Good Riddance, Tower Records

empire_records.jpgWhat's going to happen to the gang of lovable misfits?

Someone somewhere probably has a nice memory of Tower Records. I'm pretty sure I bought the issue of Grand Royal with the article about Kid Rock from the Philly Tower, and that was a pretty good article. And now that I think about it, I bought the Dance Hall Crashers' Lockjaw from the bargain bin of the Tower on 4th and Broadway when I was in 10th grade and my family was visiting New York for the weekend. I really like that album. So Tower has been responsible for a couple of good things coming into my life, and I probably shouldn't gloat too much. But I don't really have any sentimental attachment to the store; I grew up in Baltimore, where it was nowhere to be found. And I wasn't especially sad yesterday when I learned that the store was just now finally going out of business. The announcement wasn't much of a shock; the store's parent company has declared bankruptcy twice over the last couple of years. And the way the store operates just isn't going to work anymore. Tower sells its goods at unrealistically high prices, and it shouldn't really come as a surprise that not too many people are going to be willing to drop $18.99 on a CD. Tower's big selling point, I suppose, has been its deep selection, but that deep selection doesn't much matter when iTunes can offer a basically limitless selection of music without inflating its prices. There's been a lot of talk recently about the insane decline in record sales this year and the effect it'll have on record companies, but there hasn't been as much noise about the plight of CD retailers, most of which don't seem to be making much of an effort to compete with iTunes or Best Buy. If you've been into any of those stores recently, you probably haven't had a lot of fun there. The stores are big and impersonal, and they're organized into confusing genre-based sections and staffed by bored, underpaid teenagers. They play in-store music too loud and bombard you with video-screen images. And they sell their CDs and DVDs and video games and books at prices that couldn't exactly be described as competitive; Best Buy doesn't exactly make for a pleasant environment either, but that place has the good sense to keep its prices reasonable. 3000 people are going to lose their jobs when Tower goes out of business, and that's a shame. But other than that, it's hard to be sad about the demise of a company that's been so persistently clueless about what its customers might want.

The whole thing reminds me a lot of Blockbuster's current desperation to attract customers now that Netflix does its job better than it ever has. Blockbuster rose to dominate its industry by offering typically huge selections and by buying up all its competition, but it fostered a whole lot of resentment by staffing its stores with clueless and underpaid kids and charging exorbitant rental fees and late fees and making it impossible to get a membership without like five forms of ID. Now that there's a better alternative, Blockbuster keeps trying to right all its wrongs and still can't seem to bring people back in. Same thing with the big record stores; there's nothing they can do to compete with iTunes. Tower might've managed to survive if it had spent a few extra bucks to make its stores pleasant places to be. They could've paid employees a little more and hired better people, and they could've thrown some carpet down and eased up on the harsh fluorescent lighting and maybe put in a couple of comfortable chairs. It's not like that's a particularly far-fetched strategy; it's how Borders and Barnes & Noble can compete with Amazon even though Amazon has a bigger selection and better prices. And it's the reason that the better independent record stores won't go out of business even as the bigger ones fall.

I went down to the Tower at 4th and Broadway today, and it was the busiest I've ever seen it, probably because people are figuring that the store will finally be dropping its prices now that it has to liquidate its assets. But other than the posters screaming about everything-must-go sales and the complete lack of Tuesday new releases, not a whole lot had changed. As of right now, the big going-out-of-business sale amounts to 10% off most of the merchandise and not a whole lot else. But an $18.99 CD with 10% off is $17.10, and that's still too much to be paying for a CD. I asked one of the people working there when the last day was, and he had no idea: "We're just as much in the dark as the customers." He didn't seem especially happy to be there. Even when this place is in its death throes, there's no real reason to visit.

So I guess the real question here is this: What's going to happen to all the no-name rappers who stand outside the store and badger everyone to buy their shitty CDs? Are they all going to go stand outside the Virgin Megastore now? Because you already have to elbow your way through like six of those guys to get inside.

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