Russ Solomon is a music industry legend: the founder of Tower Records and the creator of the largest record stores in the world. It all started at the corner of 16th Street and Broadway in 1941, when Solomon began selling juke box records out of his father’s drug store in the Tower Theatre building. That grew into an enormous chain, beloved by the likes of Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, valued at $1 billion in 1999. Seven years later, it filed for bankruptcy. In Colin Hanks’ poignant documentary, All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, 90-year-old Solomon recounts his story with wit and charm. SN&R caught up with him about the film, the industry and YouTube.
What was it like watching the movie for the first time?
I was really pleased actually… Think about trying to cram 68 years of experiences into 90 minutes—that’s a real tour de force. What they managed to do was capture the spirit and ideas behind it, all the fun we were having and the tragedy at the end—if you’d call it that. It was great.
I was a little surprised that the film never mentioned the store you opened in Sacramento in 2012, R5 Records.
I think the reason I didn’t mention R5 Records is that I want to forget it. [Laughs] That was not my finest hour. The unfortunate part about that was that we started it right after the Tower company closed—it happened to be the same time as we were having a major recession, so the two didn’t work together very well… [Tower was] all new records. To stay in business today in retail records, you’ve gotta be in the used business, because used records sell for much less and the profits for the store are a little better.
Yeah, it’s pretty wild with this revival of vinyl and cassettes right now—
Cassettes? Are you kidding me? Is there a revival there?
It’s big with the punk kids.
Oh, that’s true. And they release new cassettes, but they’re kind of cheap.
How do you prefer to listen to music now?
I have a lot of records, CDs… I actually haven’t really experienced the online streaming, certainly not iTunes or any of that stuff. Except for YouTube, once in a while, which is really fun.
Why YouTube and not the other stuff?
The value of YouTube to me at least, which is probably different than many other people, is I’ll think of a song that I want to hear all of a sudden and I’ll go to YouTube and get it. You might even say it’s sort of historical investigation, versus going through my own collection. It’s quicker.
How big is your record collection?
Oh god. I must certainly have 3,000 or more, or something like that. More than I should have.
Yeah, well, you collect over a long period of time. And don’t forget, I was in the record business and I was getting a lot of samples—or promos, as we called them.
What do you think of the state of the music industry today?
Good question. Well, you have the music industry in parts: the publishing part, the live performance part, the record part, all these different phases. As an industry, they’re obviously not doing as well as they were in 1995 or 1999, but it’s hanging in there. It’s more difficult, I think, for smaller acts to make a real impact on the marketplace or achieve great circulation. The marketing behind music releases and so on is a lot less than it was then. But, overall, the industry is just trying to adjust to today’s world.
Are there any new artists you’re excited about?
Well, none have blown me away. But, I have to tell you one story. A friend who promotes shows around town brought me to a small concert at Harlow’s, a group called the Hot Club of Cowtown. I had never heard of them and I was totally blown away by them. Their sound was a cross between Bob Wills, western country swing, and the hot club of France, which was Django Reinhardt… Everyone was enjoying it, and me especially because it was bringing back all sorts of memories. The payoff was we went to dinner after, and the leader told me that the reason he was in this business and knew so much about music was because he worked for us in New York as a clerk.
Very cool. Does that happen to you often—meeting people who once worked for Tower?
I have a feeling that a great many people through the years worked for us who went on to become more important musicians, performers, actors even. But you know, who knows?