video take is $61 million, and for 1991, he’s projecting $70 million, “assuming the same 15 percent growth rate per year.”
Solomon says the primary reason for Tower’s success in the video business is his early commitment to sellthrough-part of his overall “record-store philosophy.”
“We emphasized it from the beginning, and it goes back to the historical idea that record dealers understood selling things and video specialty stores didn’t – and for the most part, even today, really don’t,” Solomon says. “We simply applied the same techniques to selling videos as we did to selling records – you stock them, you merchandise them, and you advertise them.”
Indeed. Walk into any Tower Video store and you’ll find that “every video is for sale,” Solomon says; even rentals are stickered with price tags. And there are plenty of signs and displays promoting new as well as catalog sellthrough titles. “If you want to get into our philosophy, it’s that the place to get growth is sellthrough,” Solomon says. “In rentals, you’re eventually going to reach a plateau, and there’s nowhere else to go. But in sellthrough, the potential growth is unlimited.”
Solomon’s commitment to sellthrough has certainly had an effect on Tower’s video business, The latest available figures at press time, for September, show that of the chain’s total video revenues, 55% came from sellthrough and only 36% from rentals (the balance, 9%, came from blank tape sales). At almost every other video store or chain, rentals are still No. 1.
“Tower Video is probably the world’s greatest sellthrough outfit, and that’s basically because Russ Solomon doesn’t like to rent,” says Steve Gabor, owner of the three Odyssey Video stores in the Los Angeles area. “They do a very nice job in their signage, in calling their movies collectables, and in drawing from their retail record expertise and applying it to video.”
Lou Fogelman, president and chief executive officer of Show Industries, the corporate parent of the 82-store Music Plus audio and video software chain in California, offers this view of Tower: “We came out of the same school: We started in the record business, which is all sellthrough, and then got into video and had no problem switching over, adding sellthrough to the video business, because that’s where our mentality and history comes from.”
“I’ve been in their stores, and I think they support the [sellthrough] category very well,” Fogelman says. “And that makes them a very good and strong competitor.”
A key element of Solomon’s commitment to sellthrough is breadth of copy—the importance of which he also learned from his many years in the record business. Each Tower Video store has at least 10,000 tapes; the biggest store, in Hollywood, has more than 25,000. And not only are there lots of tapes, there are lots of different titles, titles that are hard to find in other video stores.
“Just like in the record business, if the customer comes into your store and wants to buy something, you better make sure you have it, or he won’t be back,” Solomon says.
The “superstore” concept that’s the current darling of video retailing may be a belated nod to this philosophy, but as far as Solomon is concerned, it’s the right idea, the wrong execution.
“The so-called superstores essentially have a lot of wood on sale, and not much else,” he says. “Go in and at them: There’s a lot of space between titles, so they’re selling wood and wall, and maybe it’s comfortable for shoppers, but we’d just as soon pack it in tight. That’s how you sell things – you have them.
“Store size and content don’t always correlate; our video stores are not particularly big – even our Hollywood store is just over 4,000 square feet – but they do have a big selection. Size is important only in the number of tapes you have to sell or rent. Space alone doesn’t mean that much; it’s theatrical, all right, but I don’t think customers give a damn.”
Tower Video’s expansion strategy is also guided by Solomon’s record-store philosophy. Many chains, like Wherehouse Entertainment, try to saturate one market before moving on to the next; Tower, on the other hand, tends to open stores whenever, wherever, a site looks good, regardless of where that site is.”
The Wherehouse has been trying to conquer the Western market for the last 20 years, and they haven’t succeeded yet,” Solomon says. “Our philosophy is just to constantly expand, period, and we do it all the time, all over the place. We zero in on a certain area for a while, depending on what real estate opportunities come up; we open a flagship unit, build around it a little bit, and then move on to some other city we want to be in, for various reasons.
“I don’t think location means everything to us, as it does to the Wherehouse. They go into every little corner because their philosophy is the video store philosophy, which is that nobody’s going to drive five or six miles to rent a tape. Our philosophy is the record store philosophy: We sell things, and we have a lot of things you won’t find anywhere else, so we don’t have to be as densely populated in the number of stores.
“And we probably do the same business in California as the Wherehouse does, with a helluva lot less stress.”
A Wherehouse spokesman declined to comment.
