“All Things Must Pass” is a documentary that covers the rise and fall of Tower Records during the second half of the 20th century and the first few years of the 21st. What I love about the documentary is the fact that I experienced a lot of changes that took place in the record industry, particularly in the record stores, during those years. As a businesswoman, I loved the discussion surrounding the birth and death of Tower Records’ business model. At the end of the documentary, I left thinking what a great case study it would make.
I can just imagine the beginnings. Supposedly Tower Records started as Tower Drugs. After World War II, leading into the 1950s, Tower Drugs began carrying 45s in an effort to tempt their teenage customers hanging out at the soda fountain. As the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of entrepreneurs who owned a pharmacy in Marshall, Michigan during this same time period, I can picture it.
In fact, my maternal grandparents met at Peck’s Drugstore in Marshall. My grandfather’s parents were partners in the business, and at the time, before graduating from high school and enlisting in the US Navy during World War II, Grandpa worked there as a soda jerk. Grandma, who attended then nearby Marshall High School, loved their lemon Cokes. I’ve visited Marshall and located the corner where Peck Drugs once stood. Marshall Junior High School, once Marshall High School, is located right across the street. Even though my grandparents were gone by that time, I could easily envision the circumstances under which they met.
This burgeoning teenage culture in the 40s and 50s led to rock and roll and the astronomical growth of the record industry from the 40s through the end of the century. I happen to be just old enough to have witnessed the heights of the 1980s, the changes experienced all throughout the 1990s, and the chaos that followed in the first decade of the 21st century.
I lived it. Madonna and Michael Jackson’s reign as Queen and King of pop were a huge part of my childhood, as were Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, Wilson Phillips, Paula Abdoul, and so many others. As grunge exploded in the 1990s, the music industry fractured in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death and the advent of the internet. The music industry wasn’t nearly as tightly controlled as it once was and formats were changing yet again.
As a teenager, I understood the frustration. During the early part of my childhood, vinyl and cassette tapes dominated. Before long, CDs took over. WIth each new format, some felt the need to repurchase their music collection yet again. However, by the late 90s, people had had enough. During that time, I remember the anger that the equivalent of the 45 didn’t really exist in the CD format. You might be able to purchase singles, but they were never the hit songs. In essence, the record industry reached a point where they were pricing teenagers out of the market. Full CD albums during that time period usually ranged from $15-$20, depending on the artist and popularity. Today, I spend $8.99 a month for Amazon Music, which includes electronic access to whatever is available via Amazon Music – i.e. pretty much anything and everything.
The sad thing is that rural teenagers in the 90s, like me, mostly had access to the big box music retailers of the time, such as the behemoth Tower Records – or the CD clubs of the era, Columbia House and BMG Music. Oh, how I wished there were used record stores near me! When I arrived on campus at Michigan State in 1999, my friends and I made regular visits to The Wazoo, a mom and pop used record/CD store run by an old hippie who truly loved music, or WhereHouse Records, another great used music store. We could get an entire pile of albums for the price of one new release.
This atmosphere and the business model became a recipe for disaster. Enter the file sharing frenzy that took place in the early aughts. Napster and Limewire were king at this time. Why purchase music at all when you could download your favorite songs for free from a friend of a friend of a friend? While it wasn’t that simple – mislabeling ran rampant and download times could be excessive – it worked well enough. If anyone had actually been prosecuted for downloading music illegally, our judicial justice system would have quickly collapsed. Colleges, universities, and even many high schools would have been empty with students rotting in jail instead of receiving an education. That may be hyperbole, but not by much.
In the end, it could not last. Businesses such as Tower Records, so heavily dependent upon real estate and inventory, could not survive once people refused to repurchase their music collection yet again, pay full price for CD albums with only a handful of well-known songs (if lucky), downloaded whatever pirated music they wished via Napster and LimeWire. The electronic music market, now dominated by Amazon and Spotify, had not yet come into its own. Today, Tower Records lives on in Japan, a testament to its homegrown slogan – “No Music. No Life.”
“All Things Must Pass” is entertaining if you are interested in music and the history of the music business at all. It brought back a lot of memories for me, and frankly, I feel for teens today who do not have the experience of spending time in stores dedicated solely to music. Creating a Spotify or Amazon Music playlist just isn’t the same. The title “All Things Must Pass” comes from the sign a former Tower Records employee put on their sign as their original store was closing. “All Things Must Pass … Thanks Sacramento.” It is, of course, also the name of George Harrison’s triple solo album and hit, “All Things Must Pass.”