Tower Records Founder Russ Solomon Has Died At Age 92

Mar 5, 2018
Originally published on March 6, 2018 8:21 am

Russ Solomon, the founder of the enormously influential and widely beloved Tower Records chain, has died at age 92.

His son, Michael Solomon, told the Sacramento Bee on Monday that his father died of an apparent heart attack on Sunday evening while watching the Oscar awards ceremony and enjoying a glass of whiskey.

Solomon started his record store as an offshoot of his father's drugstore before building it into a separate retailer. At its peak as a mecca for music lovers, Tower boasted stores and licensees across the U.S., with its signature yellow-and-red signs also blazing in London, Buenos Aires and Tokyo. Music fans and musicians alike made pilgrimages to Tower's stores. As Bruce Springsteen said in All Things Must Pass, director Colin Hanks' 2015 documentary about the chain, "If you came into town, you went to Tower Records."

Its successes spurred the expansion of other music mega-retailers like HMV and Virgin. Each of its stores had a unique retail profile, often tied to its geographical location: the store in Nashville, for example, offered a huge selection of country music, while the Tower next to Lincoln Center in New York City boasted an unparalleled stock of classical titles.

But in 2006, Tower declared bankruptcy.

The chain's decline was a long time in its making: Solomon and his team didn't anticipate how fast the revolution from physical products to digital downloads was going to come. File-sharing sites like Napster were proliferating. Big-box stores like Target, Wal-Mart and Best Buy were selling high-volume, popular CDs at sizable discounts. Tower couldn't afford to match the big-box stores' sale prices, and Solomon couldn't persuade the record labels to lower their prices, or to get them to start selling CD singles rather than full albums.

In the meantime, Tower racked up debt to the tune of $110 million, in hopes of driving even more international expansion. Eventually, however, the company couldn't outpace its troubles.

Even after Tower's collapse, Russ Solomon still heard the siren song of those album bins. Along with his second wife, Patti Drosins, he opened a storefront called R5 Records in Sacramento in 2008; it lasted for two years before closing.

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The founder of Tower Records has died. Russ Solomon was 92 years old. He started selling records in his father's drugstore and built a chain that was mecca for many in the days when you bought music by flipping through the albums or tapes in a bin. Here's NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Russ Solomon opened his first stand-alone store in 1960 in Sacramento, Calif. By its peak in the 1990s, Tower had nearly 200 stores in places as far-flung as Tokyo and London, with sales of more than $1 billion. Music nerds loved Tower because you could find everything there decades before streaming services made access to music instant. Bruce Springsteen raved about the story in "All Things Must Pass," director Colin Hanks' 2015 documentary about the chain.


BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: If you came into town, you went to Tower Records.

TSIOULCAS: But in 2006, Tower declared bankruptcy. Solomon and his team didn't foresee the digital revolution. People were starting to buy downloads. File-sharing sites like Napster were becoming common. And big-box stores like Walmart and Best Buy sold popular CDs on big discounts. Tower Records just couldn't compete. Even after his chain's collapse, Russ Solomon couldn't stay away from the album bins. Before he finally retired, he and his wife ran a little record store back in Sacramento for a few years. His motto was, no music, no life. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.