Yep, that’s right – Tower Records still exists!
Not only does a Tower Records still exist in Tokyo, but it’s freaking huge.
Nine stories to be exact. Ten if you count their basement performance venue.
Tower Records, Shibuya is actually one of the biggest music retail outlets in the world. The nine-story shop is approximately 5,000 square meters (53,820 square feet), about the size of a regulation football pitch!
The fact that there is Tower Records in Tokyo, when most of the stores were forced to close their doors a decade ago, is due to the nature of Japanese music culture along with the history of Tower itself.
The History of Tower Records
The history of Tower Records spans the globe and half a century – you can find a wealth of information online and in print, and there’s even a documentary that chronicles its rise and fall:
In fact, there is an entire Tower Archive dedicated to preserving “the spirit and history of this pioneering music store.”
Tower was a gathering place, a library, a barometer of cultural trends… a cultural epicenter, an extended family, a way of life and a scene unto itself.
But I’ll leave that in-depth reporting to the experts, and just give you the quick and dirty version of the rise and fall of Tower Records…
Tower Records: A mini music history lesson
The first Tower store was opened by Russell Solomon in 1960 in Sacramento, California. Solomon named his shop after his father’s drugstore, Tower Cut Rate Drug Store, which shared a building with the Tower Theater.
Tower Theater & Tower Cut Rate Drugs (photo courtesy of All Things Must Pass)
Eight years after opening Tower, Solomon expanded to a second location in San Francisco. A few years after that, a third shop opened its doors in LA. From there, Tower’s growth was exponential, expanding across the United States and internationally.
Russ Solomon at Tower Records (photo courtesy of All Things Must Pass)
I’m a Collector, I understand the Collector mentality.
–Russ Solomon, founder of Tower Records
At its peak, Tower ran over 200 locations, spread across the US, as well as in the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Ireland, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, and Argentina.
In the 1990s, Tower Records sales often exceeded $1 billion annually.
Tower’s inventory changed with the times, moving from vinyl and cassettes to CDs, DVDs, and video games. Tower was also one of the first music retailers to move online, starting TowerRecords.com in 1995.
Screenshot of TowerRecords.com in 1996 (from Internet Archive)
However, along with the massive expansion, there were also missteps along the way: there was that whole multi-million dollar CD price fixing fiasco in which Tower Records and several other music publishers, distributors, and retailers were found guilty of illegal agreements that lead to inflated CD prices.
But ultimately, the dooming force for Tower was simply the rapidly changing market. Tower decided to take on about $110 million in debt to help fund rapid international expansion. However, they took on this debt just as music lovers were turning to free music file sharing sites, iTunes, online shopping, and discount retailers. Even huge record stores like Tower couldn’t compete; in 2006, Tower Records filed for bankruptcy.
However, by 2006, Tower Records Japan had already split off from the main company and wasn’t impacted by the bankruptcy. Tower Records Japan, which had been going strong for over 20 years, went independent from the main chain in 2002.
In 2015, Tower Records Japan operated 88 record stores across Japan.
Music in Japan: A Collector’s State of Mind
As for brick-and-mortar record stores, Japan has been a stronghold. As the rest of the world moved from CDs to digital music to streaming, Japan never stopped buying CDs. And buying a lot of them. Japan is consistently listed as one of the countries that spends the most on music per capita. Japan still has an estimated 6,000 music stores (the US is the largest music market by revenue in the world and has only about 1,900 music stores, Germany has around 700 stores).
According to The Recording Industry Association of Japan, as of mid-2016, CDs are still the highest-selling format in Japan.
Japan is known around the world for their advances in electronics, robotics, and the Japanese are often early adopters of new technologies, but they have failed to embrace digital and streaming music.
Why? There are many intermingled explanations for Japan’s CD-centric music market:
- Licensing Agreements: Streaming services have been slow to launch in Japan. Spotify famously took years to secur licensing negotiations with music companies in Japan. To license music for streaming, agreements need to be reached with record companies. Unlike the US, Japan doesn’t just have a few major record companies to deal with, but far more small and medium-sized record companies to negotiate with.
