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DEATH OF A SALESPERSON: My Final Daze Inside The Leaning TOWER Of Song

tower-leaning.jpgSARA SHERR REPORTS: We got the news on that fateful Friday, but that was only the half of it. Most of us went home thinking we were going to be working for mall record store behemoth Trans World Entertainment, and inexplicably, one of the last music retailers standing. Would we still have a good selection? Would we have to wear those dreadful polos? About an hour or two later, the Internet would reveal that Trans World would lose the auction by $500,000 to liquidator Great American, and we’d be out of work sometime in December. Ironically, the latest news is that Transworld is going to rent the Broad Street store’s space from the Land Title Building after we’re gone. And for once, I’m rooting for the lame mall record store. At least it’s better than another upscale restaurant or condo or CVS or Starbucks or Old Navy, as friends had theorized.

I’ve lived half my life in record stores. It started in my childhood when I’d shop with my musician father, looking for songs for his band to learn, and he’d ask me what records were good. Boys often bond with their fathers over baseball; I used records to connect with my divorced, distant Dad. Since I turned 18, I’ve worked in about five of them, malls and Moms n’ Pops. It’s the only place I feel like Ibelong. When all employment options run out, it’s a skill I can fall back on, like waiting tables, or carpentry. It requires mercy, patience and a mind filled with tons of music trivia.

My last stint was at Tower South Street in the early 90s, which led to my first writing job at the Philadelphia Weekly (when it was still called the Welcomat) and onto my accidental career as a rock critic in Philadelphia. The South Street Tower Records taught me more about being a critic than Temple’s journalism school. My co-workers were music scene folks like Rich Kaufmann, King Britt and Red Burns, andI learned how to know my shit and stand my ground. These days, I often forget how to stand my ground. But the minute I’m back at the racks, I never question anything.

I ended up in Tower’s Broad and Chestnut location in the fall of 2001, right after my unemployment from CDNOW ran out, thinking I’d stay through Christmas. Five years later, I’m still here, having worked at the Information Desk, taking calls from the lonely old people and the drunk ones, running the Ticketmaster machine and answering questions ranging from “you got a bathroom” to “who’s that guy who sings that song about the girl.” Last year, I was promoted to Merchandiser, where I set up sales, made sure that Van Morrison was filed under “M” and not “V,” cleaned sunflower seeds out of the rap section and removed empty latte cups from rock racks. It’s a job I alternately loved and hated, but which ultimately kept me on my toes. And, I learned a lot about human nature, the music industry, and more about gospel than I’ll ever need to know.

From the day after we got the news in October, it was like someone was dying a slow painful death. Even though the sales started out with a measly 10 percent off, it was like “Dawn of the Dead.” It was as if we were transported back to communist Russia and we would never be able to buy Pink Floyd or Isley Brothers records ever again. And those were our regulars. “Going Out of Business” sales bring out the dregs of society, like people who yank on the door an hour before we open at 10, even though there’s a big sign clear as day that says, “We open at 10.” People come in and ask “Y’all goin out of business?” “How long is the sale?” “When’s it going to be cheaper?” Other customers complained that 10 and 20 percent off of CDs that were regularly priced at $18.99 was not much of a deal. They were right.

Because when the company was up for sale two months earlier, we had to discontinue all of our ongoing sales. It’s a myth that everything was $18.99 all the time. Some titles were $18.99 and I agree that’s way too much. But we had a bazillion sales going on all the time. Many catalog titles were on sale from $9.99-13.99, as were our Top 25, New Releases, and listening station programs, and tons of other promotions that took me and my three-person department about three days to set up and take down each month.

Tower was no innocent player in this scenario by any means, but I can’t point fingers until after Dec. 22, when we shut our doors and they can’t fire me. (Of course I want unemployment, wouldn’t you?) The main culprits are record companies who can’t docustomer service, and they’ve turned the retailers into custodians for their DOA releases.They’ve done everything they can to alienate consumers of all ages. They forced people to download when they discontinued singles, then raised their prices, then started suing grandmothers and 11-year-olds. How many readers remember the first record they bought? I remember clear as day walking into the Sam Goody at Neshaminy Mall with my baby-sitting money, scraping together $1.49 for a “Kids in America” 45. When you ditch the singles, you ruin the whole process of introducing young people to a lifetime of purchasing music.

