Cycle of change leaves empty feelings, racks


If you're in Terminal 3 at the San Francisco International Airport and you have some layover time on your hands, you may want to avoid the moving sidewalk to your gate and wander through the San Francisco Airport Commission's installation "History of Audio."

In the space of a few hundred feet, the exhibit displays nearly 130 years of audio reproduction devices, from Edison cylinders to the iPod. Naturally, it encompasses every imaginable variety of backdated or defunct audio format -- the 78 RPM disc, the vinyl LP, the 45 single, the 8-track tape, the prerecorded audiocassette.

As I walked through the installation on Tuesday on my way back to Los Angeles, it occured to me that change has been constant throughout the history of the music business, as it is in all businesses. But few businesses seem as slow to adapt to change as the music industry. The powerful emotional response to the demise of Tower Records is a case in point.

"My assistant and I are going to go out and drink some tequila," one longtime friend, an independent record distributor, said Friday after he heard the news that Tower had been purchased by liquidator Great American and would close its doors.

The reaction of this industry pro, who had sold hundreds of thousands of albums to Tower over the course of years, was not unexpected. It's the indie side of the business that will probably face the strongest hit from the death of Tower. With its emphasis on deep catalog and a breadth of genre titles, the chain was the go-to retailer for independent labels. With the closure of Tower's 89 stores, many of those labels must now be wondering where they will replace those sales.

Other industry observers were more sanguine about the situation. Last week, a publicist with a long history at the major labels stopped by my table at the annual City of Hope dinner, a charity event that also serves as a convocation for the music business. We talked about Tower's imminent sale, and the publicist said, with a small sigh, "It's a singles business now."

What goes around comes around. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the music business was a singles business, too; only later in the '60s did the album format supplant the single. In the '90s, the physical single, which had migrated from the 45 to the cassette, was phased out. But, with the rise of digital downloading, the consumer -- enamored of the 99-cent-per-track price point and alienated by high CD prices -- has returned to buying music by the song.

Some have contended with all these changes by opting out. On the eve of the Tower sale, another friend who was in L.A. for a digital entertainment conference stopped by the office. He had once been a buyer for one of the larger music chains still in operation, but today he teaches a course on the music industry at a college in Colorado. As we talked, he shook his head and wondered aloud if he'd have been able to keep pace with the rapid evolution of the business if he'd stayed in it.

In years past, it was possible to buy a copy of the I Ching at some of Tower's voluminous book departments. It's an ancient Chinese oracular text whose teachings, expressed in 64 hexagrams, are based on the inevitability of change and the mutability of all things. For those seeking some insight, or some solace, it may be available at some Tower outlets, at going-out-of-business prices.