But Tower Video is not without its detractors. “I think Tower is good for the sellthrough marketplace, but they don’t work their rentals very well,” says Tom Keenan, who owns
The three-store Everybody’s Records, Tapes & Video chain based in Portland, Oregon. “If Russ would put as much emphasis on rentals as he does on sellthrough and music, Tower could be tremendous. He could have done the Blockbuster thing before Blockbuster.”
And Jim George, manager of Blockbuster’s 73 Western region stores, says, “I think Tower is a very good record store; I know when I’m looking for a specific record or tape, Tower is the first place I go. But quite frankly, I don’t think we’ve been impacted by their video operation, because they’re not putting as much emphasis on it as they are on records, tapes and CDs.
“If Tower is doing good sellthrough business, that’s fine. But everyone is emphasizing sellthrough; we’ve been increasing our sellthrough emphasis in the past year or so, and we’re very happy with our selthrough numbers.”
To which Solomon replies “There’s no way we’re ever going to impact them, and it’s reciprocal – they haven’t impacted us, either. And that isn’t a sour grapes type of comment, that’s just the nature of the business. Each of us is good at what we do. We don’t expect to impact them, or even try to. I would laugh if somebody ever thought we wanted to impact them. Jim should know better.”
Accordingly, Solomon says, he doesn’t fear the competition – he welcomes it.
“I think good retailing can exist very well in the same marketplace,” he says. “We’re certainly not about to knock anyone else out, and I would think that no one’s going to knock us out, either. We’d just as soon be next door to a Blockbuster, so that they could take our overflow and we could take theirs.
“Business tends to expand with the availability of more retailing. For instance, when there’s one bookstore or record store in a mall, and another one comes in, the first one doesn’t necessarily experience a drop in business. Instead, what usually happens is that both stores end up doing twice as much business. There’s something to be said clusters of retailers offering the same product: You see antique stores together, flower stands together, gas stations on every corner. People can shop from store-to-store, and total business expands.
“Of course, you also have to be good. If you’re going to have big competition, you’d better be as good as the competition – or better, in a different way. You can’t be a secondary dealer; you’re not going to succeed if you’re a 7-Eleven next to a Safeway or an Albertson’s. And I suspect competitive pressure really makes you look at your own stock and company and make it better.
“Let me put it this way: If the competition comes up with a better idea, we’ll steal it faster than they could steal one from us. We have no compunction about that, and that isn’t necessarily the same as copying or imitating – I mean outright stealing and improving on it, if we think it’s a good idea.”
Nor does Solomon fear the recession almost everyone predicts for the near future.
“We, the video dealers, couldn’t be in a better position, because we’ve got the cheapest, most valuable piece of entertainment in the world,” he says. “People may forgo the purchase of a house or a car or new clothes or whatever, but they’re always going to want to entertain themselves. And I can’t think of a cheaper way to go than to rent a movie, or even buy one.
“You’re dealing with a $14 or $15 purchase product, and that isn’t a significant figure, in the scheme of things. No matter how bad things get, people are going to feed themselves and entertain themselves.”
Still, Solomon says, “You don’t ever rest easy, unless you want to quit – that’s easy enough to do. The name of the game is to keep improving, keep expanding, keep on top of it. If you don’t, it isn’t any fun.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Russ Solomon over the last few days, ever since I heard about the celebrated Tower Records and Video founder’s death Sunday night while watching the Academy Awards.
At 92 years old, he was at his home in Sacramento, drinking whisky and complaining about someone’s outfit, his son told the Sacramento Bee.
What a way to go. Russ Solomon always did it his way – and while he and I only met sporadically over the last 30 years, once for a lengthy feature in Video Store Magazine and a few times to talk about DVD, the impact he had on me was monumental.
Indirectly, he fueled my passion and set me on a path to my career.
I was 13 and had just discovered music on my tiny AM ball-and-chain transistor radio. The record department at Montgomery Ward, where my parents shopped, was unimpressive. So I stuck with the top 40, tunes like “Mr. Big Stuff” and “Indian Reservation.”
A few years later, a Tower Records store opened near the San Diego Sports Arena, not far from my Point Loma home. I accompanied my mom, who was looking for some Johnny Cash and Ivan Rebroff records for my dad’s birthday.
I was wowed. Floored. Blown away. The music, the ambience, the posters, the long-haired young clerks who stood behind the counter, coolest of the cool, hippest of the hip. They played whatever they wanted to, dispensed advice freely to customers, often unsolicited, and each week wrote out their recommendations on hand-written dividers in the rock section.
