NEW YORK — Russ Solomon, who pioneered the superstore hangout for music lovers by founding Tower Records and expanded it worldwide before Internet pirates and crushing debts rendered the chain obsolete and bankrupt, died Sunday night at his home in Sacramento. He was 92.
His son Michael confirmed the death.
A high school dropout who sold used jukebox records at 16 in his father’s drugstore in Sacramento, Mr. Solomon was the driving force behind a sprawling enterprise that began with one store in that city in 1960 and grew into a dominant competitor in music retailing with nearly 200 stores in 15 countries. Sales of recorded music, videos, and books eventually topped $1 billion a year.
With marketing instincts that even rivals and critics called ingenious, Mr. Solomon built megastores, some bigger than football fields, and stocked them with as many as 125,000 titles, virtually all of the popular and classical recordings on the market.
Yet many patrons said there was a clublike intimacy about the stores, where, as Bruce Springsteen put it, “everyone is your friend for 20 minutes.”
Open all year from 9 a.m. to midnight, staffed by hip salespeople who could answer almost any question about recordings, the stores became the haunts of music aficionados scouring endless racks. Sometimes popular bands and singers performed in the stores.
Springsteen, Bette Midler, Lou Reed, and Michael Jackson were regular patrons.
Mr. Solomon told Billboard magazine in 2015: “Our favorite regular was Elton John. He probably was the best customer we ever had. He was in one of our stores every week, literally, wherever he was — in LA, in Atlanta when he lived in Atlanta, and in New York.”
“I spent more money in Tower Records than any other human being,” John said in the 2015 documentary “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records.”
In an interview for this obituary, Mr. Solomon recalled that he opened the first Tower Records store in what had been his father’s drugstore with $5,000 in borrowed capital. He called it “a neighborhood business,” which he named after the Tower Theater, a local landmark that was built in 1938 and topped by a neon-bathed, 100-foot art deco pillar.
He soon opened a second Sacramento outlet, but the business did not take off until 1968, when he opened Tower Records in San Francisco. It was an instant sensation in the heart of the hippie and music scene, capitalizing on the 1967 Summer of Love. At 5,000 square feet, the store was small by later company standards, but it set a formula for the future: wide selections and discounted prices.
“I stole ideas from supermarket merchandising,” Mr. Solomon recalled. The store, he said, stacked hot-selling items on the floor, to encourage impulse buying and to suggest plentiful supplies, reinforcing the impression that Tower would be well stocked when competitors’ supplies had run out. The store also set late-night closing hours.
But the most important innovation, he said, was hiring a staff so well versed in the local music scene that the store could order its own inventory. It was a task that music chains typically assigned to a central office to achieve economies of scale for their outlets. But Mr. Solomon found that local judgments were more profitable, and decentralized ordering became a pattern for all his stores.
“We wanted people in the store to run the store — they’re your strength,” Mr. Solomon said. “Central buying is just a bad idea. You can’t make decisions on what to do in Phoenix if you’re sitting in New York or London.”
As business boomed in the ’70s and ’80s, he established Tower Records outlets in major cities across the United States.
Tower began opening stores abroad in the 1980s, starting in Japan and spreading in Asia, Europe, and Latin America.
Tower Records opened its Boston store in 1987 at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Newbury Street. At 47,000 square feet, it was the biggest in the chain. The building’s exterior was reimagined by noted architect Frank Gehry; outside, Boston’s rock ‘n’ roll walk of fame was embedded into the sidewalk.
In the 1990s, Tower Records became the nation’s largest privately held music retailer, with nearly 200 stores in the United States and 14 other countries.
But it never went public. “That was the dumbest thing I ever did,” Mr. Solomon conceded. Selling stock might have paid for further expansion. Instead, he borrowed to finance more stores, and his debt swelled to $300 million. In 1999, Tower sales topped $1 billion, but its financial tailspin had already begun.
The company lost $10 million in 2000 and $90 million in 2001.
Mr. Solomon sold and closed stores and converted others to franchises. The Boston store closed in 2001.
At the same time, the music business went into a slump. Tower declared bankruptcy in 2004, and in 2006 it was forced to liquidate and close.
Mr. Solomon acknowledged that he had underestimated the Internet’s threat to store retailing. Pirates downloaded music without paying for it, and paying customers turned to online vendors and price-cutters like Walmart and Best Buy. The owner blamed himself.
“I was overextended,” Mr. Solomon said. “I was swamped by the debt.”
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