As the age of digital media continues to reign supreme, music and film stores and physical media production begin to shrink in size. Along with that, many institutions have found themselves disappearing. In the world of music, nothing was bigger than Tower Records. With “All Things Must Pass,” actor Colin Hanks makes his directorial debut telling the story of founder Russ Solomon and the rise and fall of Tower Records. Along with producing partner Sean Stuart, Hanks sat down with CineSnob.net at the SXSW Film Festival following their world premiere where they discussed their Kickstarter campaign, the personal connection people have to Tower Records, the future of physical media and much more.
You guys just came from your premiere and this is kind of the perfect place to show this particular film. How did everything go?
Colin Hanks: Great!
Sean Stuart: We were delightfully surprised at the reaction in some of the places in the movie where we weren’t expecting large laughs and audience excitement. It seemed to go really well.
CH: I think in one regard, I’m really surprised by just how much the audience enjoyed it, and that’s coming from the perspective of…we’ve been working on this movie so long and it’s so nice to hear that. Yet at the same time, the audiences here, they are film fanatics. They are into it. They really love films, love documentaries and they are vocal. It’s always a rowdy crowd. When you combine the music elements of our film it made for a very special moment for us.
I am always interested to hear people’s Kickstarter stories, especially because the Internet being what it is, there can be a lot of negativity surrounding it. People don’t always embrace it, especially when it’s coming from someone who is established in some way. Did you encounter any of that and why was Kickstarter the way to go for you on this project?
CH: Kickstarter was sort of our last option. We had filmed a small portion of the film, put together a sizzle reel, and went around in 2008 trying to get financiers through the normal route and every politely said “No, there are much more important companies that are going bankrupt right now.” Keep in mind, this is when the economy went down. Everyone sort of said, “I don’t think anyone is really going to care about a company that went bankrupt 2 years ago.” That was a hard thing to hear and the film was on the shelf for a while. Like a lot of things, when you make a film over the course of 7 years, landscapes change, technology changes and this thing called Kickstarter came around. I was doing the Nerdist podcast with Chris Hardwick and he said “What about Kickstarter?” and I said, “I’m thinking about it.” It ended up really saving our film. People have a lot of misconceptions as to what my reality is like and that’s fine to a degree. But really what I focused on was that Kickstarter proved our theory that there were a great many people that cared about Tower Records and would put money towards seeing a film. Initially I always thought they’d just pay for a ticket but now they helped make it. It saved our film. It is not the only source of financing we had. We secured initial funds afterwards, but it is definitely a huge component of our film. Without that experience, this probably would have been a different journey for us.
SS: I think we quickly realized after we got that money from Kickstarter and started to use it and started to dig further into the story, we immediately knew that what we had in hand wasn’t going to service such an important story that needed more resources put towards it. That was when we stopped after the first Kickstarter campaign and decided that we really needed to focus in on getting enough money to bring this story to life the way it needed to be told.
I grew up in San Antonio, where we didn’t have Tower Records. I’m curious to know what your personal experiences were with Tower Records before heading into the film and if you have that connection that so many people seem to.
CH: I wouldn’t have made a documentary about it if I didn’t. I have very vivid memories of buying cassettes and CD’s at Tower and spending time in the store. I bought concert tickets at Tower Records, I hung out in the parking lot of Tower Records. It was very much part of growing up as a music fanatic but also as a kid in Sacramento. For me, it is personal insomuch as music is an incredibly personal thing to people and going into Tower Records and buying a record and meeting people there and connecting with people there, the residue of that is you then have a personal connection to the store. “I remember there I bought this record” or “I remember where I bought that one.”
SS: One of the really unifying things we grew to find out about this company was once we were in the public eye of making this movie, the majority of the people we bumped into would turn to us and go “Oh my god, my Tower Records story is this. My hometown store is this.” It became this unifying theme of most people have some connectivity to this store and it affected their lives in a positive way. It became pretty clear to us that there’s an audience out there and there’s an awareness and interest in this company and what it did and how it achieved it.
There was also connectivity within the people who worked there. Everyone started off as a clerk and moved up the ranks to being executives. Was that something you uncovered as you started filming or how much did you know about that kind of thing going in.
CH: I didn’t know that much about that going in. The initial seed was really just the journey. Once I found out about the drug store, I went “That’s a pretty incredibly journey from there until the end.” That got us to look into Russ (Solomon, founder of Tower Records) and to reach out to him, but as soon as we sat down with him, he said, “You guys gotta talk with this other people. These are the kids that came up and really helped make tower special.” At that point, as documentaries have the tendency to do, they morph. They change. They evolve. It wasn’t even at a film at that point, but the themes then ended up becoming family, coming together, doing something special, doing something unique, creating those bonds and then it having to end. All good times have to end. “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” That kind of thing.
SS: It was funny too, there’s a moment in the movie where Russ talks about everyone thinking he is crazy for opening this store in San Francisco that’s going to be just records in this huge space. And the number of times that Russ turned to Colin and I in this process and said “You guys are crazy. What you’re trying to do is crazy.” There’s this funny parallel of him and his beginning and our beginning of this documentary. He was such a great, willing participant and gave us everyone we needed to talk to and told us who the people were who were most important.
One of the things I found so interesting was that there’s a lot of great stuff that is said about Russ, but also you’re showing some things that backfired or didn’t work so well. Was it important to you to be able to show two sides of that? To show that he was an amazing forward thinking guy, but occasionally that forward thinking could get him into trouble.
