RICHARD KAUFMAN REMEMBERS: Tower Records, so many bittersweet memories. In those crazy go-go days of the early ’90s, there was so much optimism for the future. Papa Bush was imploding faster than a smart bomb, Fast Eddie was mayor, the Eagles had a mobile QB that would finally lead us to the promised land, and flannel-wearing rockers were starting to turn
the rock world on its head.
The word around the water cooler was that Tower was going public, and all of us smelly, underpaid buyers and clerks would get in on the ground floor. The Tower model seemed to be working fine. There was the general manager from California, who walked around in dusters and cowboy boots singing Poco and New Riders of the Purple Sage songs. There was a highly knowledgeable staff that was underpaid, but addicted to the health plan and freebies that the pre-Sound Scan record industry offered. Give each genre its own buyer, with their own budgets and very little oversight. If a label needed a release to chart higher, they dispensed goodies — lunches of the three martini kind, dinners with artists (I remember a particularly painful one with a “French Canadian Streisand” that Sony was pushing, but hey, a free lunch is a free lunch, right?), never-ending record release parties. And promos. Lots of promos, redeemable for a stack of Lincolns at a used record store near you…
You want the new Michael Bolton? No problemo! We weren’t proud of all this, but if you knew how little we made, and what else can you do with five Michael Bolton promos. Aside from that, the peaceful easy corporate bigwigs got other ideas. At one of their ashram/seminars they decided to modernize and downsize, to computerize the inventory with a system they bought from The Gap. Music, Jeans, it’s all the same thing. Besides, where could a company located in Central California find anyone with a working knowledge of computers? While we’re at it, push out Commander Cody as the GM, and bring in this guy who was a cross between the Boss in Office Space and Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes, complete with that shiny dome. Have him start by getting as many folks as possible downgraded to part time (no health benefits), take more and more decisions out of the hands of the buyers — Who knows more about the latest dance club hit, Werner Klemperer or King Britt? — and stop or at least slow the free flow of goods between the labels and the workers. While you’re at it, invite yourself along to every free lunch that you can.
Goodbye to getting loaded before noon. As The Duke use to say, “That tears it!”
The pride we all felt at [Kurt] Cobain’s ascension to the top of the rock pile was replaced by the drudgery of listening to the secretary pool ask where the Alternative music was kept. Our Gay/Lesbian music section got picked through pretty regularly before they figured out they couldn’t find Stone Temple Pearl Garden there. And Tower never did go public. Bouncing around in bankruptcy court more than US Air, the company was able to stave off the inevitable for longer than it should have. What doomed Tower wasn’t the high cost of a CD, but the conscious decision to stop being a deep catalogue store. If only someone out there in Sacramento learned to harness the awesome power of the Internet, the Red and the Yellow might still be flying today. But when the front office is out there smoking Panama Red . . . I won’t start quoting Peter Rowan.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Richard Kaufman as fronted a number of Philly bands, including the Electric Love Muffin and the Rolling Hayseeds, and currently performs semi-regularly with Foxycontin. He worked at Tower Records from 1989 to 1997. He was pop-rock buyer at the South Street store, and then moved to the King of Prussia store to be the record sales manager. He currently lives in a geodesic dome that he built with his brother in Alloway township, Salem County, New Jersey (near Cowtown rodeo). His wife is Amy Smith of Headlong Dance Theater. They have two children, Ruby and Dexter.