Saturday, January 30, 2010

Connecting the Lost Dots

Another Loss From This Week.

Rhino and Tower Records are long gone. And now, J.D. Salinger and Miramax are gone. And, believe it or not, they're all connected.

If you hang around Los Angeles long enough, you start identifying places not by what's there, but by what used to be there. (This gets confusing for new arrivals, but always elicits knowing nods from people who've lived here a while.)

This week, Miramax closed their doors for good (in both New York and L.A.).

To be fair, Miramax had basically been dead for at least 8 months, so this wasn't unexpected news. But it's still a bit shocking. (And some would argue that Miramax was lucky to have survived the past 4 years without Bob and Harvey Weinstein, or that it was bad form for Disney to have kept the Weinsteins from using the name of the company they founded and famously named for their parents Miriam and Max.)

Let me back up a second and connect this to music.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I thought of Tower Records on Sunset and Rhino Records on Westwood as Temples. I'd visit them and browse through the aisles, feeling like I was a teenager again -- so much great music all in one place.

Rhino Records (the store) had the cool factor -- their selection wasn't great, but the clerks were amazing oracles of musical wisdom and they held parking lot sales the first weekend of every month (where you could choose from thousands of albums for $2 or under) -- and the cachet of being connected Rhino Records (the label), the greatest record company in recent memory.

But Tower had the history (John Lennon did a radio commercial for them in the 70s just because he thought they were cool; Elton John used to have them open up after hours so he could buy tens of thousands of dollars worth of music) and an insanely wide selection. Tower also had comically high prices -- $19 for a single CD was the norm rather than the exception even when places like Best Buy sold the same CD for $12 or less.

A few years ago, I had some meetings with people at Miramax, which was located in a funky office building with a cool fountain outside (and friendly valet parkers who offered to buy my 16-year-old Honda every time I was there). They were almost directly across the street from the House of Blues and just a few blocks from Tower Records. So I'd often pop into Tower either before or after going to Miramax.

At that point, I probably hadn't been to Tower in at least 5 or 10 years. When online music retailers started gaining traction, there suddenly wasn't as much demand for a physical store that would stock more than 30 different Paul McCartney albums. Plus, Tower prices stubbornly stayed high, even as other online and physical stores were slowly bringing down the cost of CDs.

Tower, expanded too fast and opened too many stores even as the market for CD sales was plummeting, announced they were going to close all their stores -- including their Sunset Boulevard store (and the one in New York where I bought the XTC/Three Wise Men Christmas single) and liquidating their stock. Since their selection was never the problem, the chance to pick through the store at a reasonable price was intriguing.

So after a meeting at Miramax, I headed over to Tower, which had a huge banner boasting of savings of 20-30% off (and more). I had a little money burning a hole in my pocket and I wanted to buy something -- maybe just as a way of reminding me how I used to view Tower as a Temple when I first moved here. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)


Even at 30% off, the $19 CDs were still more expensive than at Best Buy. So I left without buying anything. (I can't find the exact quote, but a commenter on the Lefsetz Letter criticized Tower's liquidation at the time, saying "They can't even go out of business well... no wonder they're f*cking going out of business!")

Over the next few weeks, the stock at Tower was gradually picked clean. They increased discounts slowly and I went back again a few weeks later after another trip to Miramax. And I wandered around, looking for something to buy. Because even at 50-60% off, that meant CDs were still around $10 (or more with tax). And by then, most of the popular stuff was long gone.

And after 45 minutes, the only thing I found that I even half-wanted was We Are Scientists With Love or Squalor.

So now, to honor the passing of Miramax, I offer up another song from that We Are Scientists album I bought at Tower Records going-out-of-business sale: "This Scene is Dead." (EMI disabled embedding on YouTube for this, so click here to watch.)

And I vow in the future to always refer to the House of Blues as being "across the street from where Miramax used to be."


jb said...

When we were in LA in the summer of 08 (our first trip), we hit the Virgin Megastore on Hollywood Boulevard, which seemed like a temple mostly by virtue of its being in Los Angeles.

We tried not to look like rubes.

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Alex, I love the smart way you connect music to your life events; also your fascination with missing buildings.

I'm with you on both of those counts. (I'm a sucker for "then and now" photographic illustrations of how a city street used to look as compared to how it looks now.)

Being indescribably old, I have no fear of saying: usually the old streets look far better than the new ones (particularly in Minneapolis!).

Both the ad video & the song video were great, btw.

Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

I spent seven years at a Tower Records and had a number of opportunities to interact with their key players. It's amazing that company lasted as long as it did. As one manager used to say, "This place is like IBM as run by Cheech & Chong."

Nice piece.

Anonymous said...

People often talk about the loss of architecture in their cities. What also is lost many times is the soul that resides within the structure.

Rhino Westwood and Tower Sunset were both temples, but each in their own very different ways.

Tower Sunset was the rock n roll Hollywood superstar Sunset Strip rock god. The billboards above it, the giant album covers covering it. Big money, big names...

Rhino Westwood was the temple of cool. The critics darling, the little record store that could. From the early days when Richard sold records out of the trunk of his car, it grew in legend and lore. The selection was limited by budget and space, but the knowledge of the staff and the selection that was there was extraordinary.

In the late 80's as CD's overtook vinyl, Rhino aimed to improve both the stock levels, catalog and floorspace. I joined the Rhino staff during those expansion years, and to connect my dots, I lived right down the street from Tower Sunset. Each morning as I drove past those huge billboards on my way to work at the other bastion of LA cool, I wondered if what we were doing would help us compete with Tower, knowing we had better prices, a more diverse selection and awesome used product to go along with our "amazing oracles of musical wisdom".

While we have gained a certain ease of use and immediacy with online downloads or online shopping at Amazon, we have lost the face-to-face connection to the passion of self-described "record store creeps" like myself who can rattle off the top 10 reasons to buy some obsure music you've never heard of while giving you the top 20 reasons you shouldn't be buying what you have brought to the counter!

Alex, thanks for the stroll down Memory Lane, err, Sunset Strip

BTW, I posted some thoughts on Rhino's closing back in 2006 here:

Alex said...

JB, Sadly I think all the Virgin Megastores (which I childishly always insisted on calling the MegaVirgin Stores) are all gone now too.

Who, the then-and-now photos of L.A. can be really unnerving -- especially older ones showing huge orange groves cut through the heart of what's now Hollywood and Koreatown.

Barely Awake, You know what they say: seven years at Tower Records is like 50 years at any other company. :)

RTK, I didn't realize you worked at Rhino... you're now officially my hero.

The store really did lose a lot of its personality when it moved down the street. But maybe the idea of Rhino was always a little too big for the cramped storefront north of Santa Monica. (At least that's how I'm going to choose to remember it.)