A Matter of Taste

By the time the Kinsey Sicks wrap their 95-minute Dragapella! (Upstairs at 54), they’ve illustrated what constitutes good and bad taste in comedy: If a joke is genuinely funny, it’s in good taste; if not, not. Looking like garish ’60s house-party hostesses, the a cappella specialists serve up much bad taste. “Where the Goys Are,” a parody of Connie Francis’s “Where the Boys Are,” isn’t genuinely funny, ergo bad taste. And that’s the least of the sour moments. When, later in the carryings-on, Rachel (Harvard grad and ex-Clinton AIDS wonk Ben Schatz) reaches into her/his panties for a sanitary napkin to circulate, even Trixie (Maurice Kelly), Winnie (Irwin Keller), and Trampolina (Chris Dilley) share the audience’s disgust. It’s not the only nose-holding instance in a show clanking with Jewish-versus-gentile jibes and crotch references.

On the other manicured hand, the barbershop—er, beauty-parlor—quartet includes enough genuinely funny (i.e., good-taste) material to squelch patron rebellion. Of the numbers that wittily revise pop lyrics, the high point is “Don’t Be Happy, Worry,” which stands Bobby McFerrin’s ditsy ditty on its head. Trampolina’s send-up of Celine Dion’s Titanic theme is rib tickling because, like the heart in the lyric, it goes on and on and on. (That Dion has taken a sabbatical and therefore no longer intones the dirge is a fine point that won’t be pressed here.)

The Sicks reach Manhattan after having played their drag games elsewhere for seven years. (Incidentally, the group name puns on the Kinsey Report’s sexuality rating, with one representing straight arrow and six indicating bent arrow.) The crawl to Manhattan explains why their harmonies are so tight and tangy and why director Glenn Casale has been able to synchronize every campy move beautifully. What if they sometimes go too far? It beats not going far enough. —David Finkle

Final Vinyl

Is this the beginning of the end for Tower Records? According to its annual report filed with the SEC on October 29, the Sacramento-based chain, which is privately held by founder Russ Solomon and his family, lost $90.3 million in the last fiscal year and is $297.7 million in debt. Over the course of the year, Tower, which has 173 stores in eight countries, abandoned its book operation, pulled out of Canada, and spun off stores in other foreign markets. Management is “monitoring” some stores in the U.S. that haveunderperformed, though representative Sara Hanson says, “New York is an extremely strong market for Tower Records, and we do not plan to close any of our stores in that area.”

Analysts at Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s downgraded their ratings of Tower’s bonds because of the possibility that it might not make a $100 million payment to the banks on December 31, but the Solomons recently won an extension until April, hoping for a solid holiday season. It’s a new approach for Tower, which in the past has relied on its reputation for diverse and deep selection to draw year-round patronage rather than depending on any one quarter.

“They lost market share because they had higher prices,” says S&P’s Diane Shand. But so does the rest of the industry: Like its competitors, Tower maintains “minimum advertised prices” in exchange for “co-op” payments from labels, a practice challenged in antitrust litigation around the country (The Sound of the City, August 22, 2000), and so it has been unable to compete with “open box” stores like Best Buy and Circuit City, which carry bestsellers at deeply discounted prices and use the loss to lead consumers toward bigger ticket items. Meanwhile, the Web offers consumers a wider selection at better prices.

Others say the chain lost its vision even earlier. “Somewhere during the early days of the expansion [in the 1980s], Russ Solomon brought in others to run the company, because he liked playing with real estate,” says one insider. “His primary love was scouting cool new locations. When Borders and Barnes & Noble began their lifestyle-marketing-oriented stores in the late ’80s, Tower was spooked. The pressure came down for all Tower stores to sell everything: books, video, magazines, CDs, vinyl, CK perfume, jogging suits, you fucking name it. But there wasn’t room in the stores, and the majority of customers didn’t give a shit. They just wanted a comprehensive and open-minded music store.”

It’s a vicious cycle. Responding to financial pressure, Tower this year began asking distributors for “dating” of up to a year (in classical and other slow-moving areas), meaning it wanted to wait that long to pay for records. Many indies (and one major, WEA) balked, and employees report problems getting some titles into stock, particularly from smaller labels. And to satisfy the bean counters and rev up sales, Tower’s buying, which was famously decentralized, has become increasingly hit-focused and conservative. “They were passing on some very obvious titles,” says one large indie supplier, “and the returns that were coming to distributors were huge.”

The effect on small labels could be huge as well. “Nothing has changed in the demand for classical music,” says Matthew Owen of classical label Harmonia Mundi. “It may even have increased slightly. But the supply to the consumer has been essentially cut off, and sales have only one way to go.” Still, Owen and others believe that Tower will survive, and that even if it does not the industry will find other outlets.

While the overall economic outlook for the rest of the year may be ugly, Shand says that may actually be to Tower’s benefit. “CDs are a low-ticket item. If people want to give, that might be something they would give. Especially if there’s some popular records out there.” Employees are justifiably nervous. “The traffic is the worst I’ve ever seen,” says one long-time local counter-jockey. “It just doesn’t feel like fall.” —Josh Goldfein