Tower of Power: Record stores aren’t dead yet

September 6th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Tower Records exclusive Bill Evans compilation album

Tower Records exclusive Bill Evans compilation album

When HMV’s flagship Shibuya store closed last month, the media were out in force grieving over the end of yet another era and sensibility. This was just not a nail in the coffin of the record business, but something like a catered funeral, with entertainment and plenty of speeches about what the store meant not only to the area (the storied “Shibuya-kei” indie movement reportedly sprang from HMV) but to the industry.

As everyone knows, online record sales and downloading, both legal and illegal, killed the record store. But don’t blow taps just yet. A few blocks away, Tower Records is still open for business. In fact, while HMV and Shinseido, another major record chain, are losing outlets, Tower is actually planning to open new ones. It’s not as if Tower is selling CDs while other stores aren’t, but rather that Tower has decided to change its business model and believes that in order to survive it has to be aggressive. Management of HMV and Shinseido, it should be noted, were in recent years taken over by a Daiwa Securities fund, which is more interested in the bottom line than in the survival of physical delivery devices for music. Closing outlets is merely a sound business decision.

Tower Japan, however, is still managed by Tower Japan. In fact, Tower Japan is one of the last remaining vestiges of the worldwide Tower Records family, which used to be the biggest record chain in America, where there are no Towers any more. Tower Japan has decided not to go gently into that good night, and it’s main means for staving off the Grim Reaper is record production and A&R. In July, the company started a project to seek out new artists, and will be accepting audition recordings until Sept. 15. From these recordings Tower will select 10 songs and turn each one into a CD single that they will sell for a mere ¥100. These CDs will only be available in Tower stores, and those artists who sell the most CDs will be offered the chance to make a full album that will also be marketed and sold by Tower.

The distribution manager of Tower told Asahi Shimbun that the purpose of this gambit is to show music lovers that Tower is not just a place that sells records. It is also a place that has “good music sense” and so will attract people looking for something new or different. Promotion used to be the bailiwick of record companies, and in the past by the time consumers walked into a record store they had some idea what they wanted to buy, but while they were there they usually picked up something else they found interesting. Tower wants to revive this spirit of discovery in a more direct manner.

In addition, Tower Japan is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and to commemorate the event it is producing and selling a special compilation CD by 19 noted Japanese artists who each contributed an original song; much like the original CDs exclusively donated to record stores by indie artists in the U.S. to promote Record Store Day. Most of the contributors are major label artists who started out as indies and believe they owe their popularity to Tower Japan. Moreover, Tower is releasing its own imprint of classical music — 400 titles in six years — and making compilations of established jazz artists. According to the Asahi, other stores are taking note. The rental chain Tsutaya plans to release its own set of compilation CDs, and even Shinseido is tapping its personnel for input into how to make the remaining outlets more attractive.

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2 Responses

  1. I remember going to both the Shibuya HMV and Tower records. Think the Tower Records there with its several floors of music is one of the best music stores I have ever gone to. I must say it is a great place for music lovers, with a very nice selection of blues CDs.

  2. I can’t say I agree with the optimism expressed here. I admire Tower’s persistence and the depth of their selection, but unless Tower comes up with a system to allow customers to listen to and preview any product in their store, they will continue to lose sales to on-line retailers like Amazon etc. who do allow this. The days of buying music unheard are over and have been for some time, and it is a bit ridiculous that the cd retailers have yet to figure this out. This should not be that difficult — when I visit Amoeba Records in SF, an independent retailer, they have a system where you can scan the bar-code on a cd at a listening post and have a listen. Tower itself has tried this in a limited fashion at its Kichijoji outlet, but it needs to be widespread and comprehensive.

    Another thing they need to figure out is that bright staff with a deep love and knowledge of music are worth keeping on board, even if that means investing in compensating them a bit more. I’ve seen the best and most knowledgeable staff there disappear one by one, and the problem seems to be compensation, or lack thereof. I have dealt with staff at Tower now who have next to no knowledge of the music they are dealing with, which is not a recipe for success. Passionate buyers will search out and find great new music, and that is an essential role that any record store must play, especially one hoping to survive in today’s climate.

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