Why Tower Records is Still Relevant A Decade After Its Demise

This weekend I'm flying to Tokyo for their New Years celebration. While I'm looking forward to all the sights, sounds and culture for the first time, there's a particular sight I'm excited to see that I have a feeling will be like reuniting with an old friend. Of course I'm talking about seeing a still-standing still-functioning Tower Records.

It's poignant as well, especially seeing as this week marks 10 years since the original Tower Records closed their doors on all North American locations.

There's been nary a peep about this ten year mark, which is especially strange considering how nostalgia obsessed and anniversary-fixated we've all become as a society. Tower Records' closing was the first major music chain to completely close, seen then as a sign of the times of a collapsing music industry beginning to free-fall. But the past year or so has seen a renewed interest in appreciating what Tower Records was, thanks in no small part to Colin Hanks' masterful Tower Records documentary All Things Must Pass.

Ten years without Tower is a strange thing to comprehend. When you spend so many hours of your life at a location, it feels like part of your brain will always have it stored that such a place of comfort still exists, and while your reason and rationality may be quick to attempt to snuff it, those vivid memories of an entire layout and prices doesn't seem to go away. To this day, when I see certain catalog titles in the form of physical media or on online retailers charging a certain amount, my instinctual knee jerk reaction sometimes is still to dismiss it with “ehh, I can get it for cheaper at Tower.”

When Tower was eulogized, there was much written about how ahead-of-its-time the franchise was. From offering a selections of songs to be purchased a la carte and recorded to a personalized cassette predating iTunes by a good two decades, to the in-store magazine Pulse! and its impact on a more personable approach to music journalism that would be echoed years later in the blogosphere. But perhaps the most cutting edge aspect of Tower was just how much music it had.

I don't mean that as in the dozens of hundreds of unsold copies of Outkast's Idlewild at their closing, but rather how much music they as a chain embraced. With stores in major cities across the country, Tower was particularly regional friendly to up-and-coming artists who had a local buzz and the gumption to press their own material, allowing them to get copies out across the world and potentially broaden their universe. When that final liquidation sale hit, especially in the final days of “ALL RAP CDS FOR A QUARTER EACH!” I was able to scoop so many local gems from all over the country. From Keak da Sneak to Young Bleed to 7L and Esoteric to Apathy to I Self Devine to Mac Dre to DJ Screw to Masta Killa, how many record stores would ever allow me to scoop such a diverse assortment of regional rap in a single purchase?

Tower Records in Tokyo, from what I've read, is a thriving tourist destination. Five stories of music. While recently years have seen a rise of music stores as surprisingly cool destination specialty stores, like Brooklyn's Rough Trade NYC, Tower was in many ways a blueprint for what a music store experience can and should be. With so much of our music industry changing, and the rise of streaming services perhaps signaling the looming death of traditional digital music outlets the way many would allege MP3s would kill the CD star, Tower truly was a physical tower of music whose children a decade later still seem to keep the skyline of music bright. I still have a yellow Tower Records bag from my last visit there around my doorknob to remind me where I've been, and what I've been lucky enough to experience.

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