I still remember their names: Bob White, Bob Davidson, Steve Lieber. I started hanging out and talking to them. They wound up turning me on to all sorts of great music – from Bob Dylan to Barclay James Harvest, from the Jefferson Airplane to Genesis, from old Phil Spector to the Strawbs. Elliott Murphy, Uriah Heep, the Byrds and the Left Banke. I spent all my birthday and Christmas money at Tower, saving up for those glorious sales when any LP could be had for $3.66 – and select older ones, from Columbia and Epic, were two for five bucks.
I started writing a rock column for my high school paper, the El Cid – and then continued on in college, San Diego State, where my weekly Daily Aztec record review column, In Your Ear, got me on the promo lists of all the record companies and I was even invited up to Hollywood to meet with the college reps. I was an 18-year-old kid with thick glasses, polyester shirts, and a haircut straight out of Saturday Night Live’s “It’s Pat.” But I was treated like royalty – and on campus, whenever anyone recognized me from my picture, I felt like a star, even if recognition came from frat boys who wanted to kill me because I didn’t like Black Sabbath.
I had gone to college with the intention of becoming a lawyer. But because of Tower Records, I became a rock journalist, eventually writing for Billboard and the Los Angeles Times. I hung out with Cameron Crowe at the old Zebra Club in downtown San Diego, and babysat the Ramones on their first San Diego visit, taking them to their gig in my mom’s 1965 Impala and then to Jack-in-the-Box for their first taste of Mexican food (hey, I was a college kid and those tacos were all I could afford).
While in college I started a first magazine, Kicks: San Diego’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine (yeah, I’ve come a long way!). My business classes helped me balance the books, but the guys at Tower helped me figure out what to write about.
After college, I decided that before I settled into the corporate world I’d give freelancing a try. I expanded beyond music and for the next decade was a prolific writer, penning everything from investigative features on unsolved murders for San Diego Magazine to concert reviews and a pop music column for the Los Angeles Times.
I was oblivious to the birth of the home video business; I was too much into music. All that changed, however, when a Tower Video store popped up across the street from Tower Records, in what is now the parking lot for The Home Depot. A collector at heart, I liked the fact that I could buy movies, not just rent them. I still remember my first videocassette purchase: The Joe Louis Story, for $9.97. I bought more videos, mostly cheap public domain stuff, and picked up a free video magazine with reviews of new releases. I started renting videos, since that was the only way to watch newly released films at the time. I also started writing for the magazine, which gave me clips I later used to land my first job, in November 1991, at Video Store Magazine.
I got to know all the leading retailers, including John Thrasher, Tower’s video guy. I got to interview his boss, Russ Solomon himself. The video rental business was still booming; to my surprise, Solomon launched into a blistering attack on tape, calling it an “imperfect medium, a transition format.” The music industry had already transitioned from tape to digital disc – it was high time the home video industry did likewise, he told me.
That sparked my interest in getting movies on disc – a hot topic in the early 1990s. I watched and I chronicled the slow, bumpy path that eventually led to the launch of DVD in 1997. Before that, there was CD-I, a false start in which two discs were required for every movie, and oh by the way the blacks just didn’t come out right. And when the time came for DVD, I became one of the new format’s most enthusiastic champions. At the annual VSDA conventions, I frequently met with Warren Lieberfarb, the format’s chief architect, as well as the hand-picked cadre of like-minded industry leaders he surrounded himself with, Russ Solomon among them.
When DVD began to soar, I thought for sure Solomon, an early advocate of the sellthrough model, would prosper with it – but alas it was not to be. The mass merchants commandeered the business and used DVD as a loss leader to drive traffic into their stores. And Tower, already weakened on the music side by the record company’s bungled attempt to fight piracy by jacking up the list price of CDs and suing their customers, simply couldn’t take any more hits, particularly since the chain was saddled with debt from its too-swift expansion in the 1990s.
I remember seeing Solomon, in his trademark red-satin jacket, at a few more VSDA shows in the early 2000s, but before long it was all over. Tower went bankrupt for the second time in August 2006, and by the end of the year was in liquidation.
I never saw, or spoke with, Solomon again. But I think about him every time I drive by the old Tower Records building on Sunset – or the Tower Records across from the Sports Arena where I spent so much of my teenage life.
And if I had the chance to speak with him again, there’s no doubt what I would say: “Thank you.”