And guess what? “Old” people still buy records by genres the record companies largely ignore: WXPN-friendly rock, indie, adult R&B, gospel, jazz, and classical. So, the record companies continue to chase the people who don’t care about them anymore and then ignore the audience that does. There are still plenty of people who want human contact and who find navigating record retail online an intimidating experience, and these are the same folks who are bewildered by stepping into a store. There are others who can’t even read a sign that says, “We open at 10.” My solution? Keep the human beings, the bricks and mortar, and add computer kiosks and young kids to help the old folks, poor, or otherwise non-computer savvy navigate said computers, and work out a solution where the artists and record companies get their fair share from downloading. War is over, if you want it.

RELATED: iPods Kill! The Slow-Leak Death Of Brick and Mortar

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25 Responses to “DEATH OF A SALESPERSON: My Final Daze Inside The Leaning TOWER Of Song”

  1. David Says:

    Sarah, you still have that journalism career to fall back on…

  2. Raised By Bees! Says:

    What journalism career?!

  3. miss fidget Says:

    A deserving tribute and astute criticism! My first cd was U2 October but I joined Columbia House under a fake name yrs earlier to get the Muppet Movie Soundtrack.

  4. David Says:

    That was sort of the joke…

  5. Chardonna Says:

    Sara, Big props to you for eloquently stating what’s been on the minds of many Philadelphians. We are going to miss the experience that is Tower Records, and more importantly, we’re going to miss seeing you in that store. However, I believe that greatness finds great opportunities, and yours is just around the corner… and I don’t mean at West Elm! Holla!

  6. Happyholiday Says:

    Hey, i hear AKA is hiring.

  7. mBeck Says:

    the first album I ever bought with my own hard earned cash was ELO’s double LP Out of the Blue. I was 10

    when I came home and ripped off the shrinkwrap (ahhhhhooohhh . . . shrinkrap) I was majorly bummed to discover that MY copy of Out of the Blue came without the limited edition cardboard UFO

    however it did still have the poster which I duly hung for about 5 years until ELO became majorly uncool

    I still love the fuck out of this record and have 3 vinyl copies and 1 on CD.

    AND thanks to eBay I have not one but TWO copies of that cardboard cutout UFO . . . . !

    nice column Sara

  8. mts Says:

    dude, why arent you posting this on your blog?

    Shut UP!–Ed. 

  9. Raised By Bees! Says:

    Actually, I’ve heard otherwise, but thanks for the tip :)

  10. kirby Says:

    Sara–you’re a triple threat: promoter, journalist, record store geek (in a good way). Also, kind to children and small animals (it’s ‘grownups’ what make us scream). You’ll land on your feet, when you’re ready.

  11. Andyboy Says:

    I was a voracious record buyer from a young age —-

    Don’t remember the first — but I have a hunch it was Aerosnith’s Toys in the Attic — I was in fifth grade —

    The local record store was the primary suck of my spending money all through grade school and junior high —

    While my current longstanding obsession is the excessive trading and duplicating of Jamband and other stuff from my trading communities —I have nothing but respect for the Record Store — hopefully the little guys will always find a way to survive —

    BTW —

    If anyone wants to trade — ;)

  12. Doctor Darling Says:

    As, always, Miss Sara, you hit the nail squarely on the head. I am one of those people that love to make a physical connection with the music I purchase. I like looking at the cover art, etc. In the late 80s, I had issues with the artowrk getting smaller to fit on the CD. I pined for albums and preferrentially played 7″ and LPs at the radio station.

    Oh well…1st album ever purchased with my chore money was Tom Jones “What’s new pussycat”.

  13. Happy Holidays Says:

    You could always book shows again.

