An October auction of the bankrupt national company -- which street rumors had been condemning for years -- found liquidator Great American Group the new proud owner. (The group just beat out Trans World Entertainment, a company that had planned to keep some Tower stores open. A few Tower employees said they had heard Trans World had won and gone home celebrating, only to show up to work the next day to hear the amended and unwelcome version of the news.) Multiple visits to the New Orleans location, plus an incidental check of the New York City Lincoln Center area store -- two of very few Tower stores that had consistently shown a profit -- revealed that the shelves were not quickly picked clean. One reason for that could have been the less-than-seductive price reductions. At press time, the South Peters Street Tower was sticking at 40 percent off of full price, or about $8 to $11 per compact disc, a price easily beaten in the Amazon.com used-CD store, or even in iTunes. An employee at the video rental counter (one area of the store that was almost totally stripped, since rental DVDs and VHS tapes were going for $6 or $7 a pop) told me that the store had recently shipped several hundred thousand dollars' worth of merchandise back to the liquidator. The contents of the room upstairs, which had been home to regional musical styles and local bands, had been moved downstairs; the jazz racks were mostly intact, and soul, hip-hop and R&B had been consolidated with rock and pop downstairs.
Some people have suggested, and they're probably at least partly right, that the 40-year-old brand was a victim of the popularity of downloading music. As mentioned, using a major online mp3 store like iTunes is cheaper, with most songs selling for 99 cents and albums for $9.99. And through file-sharing sites, almost everything out there is available for free, if all you want is the song. I have two teenage sisters who have huge music collections and almost no CDs, let along records. For them, the iPod and the computer have always been their primary music delivery system. In my late twenties, I probably now belong to the last generation to associate music with a physical artifact that's not kitsch. I remember the switch from cassette to CD, but that's it. Recently, the cassette, like the LP before it, started showing up on T-shirts and stickers as a curio, a kind of icon. Maybe soon so will the compact disc. And even though I still prefer music to come with cover art, liner notes and a general tangible presence, I buy most of my CDs online at used-CD sites because of the cost. When I go to Tower Records or the Louisiana Music Factory, I buy about half of what I want at full price to support the store, and write down the rest to hunt down online.
With Tower Records gone, there is now nowhere in metro New Orleans that is easily accessible without a car to buy new mainstream CDs. From downtown, the closest places to rent movies are the Bywater's Channel Zero and the Garden District's Hollywood Video (and incidentally, there's absolutely nowhere to rent porn -- neither of those two stores carries it, nor does Netflix).
New Orleanians with Internet access will have to sit home and download or order music online. Those without it will have to schlep over to Barnes & Noble or Borders to browse a music department that's an afterthought, not a raison d'etre. With iTunes or Amazon.com, the experience of hanging out in the store is gone -- no browsing the racks, no having your eye caught by cool cover art, no record geek behind the counter to talk to. At a record fair in New York City recently, a customer came up to a stand I was browsing and asked the dealer what record label saxophonist Ace Cannon originally recorded for. Two guys on my left both stopped flipping through the stacks of 45's to answer him. That's not going to happen online.
At the Louisiana Music Factory, a store that exemplifies the record-shop-as-community-center, owner Barry Smith said he wasn't going to make many changes in anticipation of Tower's demise beyond buying some of their fixtures and hiring major Tower buyer Mike Robeson, who is already behind the Music Factory's counter. Smith said he felt pretty confident that his store, with its niche market, was better equipped to deal with the encroaching threat of downloading. For the most part, it will maintain business as usual, peddling roots, blues, jazz, Americana and local bands, with in-store shows on weekends and absurdly knowledgeable staff to bother for recommendations. It may be whiny and nostalgic to pine for a Main-Street-U.S.A. kind of community record store. But New Orleans is a city that comes together through music, and it's nice to have at least one store left where you can do that in person.