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Letter from Toyko: The last Tower Records standing

Tokyo's Tower Records, a record-store Godzilla, is fighting to remain immune from digitalitis

In 2006, the Great American Group, no great American, won the right in court to liquidate the bankrupt Tower Records, despite other bidders who hoped to salvage the record business.

For much of the U.S. -- and other parts of the world, where Tower had also established itself as the epicenter of CD culture -- that was the day that the music, as many knew it, died. 

But Tower’s flagship Tokyo store, nine stories high, has remained the Godzilla of the world’s record stores, the largest and indestructible. It’s still there, just up the block in the Shibuya district from the busiest intersection in the world. A giant sign in Tower yellow and red reads: No Music, No Life.

Ascend the escalator; floor after crowded and exciting floor exudes nothing but music and life. That is until you reach the seventh floor, the classical department.

The selection is overwhelming (if not quite as overwhelming as it was when I was last here nine years ago). There are more classical CDs for sale here than anywhere else.

There are CDs made out of “super high material,” or SHM, that are supposed to sound better than the normal ones but cost an arm and a leg and can only be found in Japan. There is a wealth of music by outstanding Japanese composers you will not find on Amazon.

But at lunchtime, on this hectic street in this hectic store with Christmas shoppers everywhere, I counted only nine people on Tower’s seventh floor, and that included myself and three young clerks with nothing to do. The hour I spent there, I had their full attention.

I have no answer for why this is. Tokyo has long boasted some of the world’s most devoted classical music consumers. High prices may have something to do with this current downturn, since Japan’s economy is weak.

It may be, as well, that Japan’s classical crowd is simply moving on. While pop fans here haven’t, as in the most of the rest of the world, let mp3s diminish their CD fetishes, the classical buyers are beginning to embrace the newer high-definition downloads, especially for their sound.

Plus, it is the Asian countries (Korea, China and Sony in Japan) that are now making portable players able to handle studio-master formats, which Apple and Android cannot. These players may be still hard to find in the U.S., but they are featured on the shelves in the windows of fancy stores in tony Ginza and Roppongi.

So, is this it for classical record stores as we know them? Can the still well-stocked departments at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, Canterbury in Pasadena and Record Surplus in Santa Monica buck the trend? Will Amazon finally submerge even Tower in Shibuya?

On shelf after shelf at Tower I found CDs by Akira Ifukube, a major Japanese composer and pedagogue who not only taught many in the postwar Japanese avant-garde but who also wrote the scores for the early “Godzilla” films.

I picked up a copy of Ifukube’s late, 40-minute symphonic ode “Gotama the Buddha,” but, this being 2014, I will have to wait until I’m home to hear it. I have with me only a Korean high-def music player.

Tower’s Godzilla vs. the Digital Monster may wind up being the great reptile’s most awesome battle. 

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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