  14. Nancy Says:

    well done sarah
    my first purchase – two 45’s – Pop Musik by M and Call Me – Blondie
    at a Mom and Pop store in Margate, NJ called Russ Miller, long gone
    enjoy the unemployment, have a happy holiday and a joyous new year

  15. wwolfe Says:

    I agree that killing the single killed the record business. Someday, that will be viewed as one of the great bsuiness blunders of all time.

    In my case, I used to go to the Tower store in Westwood here in Los Angeles three or four times a year specifically to go through their singles. Some smart person hard set up a hundred slots, one per each spot on the Billboard Hot 100. I’d look at every number and if anything about it caught my eye – the band name, song title, producer, songwriter – I’d buy it. With a typical haul of about 30 singles, I’d go home and cull the keepers from the stiffs and compile the good ones onto annual mix tapes, come December. In a lot of cases, I’d wind up buying the albums for the singles I liked. On a smaller scale, I think this how a lot of people used to discover new music. Now that’s impossible, thanks to the death of the single.

  16. Phawker » Blog Archive » MONEY CHANGES EVERYTHING or How The TOWER Of Song Got Its Lean On Says:

    […] PREVIOUSLY: Death of a Salesperson, My Final Daze In The Leaning TOWER of Song […]

  17. mairead Says:

    hey! yeah! what about posting this on yr blog, mz. square-nail-hitter?

  18. Ricky Says:

    Sara-excellent article and cool insight on your childhood :)
    My first single was David Bowie’s “Fame” followed closely
    by Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy”. I used to DJ
    in 6th grade during recess when it rained-that’s when I got
    hooked. Can hardly wait to see what 2007 has in store
    for you. I know it’ll be great :))

  19. A.Y.M. Says:

    “Going Out of Business” sales bring out the dregs of society”

    Pretty shitty thing to say. Especially since you worked for a company that priced itself outta business. I understand that as a frustrated (and soon to be unemployed) music writer it’s your job to be self-righteous and bitchy, but I guarantee that if you didn’t work there you’d be one of the first ones in line to get finish your Pavement collection at a discount.

  20. mts Says:

    “inish your Pavement collection at a discount”

    HAHAHAHA because this, is the #1 thing I think of when I think of Sara — a serious Pavement fan.

  21. Raised By Bees! Says:

    My Pavement collection has been finished for well over a decade.

  22. Ed Says:

    I worked at a Tower Records until about 6 months ago-we lost our lease btw- in that case. 4 1/2 years there has allowed me to see how Tower died.

    To begin with, a major factor in Tower’s demise has been ignored. News outlets point to Ipod and such as the main culprit. As of now online music sales like Itunes are 10% of the market. There is no way to account for illegal downloads at this point. Ipods and online are the sexy and easy soundbite way to explain it

    The main culprit is what Tower did to themselves. 15 years ago they started a massive expansion campaign. It was financed using junk bonds and tons of leveraged debt. This debt piled up and really there was no way to really repay it-even if Ipods and internet commerce had never existed. The only thing Tower Records ever owned was their name. Everything else from the stores to the cds to dvds was leased or bought on credit. At the end perhaps 25-30 Tower stores out of 89 were turning a profit Everything was built on a house of cards that could not be supported.

    Also during Tower’s first bankruptcy in March 2004, they sold off the Japanese arm of Tower Records. It was the most profitable stores on the company!!! It was short term survival and probably screwed the company in the end.

    Ipods and online were factor in the demise of Tower Records but the errors of higher management were the main reason Tower collapsed

  23. Raised By Bees! Says:

    Thanks for clarifying, this Ed. Since I technically can’t right now.

  24. Ed Says:

    No Problem….I see you are still “employed” over the corpse of Tower Records. Get that unemployment miss!!

    Tho no place will ever be as much fun as Tower was. I am now consigned without free promos, free magazines and free porn!! That is sadness indeed.

    when ya can-do share your theories Sara

  25. Chatty Cathy Says:

    Great article! Big ups to Phawker for giving you a column!

    My first records: Grease sdtk, Annie sdtk (I was a bratty lil girl in the late 70s after all), K-Tel collections (probably Hot Tracks or Radio Active) and Olivia Newton John 45s. Then years of scamming Columbia House commenced, first through my parents then my own accounts in junior high.

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