Since its collapse here, I’ve missed Tower Records terribly, a place I’d spent way too much time spending way too much money. If you’re too young, watch the fascinating documentary directed by Colin Hanks called “All Things Must Pass” to understand my angst. I grew up on an Army base near Tokyo, so my earliest encounter with Tower Records was actually in Japan. Later as a teen, to feed my music addition, I patronized record-rental stores off base where they actually trusted their customers to take the vinyl records home, tape them, and then return them unscratched. But the Japanese are like that.
When Tower Records collapsed in 2006, we felt helpless while also feeling guilty because we were buying CDs online or downloading music directly onto our iPods. However, according to Colin Hanks’s documentary, the collapse of Tower Records also had to do with too much corporate debt due to overexpansion overseas. So not entirely our fault.
Then Virgin Megastore collapsed and since that point, there’s been a mostly successful movement to keep local record stores open, with initiatives like Record Store Day, along with efforts to keep physical product alive as shown with the vinyl revival. There’s a fantastic site called Super Deluxe Edition for collectors and music enthusiasts if you’re so inclined.
Amoeba Records in Los Angeles is a godsend, but there’s news that their site is going to be redeveloped (not needed!) forcing Amoeba to move or close. Horrifying. Of course, when you’re desperate you can like me still fly and go to HMV (and Fopp!) in the UK; every time I go, I wonder if it’s the last time since it’s nearly collapsed twice; luckily a savior emerged this last time named Doug Putman who had previously bought all the HMVs in Canada and made them profitable. He’s determined to revive HMV in the UK, focusing more on the record collector and de-emphasizing DVDs which are worthless now due to streaming. In the good old days, Piccadilly Circus not had only HMV, but Virgin Megastore and Tower Records as well. Ah, the memories.
But Tower Records lives! Despite thinking they were all gone, I found one in Dublin, Ireland! It’s one of two stores in that city. Then when I got to Tokyo, my brain splat when I found out not only had they reopened their Tower Records in Shibuya but that it was ten floors of fun! And that across Japan, there have 85 stores! They had detached themselves from the main company in 2002 which is what saved them along with having a population still interested in buying physical product; this is a bit amazing considering the apartments and homes in Tokyo are ridiculously small. Where do they put all the stuff?
Walking into the Shibuya store, emblazoned with their slogan “No Music, No Life”, I felt I was entering a shrine. At that time, there were nine floors, packed with music, books, DVDs and other media, and a cafe plus a floor just for live promotional events. I hear that subsequently, they’ve opened a tenth floor dedicated to vinyl. The overload of visual stimuli was overwhelming.
I zeroed in on the Western pop music floor and spent hours perusing, in sheer heaven (okay, I need help). I was looking especially for CDs not remastered yet in the U.S. that were either remastered in Japan or that used one of their special formats, SHM-CD or Blu-Spec CD2, that can play on regular CD players but have supposedly better sound (I think they do). I scored the SHM-CD Brothers Johnson “Light Up the Night” (produced by Quincy Jones, with the monster single “Stomp”) along with the first two Chic albums remastered only in Japan. They have other more high-end formats, of course, but I’m not that sophisticated, so can’t report on those.
I also found out that the Japanese print their own versions of non-Japanese CDs sporting a higher price tag justified with bonus content and/or in a special disc format. For a collector, you could go a bit crazy, but luckily due to budget restrictions, I had to keep myself in check. I did buy the Japanese version of Jeff Lynne’s ELO “Alone in the Universe” in Blu-Spec CD-2 format with a Japanese-only bonus called “On My Mind” which to my ears is the best song on the album.
The Japanese have shown the way into the future. While true that their people kept record stores open by not succumbing to digital madness, the revival of vinyl here has shown that we do love physical product as well. If you love something, you want to own it and display it proudly. Record companies and repackagers have discovered that collectors like me are always looking for that something extra and will go to extraordinary lengths like flying to Tokyo. Plus, having a place to go and spend hours flipping through records is to me the definition of pure joy.
I urge you to visit Tokyo, currently polishing itself even further for the upcoming Olympics. Along with Tower Records, visit Recofan not far away in Shibuya. Wow, it’s jam-packed with amazing new and used product; one of my favorite finds was a UK Pet Shop Boys single I’d never seen before. I know! Can’t wait to go back. They do have an HMV as well, but it treats music more as decoration, emphasizing household items rather than music.