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For audio lovers, yet another blow

Times Staff Writer

THERE goes the free parking.

The choice spot off Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood behind the Tower Video/Classical Annex has been for years a closely guarded secret. An hour for Tower shopping, no validations needed and most of the time no one checking. That couldn’t last forever. Neither, apparently, could Tower Records.

Two weeks ago, Tower was auctioned off for $134.3 million to a liquidator, which is a tragedy for music and particularly for classical music. The gallingly named Great American Group will go down in infamy. It beat out Trans World Entertainment by $500,000. Trans World promised to keep many of the Tower stores open. Now all the stores will close in a few weeks, after the stock is sold off at discount.

“Sometimes the highest bid is not the best bid,” the attorney representing Towers’ creditors argued unsuccessfully before the bankruptcy court. Instead, the court ruled that one measly increment in the bidding (less than half of 1% of the total) must be valued above the good of culture and society, to say nothing of music.

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Now, New York City will no longer have a decent classical record store. Neither will Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle or many, many other cities. London will certainly feel the loss of its Piccadilly Tower. Tokyo will get by, but nothing compared with the multistory Tower stores in the Shibuya and Shinjuku districts; their acres of deep-catalog CDs -- stuff you never even imagined existed -- once offered the best selection in the world.

Tower ran the CD department in the gift shop in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Last week the Los Angeles Philharmonic released its first commercial disc recorded in Disney, which features a spectacular performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. At the moment, the orchestra is scrambling to figure out how it can sell its own disc in its own hall, since the major labels, in this case Deutsche Grammophon, are not supposed to ship product (the business term for music) to Tower any longer.

Tower is not blameless. It was, in its heyday, a great record store, but it was not a good one. Tower all but invented the model for chain book and record stores, which have been eliminating independent retailers.

As a freshman at UCLA in the 1960s, I hung out in a wonderful independent record store on Westwood Boulevard, where its grizzled clerks knew a lot better than my music professors did in terms of what direction to point a young enthusiast, what Beethoven quartet, played by whom, I was ready for. The conductor and Stravinsky intimate Robert Craft might swing by to pick up some LPs he wanted to play for the old man. I dutifully bought the same ones.

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When Tower Records came to town, it opened a store in Westwood directly across the street from the independent and undersold all competition (undoubtedly at a loss). Once the independent was forced out of business, Tower’s prices went up. This scenario was played out often.

But Tower did take seriously its mission to be the world’s most important record outlet. It tried to stock everything (I think it actually succeeded in Tokyo). During the early ‘90s, Tower published a not-half-bad handout record magazine. I wrote a few pieces for it and reviewed some records, never pressured to promote anything.

The Tower Records next to Lincoln Center in New York has been an important institution in the city’s artistic life. The classical room was always a good place in which to schmooze after concerts. The hours were fabulous -- open until 1 a.m. It was there that I got to know Susan Sontag, who was a record freak. It was there that I discovered that, despite disagreeing about nearly everything else, John Simon, the outspoken theater and film critic, and I like many of the same recordings.

You will still be able to find classical CDs. They are on the way out but not gone yet. Just about everything is available one way or another online. Ever since it started selling CDs, Amazon.com has been a godsend for those not in the vicinity of a Tower or in want of something obscure.

But you lose the whole social dimension of spending time in record stores, meeting like-minded music lovers, making discoveries, developing passions. I doubt I would have had the courage to change my major to music in my sophomore year of college and move up to Berkeley (where there were -- and still are -- better record stores) had I been ordering over the Internet.

Record stores are good for the record geek community, and good for the community at large as well. We don’t pay sales tax when purchasing out of state, and the savings is often seen as an attraction for buying online. But these are the taxes that typically fund local schools, roads, hospitals, police, parks and playgrounds.

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The trouble with downloading

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MANY culprits contributed to the demise of Tower. It got out-chained by the likes of Wal-Mart and other mass retailers who now promote bestselling CDs, probably under cost. It got hit by the big record labels’ indiscriminate releasing of junk in all genres. The downturn in DVD sales hasn’t helped.

And the ever-infuriating iTunes came along. Once Apple marketed its cute players as objects of lust, the CDs became prehistoric media.

Downloaded music isn’t inherently bad. But in its quest to rule the world, or at least become another Microsoft-ish monopoly, Apple can be.

Like Amazon, iTunes serves as a useful adjunct to retail CD stores. But with its insufficient catalog and its pop orientation, Apple’s download service is a long way from being able to replace them.

You can, in fact, find the new Los Angeles Philharmonic “Rite of Spring” on iTunes, but in inferior sound to the Super Audio CD. If you already have the disc, you can purchase separately from the site Salonen’s exclusive 3 1/2 -minute interview about the “Rite” for $3.99. It is also broken into four sections, each 99 cents -- and one lasts just 36 seconds! Do you really want these folks running the sale of classical recordings?

So what’s to be done?

Los Angeles is luckier than most cities, thanks to the Bay Area’s Amoeba Music, the massive new and used store, having opened a branch in Hollywood. But there isn’t much else. Virgin Records once had a classical room. Last time I looked, classical was but a shelf or two hidden in the back of the store. Two of my old haunts, Aron’s and Rhino, have closed in the last year. Barnes & Noble and Borders have music departments, but they are basic and seldom staffed by knowledgeable clerks, which is one of the necessities for all classical stores given the bewildering choices.

Dutton’s Books has small but extremely well-chosen CD departments in its Brentwood and Beverly Hills stores that come closest to the old-time independent retailer. These are among the last places where you can talk about music.

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When the CD replaced the LP, the two shared shelf space for a few years, as the CD gradually took over. The same happened with the transition from videotape and laserdisc to DVD. But with the abrupt liquidation of Tower, we are now faced with the possibility of an alarming vacuum. So please support your independents, if you can find one. And don’t forget to have plenty of quarters handy when parking off Sunset.

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mark.swed@latimes.com


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