Russ Solomon, Founder of Tower Records, Dies at 92
Posted March 5, 2018 8:07 p.m. EST
Russ Solomon, who pioneered the superstore hangout for music lovers by founding Tower Records and expanded it worldwide before internet pirates and crushing debts rendered the chain obsolete and bankrupt, died Sunday night at his home in Sacramento, California. He was 92.
His son Michael confirmed the death.
A high school dropout who sold used jukebox records at 16 in his father’s drugstore in Sacramento, Solomon was the driving force behind a sprawling enterprise that began with one store in that city in 1960 and grew into a dominant competitor in music retailing with nearly 200 stores in 15 countries. Sales of recorded music, videos and books eventually topped $1 billion a year.
With marketing instincts that even rivals and critics called ingenious, Solomon built megastores, some bigger than football fields, and stocked them with as many as 125,000 titles, virtually all of the popular and classical recordings on the market.
Yet many patrons said there was a clublike intimacy about the stores, where, as Bruce Springsteen once put it, “everyone is your friend for 20 minutes.”
Open all year from 9 a.m. to midnight, staffed by hip salespeople who could answer almost any question about recordings, the stores became the haunts of music aficionados scouring endless racks for rock, heavy metal, jazz, blues, standards, classicals, country-westerns and myriad other offerings. Sometimes popular bands and singers performed in the stores.
Springsteen, Bette Midler, Lou Reed and Michael Jackson were regular patrons. So was David Chiu, a Brooklyn journalist.
“When you walked into the Tower Records store in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood back in the day, you just didn’t go in there to buy an album and then rush off to leave,” he wrote in Cuepoint, an online publication, in 2016. “To me, going into Tower was like visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art or attending a baseball game — it required a certain investment of time.”
Solomon told Billboard magazine in 2015: “Our favorite regular was Elton John. He probably was the best customer we ever had. He was in one of our stores every week, literally, wherever he was — in LA, in Atlanta when he lived in Atlanta, and in New York.”
In an interview for this obituary last September, Solomon recalled that he opened the first Tower Records store in what had been his father’s drugstore with $5,000 in borrowed capital. He called it “a neighborhood business,” which he named after the Tower Theater, a local landmark that was built in 1938 and topped by a neon-bathed, 100-foot art deco pillar.
He soon opened a second Sacramento outlet, but the business did not take off until 1968, when he opened Tower Records in San Francisco. It was an instant sensation in the heart of the hippie and music scene, capitalizing on the 1967 Summer of Love. At 5,000 square feet, the store was small by later company standards, but it set a formula for the future: wide selections and discounted prices.
“I stole ideas from supermarket merchandising,” Solomon recalled. The store, he said, stacked hot-selling items on the floor, to encourage impulse buying and to suggest plentiful supplies, reinforcing the impression that Tower would be well stocked when competitors’ supplies had run out. The store also set late-night closing hours.
But the most important innovation, he said, was hiring a staff so well versed in the local music scene that the store could order its own inventory. It was a task that music chains typically assigned to a central office to achieve economies of scale for their outlets. But Solomon found that local judgments were more profitable, and decentralized ordering became a pattern for all his stores.
“We wanted people in the store to run the store — they’re your strength,” Solomon said. “Central buying is just a bad idea. You can’t make decisions on what to do in Phoenix if you’re sitting in New York or London.” While staff wages were relatively low, the workers were given unusual fringe benefits, including parties with live bands and opportunities to mingle with musicians, promoters, record company executives and radio and television personalities, Solomon said. And in the 1960s and ′70s, he said, employees were given time off to attend protests against the Vietnam War.
“It was the right thing to do,” he said. “We had to be with the scene. It was important to us and to them.”
As business boomed in the ′70s and ′80s, he established Tower Records outlets in major cities across the United States, many with 20,000 to 40,000 square feet of space. The New York flagship, in Greenwich Village, opened in 1983.
Tower began opening stores abroad in the 1980s, starting in Japan and spreading in Asia, Europe and Latin America. In the 1990s, it became the nation’s largest privately held music retailer, with nearly 200 stores in the United States and 14 other countries.
But it never went public. “That was the dumbest thing I ever did,” Solomon conceded. Selling stock might have paid for further expansion. Instead, he borrowed to finance more stores, and his debt swelled to $300 million. In 1999, Tower sales topped $1 billion, but its financial tailspin had already begun. The company lost $10 million in 2000 and $90 million in 2001.
Solomon sold and closed stores and converted others to franchises. At the same time, the music business went into a slump. Tower declared bankruptcy in 2004, and in 2006 it was forced to liquidate and close.
Solomon acknowledged that he had underestimated the internet’s threat to store retailing. Pirates downloaded music without paying for it, and paying customers turned to online vendors and price-cutters like Walmart and Best Buy. The owner blamed himself.
“I was overextended,” Solomon said. “I was swamped by the debt.”
Russell Malcolm Solomon was born on Sept. 22, 1925, in San Francisco to Clayton Solomon and former Annette Sockolov. The boy and his sister, Shirley, grew up mostly in Sacramento, the state capital, where their father established his business, Tower Cut Rate Drugs, in the late 1930s.
Russell, an indifferent student, was expelled for repeated truancy from C.K. McClatchy High School at 16 and went to work for his father. He served stateside in the Army Air Forces from 1944-1946.
In 1946, he married Doris Epstein, from whom he was divorced. In 2010, he married Patricia Drosins, who survives him. Besides his son Michael, he is also survived by another son, David; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Michael Solomon said his father died, apparently of a heart attack, while watching the Academy Awards ceremony on television. Solomon attempted a comeback in 2007, opening a store called R5 Records at the location of his first Sacramento store. He no longer had the rights to the Tower Records name, but used its red and yellow color scheme for his logo. After three relatively unsuccessful years, R5 Records was sold to a local music chain.
A nostalgic documentary, “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records,” directed by actor Colin Hanks, was released in 2015. It featured Solomon and many of his former employees and patrons, including Elton John, who called the shuttering of Tower Records “one of the great tragedies of my life.”