- Digital Sales: Digital business is still viewed with suspicion in Japan. Even many online sales are paid for at konbini (convenience stores) or via Cash On Delivery rather than paid online via credit card.
- Pricing Restrictions: Japan has a unique system that imposes pricing restrictions on retailers, in an effort to prevent them from waging ruthless price wars with each other. These pricing restrictions have led new CDs to have a pretty standard price of $20 or more, thus ensuring a healthy profit margin for record companies and stores.
- Bonus Material: CDs are often packaged with bonus material. Some new releases might have a hidden concert ticket inside, for example. This leads some fans to buy multiple copies of a single release.
- Collector State of Mind: The Japanese really seem to have a love of limited, collectible releases. Perhaps they understand what I consistently hear from music collectors: there’s just something more engaging about a non-digital music collection. The physicality, the sound, the art, the memories, and that deeper connection to the music attracts Japanese collectors.
A majority of Japanese fans still like the idea of possessing and playing the physical disc.
–Russ Solomon, founder of Tower Records
Tower Records, Shibuya
No matter what the explanation, it’s clear physical music is still a huge part of Japanese culture!
Exploring the Tower Records in Shibuya was such a strange but fascinating adventure. On the first floor, dubbed the “Party” floor, different songs blasted out from each new release display.
Some displays also had listening stations, although many just had the album or an advertisement for the album on repeat, playing on speakers.
Each featured artist with a new release had its own elaborate display. This floor was packed with new releases and recommendations.
Many displays had their own screens looping a music video or advertisement for the album.
If you haven’t watched a Babymetal video, I highly recommend giving it a go. The fusing of heavy metal with J-pop is a bizarre combo, especially when paired with choreographed dancing of the three teenaged girls from a former Japanese idol girl group.
Japanese artists and bands definitely dominated the first floor, which was also packed with teens and tweens browsing, buying, and socializing.
There was an impressive number of boy bands on display.
The first floor also included some books, magazines, t-shirts…
…and of course, many other music related gifts and Tower Records swag.
However, if you are looking for vinyl, you won’t find much on the first floor.
If you make it past the noise and chaos of the first floor, the subsequent floors aren’t nearly as rowdy. In fact, I found the endless aisles on the third floor (J-Pop, J-Indies) nearly deserted, but only because everyone was gathered on the far side of the floor where a band was setting up to play.
Subsequent floors each had their own theme and decor that fit the style of music. After the excitement of the first floor, the seventh-floor classical section was a lovely reprieve.
All-in-all, visiting Tower Records, Shibuya was quite the experience, though I have to admit that the smaller, locally owned record stores were more my style. However, visiting this music-mega store with decades of history was a blast and got me into thinking about the future of music in Japan.
As streaming begins to gain traction in Japan, it’s likely huge stores like Tower Records will feel the pain of decreased sales. Will the Tower Records in Japan face the same fate that befell most Tower Records across the world? Or will the Japanese love of music and culture of collecting save Tower?
It’s hard to say what will happen, but I’m glad I had the chance to see the legacy of Tower Records live on in Japan.
As vinyl sees a revived interest across the world, perhaps we are learning what the Japanese never forgot: to truly love and appreciate physical forms of music, rather than indulge in the quick, and ultimately forgettable, fix a digital purchase provides. True music collectors need the tangible, the tactile, the artistry, and the shared experience of putting on an album.
After Tower Records announced bankruptcy, Russ Solomon was interviewed about the fall of Tower and asked about the digital downloading of music. He replied,
“You know, I get really criticized when I say this, but there’s a fad element to what’s going on with this technology. It will burn out a little bit, and people will want objects, they really will.”
His prediction of the vinyl resurgence was spot on, as we’ve seen from continuous years of strong performance for the format. Russ, who passed away in 2018, was a pioneer of music culture in the 20th century and his creation continues to be historically relevant.