Russ Solomon, the Tower Records and Video founder who was one of the most important retail figures in the home video industry, died March 4 while watching the Academy Awards, the Sacramento Bee reports.
Solomon was watching the Oscars Sunday night when he apparently had a heart attack, his son, Michael Solomon, told the Bee.
“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, according to the Bee. When she returned, he had died.
“Russ Solomon is celebrated as a music industry innovator and visionary, and rightly so,” said Mark Fisher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Merchants Association. “But he was also a significant force in the video industry. For over 25 years, Tower was a leader in both rental and sell-through, featuring a broad mix of titles, catering to the average movie fan and cinephile alike. His retailing concept was ‘give the public lots of stuff that they want at a price they want to pay,’ and that succeeded until the digital revolution in music drove Tower out of business.”
Solomon was just 16 when he began selling records out of his father’s drug store in the Tower Theater building in Sacramento in 1941. He initially sold used jukebox records, taking a break to serve in the military when war broke out.
In 1952 Solomon left retailing and tried his hand at distributing records to discount retail outlets. He borrowed heavily to finance the business and in 1960, after eight years of struggle, he went bankrupt.
After the business failed, Solomon regrouped and with borrowed capital went back into record retailing, this time under the corporate umbrella of MTS Inc., after his son, Michael Toby Solomon. No longer content with selling records out of the drugstore, he opened his own store, Tower Record Mart.
The new venture was a success, and Solomon began opening more stores in Sacramento. In 1968 he opened his first store outside Sacramento, in San Francisco. Two years later, in 1970, Tower opened its celebrated Sunset Boulevard store in Hollywood, which quickly became a hangout for budding rock stars.
Over the next 10 years Solomon added 26 more locations to his burgeoning record retail empire, including a store in Sapporo, Japan, that opened in 1980. The chain continued to expand around the globe in the 1980s, with Tower Records stores popping up in Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Ireland, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Mexico, and Latin America.
Tower Video was launched in 1981 as one of the few retail outlets where consumers could buy videocassettes, which at the time were priced at upwards of $65 for new releases. When DVD arrived in 1997 Tower Video at first flourished, becoming one of the first big chains to carry a full selection of DVDs. Indeed, when Warner Bros. went national with DVD in August 1997, Tower was one of its biggest DVD customers, alongside Best Buy and Musicland.
“Russ Solomon was a pathfinder for the industry in his support of the sales model, initially in VHS, and then was a front-runner in supporting the launch of DVD,” said Warren Lieberfarb, the former Warner Home Video president credited as the father of DVD. “He was an extraordinary person with a big heart and a great mind.”
Solomon was a familiar sight at the annual Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) conventions in Las Vegas, often wearing a bright-red satin jacket that gave him a rock-star image.
Gary Messenger, who was a leading independent video rental retailer in North Carolina in the 1980s, remembers Solomon well. In a March 5 Facebook posting he wrote, “A friend and one of the most incredibly unique and innovative individuals I have ever known has left us…. There were record stores before Russ, but after Russ they became ‘Record Stores.'”
Ultimately, Tower’s video business eroded when Wal-Mart, Target Stores and other mass merchants began selling DVDs at deep discounts. The chain had already been hit on the music side by file-sharing and the iPod. In 2004 Tower Records entered bankruptcy for the first time, stung by a changing business and saddled with crushing debt from aggressive expansion in the 1990s.
In August 2006, Tower Records filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the second time, hoping to negotiate a sale prior to the holiday season. No buyer was found, and in December 2006 the chain officially went out of business.
Years later, in 2015, actor Colin Hanks honored Solomon in the documentary “All Things Must Pass,” which chronicled Tower’s rise and fall.
John Thrasher, the longtime VP of video purchasing at Tower Video until his retirement in March 2003 to care for his aging father, said of Solomon, “It’s truly the end of an era, a finality that goes beyond the various changing devices we people choose to view or listen to the arts. Russ was a people person to the extreme, very sharp-witted with humor, empathy and respect for all. His company embodied that spirit for as long as it stood.
“There was diversity in the bins as the first true catalog giant in records and video, and there was diversity in the aisles with all the varieties of people serving customers of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds.
“He reinvigorated so many cities with Tower stores in locations that were begging for gentrification. He spawned fashion through the young people who worked for him. He always listened and always led. He was one of a kind – there was nobody like him on the planet. I miss him tremendously and it has only been a day.”