[JPL] Tower founder puts new spin on record store

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Sun Jun 10 07:29:35 EDT 2007


This story is taken from Sacbee / Business.

Tower founder puts new spin on record store

By David Watts Barton - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:59 am PDT Saturday, June 9, 2007

The bright-yellow facade and newly painted red trellises around the building
leave no doubt what is happening at the corner of 16th Street and Broadway
in Land Park.

Tower is back.

Well, not "Tower" per se, though its familiar color scheme now dominates the
corner where Tower Records once stood. Instead, it's R5 Records and Video,
which will open sometime this month. But the man behind the store remains
the same.

Russ Solomon is back.

When Solomon's Tower Records declared bankruptcy and finally died in
December after a slow, ugly decline, most figured the 81-year-old Solomon
would take a well-deserved retirement.

So, it comes as a surprise -- to those who don't know him well -- that just
six months after his industry-changing record store chain closed, Solomon is
opening a new record store. He is still receiving product, but the store is
nearly ready, and he's looking at a "soft" opening as soon as next weekend.

Solomon is starting R5 Records and Video halfway through a year in which
compact disc sales are down 20 percent, and the word on everyone's lips is
"digital." The conventional wisdom says downloads and iPods, not CDs, are
the future.

Which prompts a question: With all due respect, has it occurred to Solomon
that he might appear to be a Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, unable to
accept the new realities?

Or, less poetically: Crazy?

"I am crazy," Solomon says. "I guess it's something in the blood. It comes
from an overdose of shellac years ago."

That Solomon jokes about shellac -- the material records were made of when
he first started selling them, 66 years ago -- tells a truth: from 78s and
LPs to CDs and digital downloads, from mono to 5.1 surround sound, he's seen
it all. And he isn't intimidated. He is, in fact, intrigued.

He's also a proud man. Though time has taken its toll -- he's heavier, moves
a bit slower, and what little hair he has left is completely white -- he
speaks with the enthusiasm of a man with something to prove.

"The real story is that you hate to go down a loser," he says bluntly.

'There's life left' in business

In a series of conversations on the phone, at his art-filled home in Arden
Oaks, and in the Broadway store, Solomon argues that he can reinstate his
"winner" status. More than that, he thinks that the record industry -- and
perhaps a chain of R5 Records -- will be selling CDs long after he's gone.

"I believe that there's life left (in the business)," he says. "There are
things that need to be tried. And since I was preaching against a wall the
last two years that what Tower was doing and what the industry was doing was
misdirected and wrong, I owe it to myself and to the business to do it my

Solomon's way, as he puts it, "is getting back to the fundamentals. Our
focus has to be on people who love music, giving them great variety at great

The new store's name was cobbled together by Solomon and Patti Drosins, his
longtime companion and partner in the store, and was determined by what few
Web site names were available. "Tower Records" wasn't an option: it is now
owned by Caiman Inc., an online retailer that continues to run the Tower.com
Web site.

But according to Solomon, the new store will give anyone familiar with Tower
Records flashbacks: despite the name change, R5 Records looks a lot like
Tower in its heyday. In fact, the new logo was designed by Sacramentan Mick
Michelson, now 89, who designed the original logo in the early '60s.

Walking into the virtually empty store on Broadway, Solomon is greeted by
other familiar faces: Store manager Paul Brown, who worked for Tower for 25
years, Dale Glover (28 years) and Phil Minas (33 years). Even the younger of
Solomon's nine R5 employees -- some in their mid-20s -- have worked at Tower
for years.

"I give all the credit to the employees," says Solomon. "Local management,
and the enthusiasm and knowledge of the employees -- that makes the
difference and that's what you don't get in the big boxes. They know the

Solomon won't say how much money he's investing, but off-the-cuff,
off-the-record estimates by those who know the business run in the
three-quarter- to 1 million-dollar range.

