By Ira Aron Rosenblum / Featured on-line at timessquare.com- January 2007
It's been several weeks since the Tower Records at Lincoln Center and 66th St. closed its doors for good. I guess it really hadn't fully set in when I strolled down Broadway to pick up a book for my wife at the Barnes & Noble across the street. That is, not until I beheld the surreal state of its empty shell, lifeless and darkened for the first time in its existence as a record store.
Now, I must admit that my feelings may run a little deeper then the average customer in relation to the level of loss that I feel for the "New York institution" as I was previously employed as the main floor manager and buyer of the 66th street store until last month.
Over the last few months as Tower went from a buying freeze and then into a full-on liquidation I tried to share my thoughts about Tower, and the state of the music industry with my regulars as well as anyone who ventured to ask the, by now painfully over-sounded queries of "why are you guys going out of business?" and "what do mean, it's not just this store, it's the whole chain that's going under?"
Whenever I did relay statistical information to my former clients about sales, they tended to become as vexed as I already was, barring if they were in actuality only bargain vultures seeking a cheap disc at the expense of the artists, labels, and of course, Tower itself.
Nevertheless, numbers do not lie, and barring ambling into outright slander, I believe it's advisable to present these facts to a wider audience in the digital realm to dispel any misconceptions to consumers rather than rely on simple word-of-mouth about Tower's demise.
Tower Records USA was a chain of 89 stores that grossed over $430 million last year; the three New York stores contributed some $40-$45 million to that total. The Lincoln Center location was not only the strongest store in the chain, it was possibly the strongest record retail store in this hemisphere since the inception of recording history.
People asked, "Did you guys fail due to the high rents?" No, though cheaper rents would have helped they were about 12% of the gross.
People asked, "Did you guys fail because of the internet?" No,tower.comwas and is still online. Of the music purchased this year 65% was done the traditional way, while an additional 25% was bought on-line in hard goods form.
People asked, "Did you guys fail due to digital downloads?" No, downloads represented only about 10% of music purchases this year, and Tower had just opened a digital store online. And, oh yeah, about 80% of the people who own an iPod don't digitally download, they just copy their CDs to their devices just like they did with walkmans and discmans back in the '80s and '90s.
By the way, vinyl had a huge upswing in sales in the past year as well.
So, people have continued to ask, "What was it then?"
It can be determined that over the last four to six years, Tower began embracing the same kind of corporate cookie-cutter mentality that, in the end, allowed a pervasive lack of creative thinking that has been the death knell of many a modern business.
"If you only think inside the box, then if you have a problem…work the box harder…it's got to work," so the flawed logic goes.
Rather than dwell on corporate failures and cash-outs--which in this case is a moot point--not much is salvageable from the 46-year legacy of Tower. I prefer to think about the future of music culture and the record industry, particularly in New York City.
On a cultural level, Tower's demise is, to my eyes, a near cultural disaster. The Classical department at Lincoln Center alone took in an average of about $100,000 a week, and no other store has ever had as fine a selection, including online, which has had little to no impact on the Classical audience.
Other departments such as Jazz, World Music, Imports, Vocals and Oldies have been in a similar boat, with the record companies at a loss to figure out where they are going to be selling niche artists in the future.
I personally believe that hard goods will not soon be "relegated to the junk heap of history" as many tech-philes would have us all believe. Certainly most or many items may one day be available for purchase in digital form. However, this equation leads us invariably into the philosophical sphere and out of the business world, where there is still money to be made in this medium--if it is done properly and un-corporately.
Soon we will see an equality of media with one-third of the discs produced being bought online, one-third from deep-discount and mom & pop niche retailers, and, possibly, the last third being digitally downloaded. The numbers of the latter may increase, but primarily in the Pop Music and the Singles realm, which has already been hit the hardest.
Thus, what New York needs, or what New Yorkers are demanding, is a new store, or rather, a new kind of store that enables the delivery of music (and other forms of entertainment) in all of its many formats, including live performance, Tower-like or better-than-Tower range of selection, an online presence, and with digital downloading portals that cater and focus on the niche genres that have been "left out" of the mainstream corporate agendas which make up the lion's share of interest of the local consumer.
So, for now, all the Tower stores sit empty and dark, and the space that the Lincoln Square Tower occupied will soon be dissected, and a portion of its footage will be abuzz with a half-hearted corporate cookie cutter facsimile of the space's original verve and character.
Certainly, customers will venture in and be compelled to check out what "the competition" has done with the place. Rumor has it that F.Y.E is putting a store into a part of the space but don't be surprised when you feel that you've walked into a over-sized New Jersey mall "hits" shop rather than an actual cool and edgy New York record store.
Which brings me around to what motivates my analysis and passion for what went wrong with Tower and to look towards the future.
My partners and I have revised and updated a business model that I first proposed some 12 years ago, when the city had a glut with "mega-stores," and there was little room for a deviation from the established model. That model is now effectively dead, or will be soon enough, making way for a return to the dominance of niche-specific indie stores where the employee behind the counter really cares about the music he or she is selling.