Last Tuesday, March 17, the Colin Hanks-directed and Sean Stuart-produced film All Things Must Pass premiered at the SXSW film festival. The film focuses on the rise and fall of Tower Records as told by founder Russ Solomon and many of the original employees and business partners of Tower. With archival footage of Elton John spending hours looking for the prefect record at Tower Sunset to the store’s first expansion aboard in Japan to the stories of employees writing off cocaine on their expense reports as Hand Truck Fuel, this is a story with deep roots.
CMJ got a chance to hang with Colin Hanks and Sean Stuart on the Gibson Bus before the two hosted the film’s SXSW kickoff party last Monday at Gibson’s Showroom. The party featured racks of vinyl which attendees could peruse and exchange a gift card for one record. Although by the end of the evening it had become a free for all, with people sneaking dozens of albums into their authentic Tower Records shopping bags.
What was each of your first experiences going to a Tower Records store?
Colin Hanks: God that is a good question. I don’t think I can remember the first experience, but I remember going and getting the cassette single of EMF’s “Unbelievable.” I bought it because it was the first cassette that I’d seen that was blue, it was actually blue plastic. When I was old enough to have a CD player, back when they were selling the long boxes, I remember I bought Blood Sugar Sex Magic there, which is arguably the most influential record for me at that age. I’d cut up the long boxes and they would be de facto posters in my teenage bedroom. So I had a lot of memories of Tower, but for my first time I was a little too young to remember it.
Sean Stuart: I think it was the same for me, with my first memory I was a little too young. I was probably with my parents. I think typically they would head to Tower Books, which was next door, and I would head to tower records and peruse the music isles. That was the first years, not times, at Tower Records. It was ingrained in me from an early age.
Which Tower location was your main stomping ground?
C.H. & S.S.: 16th and Broadway [in Sacramento]
C.H.: That would have been the original—
S.S.: Well across the street from the original—
C.H: Tower records location. And once we really could have cars and drive around then also the Watt Avenue location—
S.S.: Which is in Sacramento as well.
C.H.: That was just down the street from the old bowling alley we used to go to.
What was the birth of you doing this documentary? And why did you feel this story needed to be told?
C.H.: I was having dinner with this old family friend of mine, who’s just a generation older than me, and we were talking about what a bummer it was the stores were closing. And at the end of the conversation she just said, sort of in passing, “I can’t believe it all started in that little drug store.”
I had never heard about the drug store, and I was like, “Wait, what? Tower Records started in a drug store? What do you mean?” And she was like, “Oh yes, it all started with Russ (Solomon) selling records out of his father’s drug store in the ’30s or ’40s or something like that.” And that was the light bulb moment, because I thought if a guy starts selling a records out of his father’s drug store in the ’40s and that company turns into Tower Records and then they close 189 stores worldwide that is an incredible journey for someone to have gone through.
S.S.: I think it was October of 2007 and I was in New York visiting [Colin] and he pitched me the idea of doing a documentary about Tower Records. And it was the same thing, when he mentioned the drug store in the 1940s, it was first bounce of the ball a no-brainer. And it was that spring, of 2008, that we sat down with Russ [Solomon] for the first time and we probably had a six hour session with him. After the first half hour of him telling his story and giving the details of what they did and how they did it, what they achieved, we knew we had a special documentary on our hands.
In the documentary you really focus almost exclusively on the story of Tower Records, you don’t go much outside of it for cultural context except for in the instance of the invention of the CD or something that would directly influence the production and sales of the records. What made you decide to keep the film as contained as it was?
C.H.: It’s the Tower Records documentary first and foremost. That was the goal from the beginning. Keep in mind we’ve been making this movie for 7 years, when we started WalMart was the number one music retailer and then iTunes, and then streaming has come around and iTunes is not all that great, and vinyl’s making a comeback. The music industry is evolving at an incredible rate so you can’t really make a film one year and expect something to be the exact same relevance a few years down the road. So really what we wanted to do is focus on what happened to Tower and why.
If there was a thesis for the film it would be that there’s this great misconception that the internet killed Tower, and that’s not 100% true. Tower was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt before iTunes and before Napster. We wanted to analyze stuff that already happened, and how that affected Tower. We didn’t want to make some big grand statement about every other record store chain.
S.S.: And even if we had gone broader than we did it would have become a mini-series. It’s all interesting, but every facet of the industry would have been too much for us. And at its core there’s so much soul and so much heart in Russ’s story and Tower’s story that the facets that actually effected Tower’s progression and ultimate demise were really the only things we needed to focus on to help put their story into context.
Russ, when talking about opening his first store in Japan, says, “If you don’t take advantage of a new idea, if it makes any sense at all, then you’ve lost something.” Although you were focusing on the fact that there was a lot more than the internet that contributed to the downfall of Tower, do you feel that there was something Russ lost sight of at the advent of digital and new music platforms?
C.H.: Oh yeah. That’s the other element of it, it wasn’t just the internet, but part of it was their own short sightedness, not evolving. Russ was always one of those forward thinkers, but he only thought so far…Russ just always thought there would be collectors of records, but when they stopped selling singles, you lose a generation of kids coming into their store…Napster came around so quickly, and at that point they were too big to make changes.
Sean, you were talking about how many great stories there were when making the film, and there are when you’re watching it. This included a great moment when [former CEO of Distribution at Universal Music Group] Jim Urie cries over Russ’s kindness to him when he was going through a hard time after being laid off. Are there any things that didn’t make it into the film that you personally were moved by?
S.S.: I don’t think moved by; I’d say exhilarated by. There were some really fun anecdotal stories that really bolster the fun that these guys had building this empire that just didn’t make sense in telling this great story. One of our favorites, and this is a great example, is in the 1960s in San Francisco they spray painted an elephant pink and actually brought it in to the San Francisco store and brought it in for the release of the album from The Big Pink.
What are some personal things in your record collection that you’re especially proud of?
C.H.: Oh Jeez, I well now have reached a geek level that I’m proud of, but also kind of not. But when I travel on locations, when I’m acting in a movie or something like that, I’ll go to these cities with a portable turntable but I won’t bring any records. This forces me to leave my hotel and go out to record stores and explore the town, and get to know each town a little more and talk with people at the stores. Then whatever [record] I buy in that city, I label with the city I bought it in. So I have this collection from all these places I either work at, or have gone and visited. So I have started doing all my record labeling by city [laughs]. So it’s not one particular record so much as that thing. That collection.
S.S.: My record collection that I have was passed on to me by my father. So I have a lot of original 1970s and ’80s records that I love. I remember him handing me of all records, I know it’s pretty cliché, Stairway To Heaven. [Colin laughs] I just remember playing it over and over and over again, probably on some beat up old record player that was out of the basement.