How Tower Records defined a generation


“Damn the Man! Save the Empire!” could be heard coming from the mouths of most teenagers in the ’90s. The quote came from the 1995 movie, “Empire Records.” The film resonated with Gen X. It touched on the side of growing up, which was often overlooked in movies.

“Empire Records” was like a love letter to alienated teenagers everywhere. It tackled suicide, relationships, sex, drugs, eating disorders; and it was all rolled into an hour-and-30-minute comedy that unraveled during a 24-hour-period at a popular record store.

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This Music Is the Glue of the World

“Empire Records” was just a glimpse at what being a teenager was like in the ’90s. While the movie flopped in the theaters, it became a cult classic. It spoke to a generation who often felt that they had no voice.

Those who fall into Generation X, were born anywhere from the early-to-mid 1960s to the early 1980s. If you were a teenager living in the last decade of the 20th century, it landed you just before the days of streaming music online. If you wanted to collect music, apart from taping it off the radio—which often included the deejay talking over the beginning of the song—you physically had to walk into a record store.

After school, and on the weekends, record stores were filled with teenagers buying and listening to music. Grunge and hip hop were at their height in the ’90s. Records had already been mostly phased out. Cassette tapes were soon to follow. CDs were all the rage. Independent record stores (such as the one depicted in “Empire Records”) were already dying out, and Tower Records had become the crown jewel for people who loved music.

Open ’til Midnight

Russ Solomon, who passed away in 2018 at age 92, founded the company in 1960. Solomon built the empire out of his love of music, and let each store across the world decide what music they wanted to stock it with. While the idea first sprung to life in his father’s drugstore in Sacramento, locations around the world grew to embrace the entire culture. Thanks to Tower Records, clerks and customers all finally had a place to go where they could discover something new. No matter who you were, “No Music, No Life” was a slogan that everyone could get behind.

Tower became the kingpin of record stores. The iconic Sunset Boulevard location in Hollywood, and the one on Broadway, in New York City, turned into the ultimate spot for fans and aficionados.

At its height in the late ’90s, Tower Records had over 150 stores worldwide. But, by the early 2000s, record sales had taken a dive. Tower had lost millions of dollars. In 2004, the company declared bankruptcy in the United States. By 2006, they had shut down nearly 90 stores in the U.S. The age of online music had claimed one of its greatest victims.

The closing of Tower Records marked the end of an era. When the first location in Sacramento closed its doors, heartbroken employees left a sign outside that read: “All things must pass.”

Why Don’t You All Just Fade Away

While Tower Records shut down in 2006, there is a small representation of what was out there today. Those famous yellow and red signs still have a presence in Japan. The Tokyo location even comes with its own sign outside that reads: “No music, No Life.” In Los Angeles, while the business on Sunset Boulevard has long since closed, the famous storefront remains to be a popular fixture in the city.

The people who grew up in the Tower Records era are the ones who continue to keep that spirit alive. Colin Hanks’ 2015 documentary, “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records” is a perfect example of that. It’s a testament to the kind of impact that Tower Records had on an entire generation.

Those who lived through the days of record stores can remember a time when music was more than just iTunes. With Tower records, music had its own home. And people, from all walks of life, had a place to go where they could all celebrate something that they loved.

Tower Records came at a time when independent record stores couldn’t keep up. As the smaller stores went down, Tower rose. Eventually, it too fell like the others. In Los Angeles, the Tower Records storefront stands as a sentimental reminder of another time.

Of course, if you want the option to purchase music from a store that’s still thriving, you can always visit another location in Hollywood right around the block from where Tower used to exist. Amoeba Records: The World’s Largest Independent Record Store.

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Sari Cohen is a journalist based in the Greater L.A. Area. She began her career in the entertainment industry as a stand-up comedy writer/performer and over the years has developed scripts for both the stage and screen. She currently covers music and live entertainment for AXS, reviews movies for Hollywood First Look Features and writes for InLove Magazine. She also pens funny stuff for popular sites such as Cracked and Screen Rant. You can often find her at concerts or on a red carpet somewhere, talking to someone about something. From on-the-scene reporting to exclusive interviews, she tackles every topic from music, movies and television, to fashion, lifestyle and politics. You can check out more on Twitter at @ask_sari or follow her adventures on Instagram under @thesavvyscribbler.