Here’s to Russ Solomon

(Note: This piece was originally posted in June, 2010.)

Well, word is in: longtime retail record pioneer Russ Solomon has officially retired from the retail music store business.

Solomon began his career in music retail at age 16, working the aisles and counter of his fathers drug store, Tower Drug, in downtown Sacramento, California. The year was 1941.

Following World War II, Solomon returned home to find that his father had expanded the music section of the store devoted to records.

In 1960, Tower Records was formally established. With added stores in Sacramento, San Francisco’s North Beach, the famed Sunset Strip in L.A. and beyond, the Tower brand and “deep catalog” concept swept the globe. If there was anything you were looking for in music, chances were good Tower had it.

Those were exciting times, Solomon explained with a laugh during one of several telephone interviews in 2007 and 2008. Of the early Tower Records–particularly the North Beach store–he said: “Those were the great years, man. That joint jumped!”

(During my various telephone interviews with him–for articles in Elmore Magazine,The Audiophile Voice, and my book Vinyl Lives–Solomon’s relaxed candor and comprehensive knowledge of the inner workings of the music business always impressed me. His ability to retain this avuncular nature, combined with a hands-on management style, endeared him to many associates, employees and a number of his fellow record store owners. Like many leaders, his stature within the record retail community includes the respect of  many of his competitors–and enemies–within the larger music industry).

To his detractors, Solomon gets flak for not staying ahead of the curve–and for not being able to prolong the relevancy (and solvency) of  Tower Records.

The formula for the store stayed the same, they said. Also, when digital came along, he missed the trend. In fact, Tower embraced the idea of (in-store) digital storefronts early on. But, by his own admission, Solomon never warmed to digitals’ purported benefits. The rise of file sharing didn’t help.

The solvency facet of the Tower story reads like an all-too-familiar-nowadays corporate yarn. The record store chain over-expanded globally, borrowed too much money and over-leveraged its assets. Eventually, banker/managers seized the reigns and–literally–drove Tower into the ground.

In my book Vinyl Lives, Solomon explains: “The new management that came in and forced us out–we were there physically, but we had no say in it–mismanaged it rather badly, and it just fell apart. They forced us to sell Japan, which was the only overseas market that was making any money. The American company all by itself, isolated and without debt, was making good money, but it couldn’t sustain the debt that was left over. The people that were managing it simply didn’t know what they were doing. And they wouldn’t listen to anybody. I mean, they’re bankers. Bankers can’t run businesses.”

To those who lost money, who feel that Tower stiffed them, Solomon responds:  “Tower didn’t do anything. When the management was running Tower, and allowed it to go into bankruptcy, people lost money. There’s no question about that. In fact, even today, it still hasn’t been settled out. And it’s going to be settled out for pennies on the dollar. Yes, Tower did stick people. But it wasn’t my fault, I can tell you that.”

Following the re-structuring, several Tower (franchise) stores remained open in Japan. The Tower website also continued.

In 2006, Solomon returned to Sacramento to open a variation on the Tower theme: R5 Records. With that event, his path in the music business had come full circle.

In May 2010, I learned that Solomon had recently remarried and planned to close R5, possibly by the end of the end of the month. Dimple Records (also based in Sacramento) would take over the R5 location, situated across the street from the current Tower Cafe. Housed in the original Tower Building, the Cafe resides in what was once the home of Tower Drug.

At age 85, Solomon closes the music retail sales chapter of his life with almost (rounding up only slightly) 70 years in the music business.

For those who experienced the presence and powers of Tower Records–their extensive and rich catalog of music, the ambience of a bustling and caring store that meant so much to so many–there’s an emptiness in knowing that Tower–and now Tower and R5’s founder–have been consigned to history.

Friday, June 11, 2010, was R5 Records last day.

Notwithstanding the negative feelings of many of those people adversely affected by the Tower failure–and the sizable drag of leftover debt on us taxpayers–Solomon’s many positive contributions to the music world remain.

Perhaps history will reflect this more positive side of Solomon’s story: Pioneer, visionary and gentle giant, Solomon’s legacy left an indelible imprint on the hearts and souls of music lovers everywhere. When the music industry surf was up, Russ Solomon was there, riding the biggest wave and making good things happen.

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Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 12:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

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