“No Music, no life.” That was his motto. Sadly, after 92 years of lots of music and lots of life, we no longer have Russ.
Tower Records founder, the visionary Russ Solomon, died last Sunday at his Sacramento home of an apparent heart attack while drinking whiskey and watching the Oscars. The man who showed so many of us how to live life well has now set the standard for dying well also.
And he did live an incredible life. From selling used records at age 16 out of his father’s pharmacy on the corner of Broadway and Land Park Drive in 1941, this high-school dropout eventually owned 200 stores in 15 countries with over a billion dollars in annual sales. Our local boy even made the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans in 1990. And then it all came crashing down in 2006, after too much borrowing, too much online competition and too much online file-sharing. Tower Records was forced into bankruptcy, and Russ’ much-loved stores closed down.
But the Russ-and-Tower-Records story is much more than a business story. It is a story about heart and soul. Talk to anyone who worked at Tower, who shopped at Tower or who did business with Tower, and they will tell you that Russ and Tower were different. My experience with Russ and Tower Records was different, too.
After I came to the Chico News & Review in 1980, one of my first goals was to convince the Tower advertising department to switch over their book and record store print ads from the boring daily paper to our community newsweekly that was read by way more record-buyers. We worked out the deal over a six-pack at a picnic table in Chico’s Bidwell Park.
I have done business with all the record chain stores: Wherehouse, Sam Goody, Virgin and others. But Tower was different. They were a music company that had a business. While the others were businesses that had a music store. And Tower had Russ.
Russ so clearly set the tone. If you wore a necktie into Tower Records headquarters, Russ would ask you to donate it, and it would go up on the wall of neckties. Blue jeans, long hair and T-shirts were the non-uniform uniform. It was the mecca of non-corporate corporate headquarters.
I loved shopping at Tower. The Tower people were nicer, funnier and hipper. They listened to and knew music. They knew books. They would be happy to talk to you about music or books for hours. I have bought records and books from people, and I have bought them from online stores that use algorithms. It is never the same. I miss the Tower experience.
Russ and Tower Records also kept our paper alive. In 1989, I moved here to start the Sacramento News & Review. While the Chico paper was doing well, we did not have much money, and we faced a much more formidable competitor here, the Sacramento Bee, that had somewhere around 240,000 circulation at that time.
When we arrived, the Bee’s publisher told me that he took our paper very seriously and that he intended to put us out of business. In 1991, the Bee came out with a Friday Ticket entertainment tabloid. Then they dropped the hammer. The Ticket would also have “special introductory rates” for new clients. These rates coincidentally happened to match the SN&R rates.
The Bee advertising reps were going to our clients, offering the same rates in the 240,000-circulation daily paper that we were offering in the much smaller circulation SN&R. The rates were a huge reduction from the Bee’s standard rates. We immediately lost some clients, and our future was precarious.
So we ran full-page ads in the SN&R encouraging existing Bee advertisers to ask their reps for the special introductory rates. These ads listed the Bee’s standard ad rates compared to the new introductory rates.
Soon afterwards, we received orders for full pages of advertising from Tower Records, Tower Books, and Tower Video. Our little startup was saved. Tower to the rescue.
A few years ago, I had lunch with Russ and was able to thank him for saving our paper. Like so many people in Sacramento and throughout 15 countries, I am so grateful to Russ, for so many reasons. Join me and toast Russ with a glass of whiskey. I hope to toast him again when I am 92.