CH: Yeah, obviously there’s certain things he says in the film that you could take what he says and turn it around at him in the late 90’s and say, “You didn’t change. You didn’t come up with ideas. You didn’t grow. You didn’t do the very thing you had done prior.” I hope that audiences are able to make that connection. But really the main thing for us was we were wanted to be able to pop the public misconception that the Internet was killed Tower, because that really is not accurate. It was a part of it, for sure, but it wasn’t the factor. There were a lot of other factors involved. I think that combined with the family aspects and the rise of the store, we really wanted to tell the story that not many people know and that’s not just the history but also really why it ended.
SS: Robert Rodriguez, who spoke at the filmmakers opening day lunch of this festival talked a lot about not being afraid to fail and getting out there and trying things and learning from those mistakes. You often learn more from the mistakes than you learn from the victories. I think Russ is a great example of that as it relates to that conversation we all listened to on Friday afternoon. He really was a guy that was not afraid to put himself out there and just go for it. I think that’s part of what’s in the DNA of this company. I think the way that the end of the film unravels, for viewers will be very interesting to watch. Because there’s so much happening and there’s so many factors at play. I think it’s a pretty delightful thing to witness and informative as well.
You were talking about the many things that culminated in Tower Records ultimately going out of business. You’re seeing music stores altogether slowly disappear and even stores who got involved in price wars like the film mentions, like Best Buy is down to one rack of CD’s. Do you feel like there’s any hope left for physical media or is everyone going to fall into this thing that Tower went through?
CH: No, because Tower was simply too big. I think that’s the big thing. I think there will be room for physical media. There are a lot of really great, big record stores. There’s Waterloo here in Austin, there’s Amoeba in Los Angeles, Rough Trade in Brooklyn. Those big stores offer a similar that Tower did. But it can’t exist on that huge scale anymore. Everything’s gonna be niche cultures now. I think one big store, that’s a lot easier to run than 192. I think its just downsizing. Those interactions still happen it’s just not as prevalent as it once was because now there’s too many other things, too many other distractions.
Do you feel like everything that happened was a perfect storm for Tower after you conducted these interviews?
CH: Oh yeah.
Had things gone differently, could they have survived the advent of mp3’s or these stores who were engaging in price wars; all of the factors that led into them shutting down?
SS: We talk quiet often about how if Tower had somehow found a way to scale themselves back down to the Broadway store in New York, the Sunset store in Los Angeles, and the Columbus and Bay in San Francisco, and kept a smaller footprint of physical stores, that they could totally exist today. It’s just hard to go backwards like that now with what’s happened. One of the things that’s not lost on me is when they first started, they sold used records. That was the first thing that they did and at the end, they didn’t do that. That’s a tough place to be in. Places like Amoeba really do exist pretty heavily on the trading and selling and buying of used merchandise. That’s a little bit of what the music industry looks like that for the physical collector or the physical music lover.
CH: I met a guy who’s in the music industry now, in distribution. He came up to me because he used to work at the Watt Avenue store in Sacramento and he knew I was making the documentary. I was talking with him a few weeks ago and he says “Man, if Tower just hung around for 2 more years and just scaled back, they would still be here.” I think that’s the thing that sticks in my craw is that if they had obviously adapted a little bit, started selling used records, closed some stores but kept some big mainstays open, they could have maybe rode it out. But they refused to change and they tried to keep all the stores open and that’s what ended up doing it. Obviously, other people came in but it is most definitely a perfect storm.
SS: Yes. Absolutely. That’s a good way to put it.
The most powerful section of the film is towards the end when you see people starting to be laid off, often times fired by their close friends. Can you talk about the importance of those scenes and whether there was any difficulty in getting the subjects to open up about this really difficult thing?
CH: It’s never easy to talk about parts of your life that you don’t want to talk about. Everyone was very open to speaking with us in honor of Russ. Russ told them straight up “Tell them the truth. Tell them what you want. Don’t pull any punches.” Once we tapped in and once they realized that we understood what is was that they went through and how hard it was for them, I think they became a little bit more at ease with the idea of talking about it. There were reactions that I was not expecting, but that’s that heart of the film. If we can get people into their shoes of, you work with your friends for 30 years and then you all have to fire each other, that’s a big thing. Also, Jim Urie’s story sort of foreshadows what happens to everyone else. All those things are done with reason. Our editor Dan Roberts is fantastic. That was the real heart, for me, because that’s what the store closing meant to the people at Tower. That’s what they went through. That’s a huge chapter in their lives that came to an end.
SS: It’s very identifiable. I think when you look at the themes we explore in this film, you can strip the music away from what they were going through and there’s a real identifiable thing that I think every audience can watch this movie and take something away from it. Whether they are a music a fan or if they don’t know anything about music whatsoever. There’s a human element in what those people went through and what corporate America and the average person working in the world looks like.
There’s a really great and powerful final scene in the film and you have a lot of great interview subjects who speak to what Tower Records meant to them and speak of it very fondly. How do you think the music industry would be different had it not been for Tower Records?
CH: That’s a good question, but a hard question to answer. It was so integral to the west coast music scene in the 60’s and 70’s. It really was. When (record executive) David Geffen says he would go there 3-4 times a week, everybody in the music industry went 3-4 times a week. It was truly the place. It’s hard to imagine a music industry without Tower. There would still be a music industry, it just would have been very different. Tower really represented the merchandising business very well and helped come up with certain things that were revolutionary. At the same time, they represented all of music. I like to think of them as some of the best aspects of the music merchandising business because there was something there for everybody.
SS: I don’t think that you could put your finger on any other corporations that were as big as Tower were and look at them and think of them as a worldwide “mom and pop.” Every story was a “mom and pop” and it’s almost counter-intuitive to say something like that, but they truly were and that was unique and special.
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