Room for record stores

There's great interest in R5 Records, in Sacramento and beyond. Rob Fauble
competed against Tower since he started his store, The Beat, 25 years ago.
He says his business at 17th and J streets is up 25 percent since Tower
Broadway closed. Yet, he's thrilled Solomon is opening a new store.

"We're having our best year ever," he says in one breath, and then adds,
"Russ is my hero, so I think it's great he's opening. ... They took his
company away from him, and he's been on the sidelines; now he has the
opportunity to start with a clean slate."

Solomon is a heroic figure to many in the business. Jim Donio is president
of NARM, the National Association of Recording Merchandisers.

"People couldn't see beyond the death knell," he says of Tower's demise.
"But there is a future, and there are very smart people out there who know
that the industry needs to change, and Russ is one of them."

The heart of the "change" Solomon is proposing is less high-tech than
high-touch, though he concedes the importance of digital realities. But he
says the dangers are overblown.

"They've been talking about digital online for 10 years, and it's still just
15 percent of the total of music sold," he says from his Los Angeles office.
"People still want to go into a store and find a record; it's instant

"For many products, shopping online is good only if you know what you want,"
he reasons. "It's generally quicker to buy things in the store -- you can
see so much when you're standing in front of a rack, you see hundreds of
titles at once, whereas you only see 15 or 20 when you're online."

Antony Bruno edits the digital entertainment pages for Billboard. He is so
much in the digital realm that he doesn't even recognize Solomon's name when
asked about him. But he knows Tower.

"I'm the digital guy, right?" he asks rhetorically. "I'm the guy who says
the CD is in its sunset years."

But even Bruno admits Solomon may do quite well.

"There's clearly room for good record stores," he says. "There will always
be record stores that survive, because they know the area and the people and
the music. That said, I wouldn't do it -- but that's because I don't know

Stock to rival Tower's

R5 Records will rival the old Tower Broadway in its stock. Inside its 6,000
square feet, Solomon plans to carry nearly 50,000 units, as many as 40,000
discrete titles, including some 5,000 classical titles. And, says Solomon,
the special orders department will give amazon.com a run for your money. The
store will also carry 15,000 movies on DVD.

The stores won't be open until midnight every night, but they will be open
seven days a week, 365 days a year, just as Tower was. The hours are planned
to be 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, possibly until 11 p.m. or
even midnight on Friday and Saturday.

Solomon is convinced that, as he says, "All we need to do is the things that
made Tower successful."

And Tower was successful, he says, and not just in its heyday.

For the fiscal year that ended in June 2006, 76 of their 89 stores were
profitable, not counting interest expense and most other corporate costs,
according to a filing the company made in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last August.

Though the initial investment for R5 is coming out of Solomon's pocket, he
is looking for investors to expand, eventually into a full record chain.

"I can't just stay with one store," he says. "I'm not a one-store operator."

He may be dreaming, but he's dreaming big. And as Ed Christman, retail
columnist at Billboard says, "He's got the whole industry pulling for him."

After all, Christman adds, "Who else, at 81, is going to start a business?
He still wants to make it happen."

Drosins, who's known Solomon for 25 years, and spent most of her
professional life working at record labels in New York, says Solomon's
not-so-secret strength is his passion.

"He's still as passionate as he ever was," she says, adding wryly, "a lot
heavier and a little less hair, but just as much passion. ... He always
looks at the positive, and looks to the future, and that's what keeps him

Move is a challenge

But why? Why not leave well enough alone? After all, Tower may have died,
but while it lived, it changed the music business. These are laurels to be
rested upon.

" 'Cause I don't know any better," Solomon jokes. "But OK, seriously, the
business has really changed, and that presents a very interesting challenge.
And the truth is, I really don't know how it's going to shake out. ...

"And that's exciting," he says. "I can't do a lot of the things that I used
to be able to do: I can't water-ski, I can't climb a mountain. But this one
... this one I might be able to do."

Go to: Sacbee / Back to story

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