Russ Solomon's love of the music business helped him build an international franchise, whose stores not only sold all sorts of music, but hosted concerts, and served as gathering places where people could train their ears and share their musical tastes. For four decades, Tower Record's yellow and red stores were part of the record album culture, but the digital culture helped push the company into bankruptcy.
Now, less than a year after his iconic store, Tower Records, closed its doors, the 82-year old entrepreneur is back in business, with a new CD and video store. But he doesn't call his return to music retail a comeback. "I don't think I ever stopped, is really the truth of it," he explains. "There was always an intention to keep on going, 'cause I love this business. Maybe I'm crazy, probably am as a matter of fact," he adds with a laugh.
Solomon opened his new R5 Records store in Sacramento, where a Tower Records store once stood, right across the street from the Tower Theater building. That's where Solomon's father used to have a drugstore and where Solomon first began selling records in the 1950s. "There's something kind of nostalgic about it and something righteous, I think," he reflects, "and it's a nice place to kick off from."
R5 looks just like an old Tower store, with rows and rows of all kinds of CDs and DVDs. Even the R5 logo resembles the old red and yellow Tower sign. Sitting in the store's cramped back room office, Solomon says he wants to rekindle the qualities that made Tower special: a 'deep' catalog, so people can find whatever music they're looking for, and salespeople who are passionate and knowledgeable about music. "We were always very, very sincere about what we did," he insists. "We cared about having the people who worked in the stores involved. It was their sense of ownership and their sense of being involved, it's their store."
In Tower's heyday, back in the mid-1980s, the chain had more than 200 stores around the world, and was the dominant music retailer in the U.S. But facing tough competition from discount outlets like Wal-Mart and Best Buy, and the exploding popularity of music downloads, Tower ran into trouble and filed for bankruptcy in 2004. The company stayed in business for two more years but Solomon sold off most of his interest.
"The philosophy of the company got shifted from local-oriented stores all over the country, really kind of a family of independent record stores, mom and pop record stores if you will, to a corporate machine of some sort." Solomon wants to recreate that family of independent record stores with R5.
Phil Gallo writes about music for Variety magazine, and calls Solomon's latest venture good news. "I think that the music industry didn't realize how much it was going to miss a place like Tower Records," he says, but adds that the retailer is going against the tide. "This is a business that is disappearing by the hundreds every month. The shelf space in places where CDs are sold is disappearing, and you're not seeing very many people who are willing to open the door and have that as the featured product."
So, is R5 just a nostalgia trip for Solomon or is it a sign that so-called brick and mortar music stores will return? And will the music industry be watching? Gallo laughs and predicts it will be, "for sentimental reasons. I think it has a future in the niche marketplace."
As brick and mortar music stores evolve in an effort to survive in the digital world, Solomon's old-school approach of stocking deep catalog and hiring passionate music lovers jibes well with the changes, according to Jim Donio, president of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers. "There are certain sort of baseline offerings that successful stores need to exploit and need to cultivate and Russ gets that, Russ understands that," he says.
Back at the R5 store, customer Jay Quintella is browsing in the hip-hop section. He says for record collectors like him, Solomon's new store is a big deal. "I think he's to be commended for taking another shot at music retail because I think they're just ringing the bell on the death of music retail way too early." He says nothing compares to the atmosphere of a record store. "I think a lot of people still like to come in and physically touch the product and browse around … instead of sitting at a computer for hours and hours trying to fill an iPod."
Solomon, who turned 82 in September, says he has no plans of retiring. He compares himself to a painter, or a writer, or a musician. "You just keep doing it. Age doesn't stop you and just because you've done it doesn't mean anything. You just keep doing it. So what I do is I like to run record stores. That's my thing."
Russ Solomon hopes he's forecasting the future of music retail by reviving his past. He says if R5 takes off, he'd like to open a chain of stores across the country, just as he did with Tower Records.