Business & Real Estate

Music lovers still flock to Tower Records, in Ireland

A customer leaves Tower Records in Dublin, Ireland, which proclaims itself “100% Irish – 100% Independent.”
A customer leaves Tower Records in Dublin, Ireland, which proclaims itself “100% Irish – 100% Independent.” dkasler@sacbee.com

DUBLIN, Ireland—The familiar red-and-yellow logo of Tower Records still shines in Dublin, on a busy commercial street 5,000 miles from Sacramento.

Nearly nine years after Tower disappeared in the United States, two-honest-to-goodness Tower stores remain open for business in Ireland. The two Dublin outlets operate under a franchise agreement with a company that obtained rights to the brand following the 2006 liquidation of Tower’s U.S. operations. Tower stores also operate in Japan and Israel.

The largest of the two Dublin stores, just steps from the city’s famed Trinity College, is a two-story shop bursting with CDs, movies and books. There are thousands of vinyl records, whose resurgence has become one of the hottest trends in music retailing. Tower also sells record players and other audio gadgets, maintains a separate room devoted to classical and jazz, and even operates a small cafe upstairs.

It looks and feels like a Tower Records one would have found years ago in Sacramento, New York or Los Angeles. The hip vibe celebrated in the just-released documentary “All Things Must Pass” is very much in evidence. The sign out front proclaims the store is “100% Irish – 100% Independent,” while the company’s long-standing marketing slogan “No Music No Life” is displayed in raised lettering near the checkout counter.

Most importantly, Tower has made itself the Irish music junkie’s music store. Like the company that once called West Sacramento home, it has a reputation for selling every kind of record imaginable, including the offbeat stuff most retailers ignore.

“No other store has this,” said customer Lukas Walder, a recent transplant from Austria, as he combed through racks of vinyl rock records on a recent Friday afternoon. “You can always find something new here.”

Nine years after Tower folded in the U.S., a few stores survive overseas. Video by Dale Kasler of The Sacramento Bee.

Tower’s managers take that sort of compliment in stride. They say there’s nothing magical to their eclectic approach to business, which has kept brick-and-mortar music retailing alive in Ireland in an industry dominated by downloads and streaming services.

“I don’t know what happened there in the States,” said store manager Clive Branagan, 37, referring to the U.S. liquidation in 2006. “You’ve got to give people what they want. I’ve been to a lot of record stores in the States and Canada, and the ones that survive are providing service that their competitors don’t.”

Tower people say they don’t dwell on the irony of the situation: They’re still here long after their parent company perished.

“We’re too busy doing the day-to-day to really think about it,” said Joe Plunkett, 36, general manager of Tower Records Dublin. “We’re just music crazy.”

The brand’s survival in Dublin brings a measure of joy to at least one Sacramentan: Tower founder Russ Solomon.

“The fact that it’s still there in Ireland makes me very happy,” Solomon said in a phone interview. He said he last visited Tower in Dublin sometime in the mid-1990s.

The stores in Ireland, Japan and Israel represent the final outposts of a global empire that once prospered in such places as Hong Kong, Thailand, Mexico, Dubai and, of course, the United States. More than 200 U.S. and international stores answered to the West Sacramento headquarters at one point.

In the 1990s, when Tower was at its peak, annual sales exceeded $1 billion and the born-in-Sacramento company was expanding like mad. It came to Dublin in 1993 as part of a British Isles invasion that also landed in Glasgow, Scotland, and on London’s Piccadilly Circus.

The international business took a U-turn in the early 2000s, as the U.S. company was battered by competition from the Internet and major brick-and-mortar discounters. In a scramble for cash, the West Sacramento company, known as MTS Inc., closed many of its international stores. Most of the others were sold as franchises to local investors; Tower Dublin was acquired by a small local conglomerate.

MTS was unable to regain its footing and was ordered liquidated by a bankruptcy judge in 2006. An obscure Florida company called Caiman Holdings Inc. acquired the rights to the Tower brand, giving it control of the international franchises and the Tower.com website.

Keeping Tower alive proved too much for the Florida company. Caiman went bankrupt in 2010, and corporation records show control of the brand was passed to Cumberland Corporate Services Ltd., a firm in the British Virgin Islands.

Details of the franchise agreements between Cumberland and the remaining stores aren’t clear. Officials with Tower Dublin wouldn’t discuss their finances, or their agreement with Cumberland. Officials with Cumberland didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

What is clear is that the Tower brand has struggled for the most part. The Tower website is “barely a skeleton right now,” said Richard Flynn, a Delaware businessman who ran the site until 2012.

As for brick-and-mortar, Japan has been a stronghold. A consortium led by telecommunications conglomerate NTT Docomo operates 88 stores. The consortium controls the Tower brand outright in Japan and, unlike Ireland, isn’t a franchisee.

However, Tower has faltered most everywhere else. Stores in Mexico, the Philippines and other countries have closed in recent years or have been rebranded. That leaves just three stores outside of Japan: one in Israel and two in Dublin.

In Dublin, some longtime customers feared their stores also would go by the wayside. To their delight, Tower has kept going in Ireland. The main store relocated to more spacious quarters a year ago from its original spot two blocks away, and the funky Tower ambiance has remained intact.

“They sort of hung on, didn’t they?” said Neil Murphy, a 50-year-old engineer who was browsing in the main store recently.

Like other customers, Murphy said the wide range of product offerings make Tower Dublin a pleasure to shop.

“It’s that whole thing of serendipity,” said Murphy, who visited his first Tower store in Boston some 30 years ago. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

One key factor in Tower Dublin’s survival: the comeback in vinyl. The old recording technology has undergone a resurgence, and Nielsen Soundscan said 2014 was the best sales year since 1991. Tower Dublin carries more than 10,000 vinyl albums and devotes about 25 percent of its rack space to vinyl.

“It’s a way of life for our customers,” Plunkett said. “They collect vinyl. It’s like a hobby. It’s like playing golf.”

Tower Dublin operates an e-commerce site but Plunkett said it’s a small business compared with what goes on at the two stores.

“There’s something about picking it out from the racks,” said Dublin schoolteacher Keith Hannigan, 44, who appreciates buying music the old-fashioned way.

“It’s just kept going,” he said of the Tower legacy in Dublin. “When you walk in, it makes you feel good.”

Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.

If you go:

The main Tower Records store in Dublin is at 7 Dawson St., just south of Trinity College; a smaller annex operates at 40 Lower O’Connell St.

Tower Records history

1960: Russ Solomon founds MTS Inc., opens first free-standing Tower store on Watt Avenue, Sacramento.

1968: Tower opens in San Francisco, first store outside Sacramento.

1979: First international store opens in Japan.

1993: Tower comes to Dublin, Ireland.

2003: In a downsizing mode, Tower begins selling most international stores to franchisees.

2006: MTS goes bankrupt and is liquidated, closing all U.S. stores. Many international stores remain open.

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