3 (Possible) Higher Ed Lessons From Tower Records

Thinking about Colin Hanks’ documentary - All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records.

May 5, 2016

Does Colin Hanks’ KickStarter funded documentary All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records offer any cautionary lessons for higher ed?

The documentary is available for rental on Amazon Prime and iTunes - and is streaming on Showtime.

The theme of Hanks' documentary is pretty well summed up in its title.  Tower Records was able to bea fabulous company at a very particular moment in our culture (the rise of the baby boomers) and in technology (the profitability of bundled music in albums and the high profits during the migration to CDs).

Tower's moment, however, could not last - as Tower Records could not adapt to new consumer behaviors, demographics and technologies.

Those of us working in traditional (legacy?) residential institutions of higher education tend to think that we are nothing like Tower Records. 

We measure our time horizons in decades, of not centuries.

Might we, as a higher education industry, be a little more vulnerable to experiencing a similar fate to Tower Records than we believe?

As the documentary chronicles, Tower Records went from a billion dollar company in 1999 (one with huge brand equity) to bankruptcy in just 5 short years.

No, colleges are not record stores .  And yes, the talk of a higher ed bubble - and the imminent closure of huge numbers of universities - is both misleading and inaccurate.

But understanding that higher ed is different from other industries (such as record stores) that suffered rapid collapse should not stop us from trying to learn some lessons from their stories.

3 (possible) higher ed lessons from Tower Records:

Lesson 1 - The Value of Place:

Today, it is easy to imagine Tower Records transforming its spaces into destinations.  Rather than using the space to sell on only CDs, Tower Records stores could have been places to listen to live music or sip cappuccino.

Can you imagine a Tower Records that is built on community - and on activities (like listening to live music) - that can only happen in a physical place?

In higher ed, the value of place - our campuses - should only increase.  Our campuses should be differentiators in a world where teaching, learning, and credentialing are increasingly unbundled.

But our campuses will only be valuable if we make the investments to transform our spaces.

What can we do with our classrooms, labs, and libraries that can’t be done virtually?

How can we make our spaces about relationship building, community integration, hands-on learning, and purposeful play?

In a digital world, physical space is more important than ever.

Lesson 2 - The Complementary Nature of Technology:

The documentary gives brief mention to Tower’s completely lame e-commerce play.  Apparently, Tower Records has an early music store on AOL - or something like that.

The leadership of Tower Records had very little knowledge, or curiosity, about digital music.  They were convinced that music lovers would always want to have a physical music collection - even if the medium for that collection evolved.  (Tower Records, and the recording industry, made huge profits when consumers replaced their vinyl collections with CDs).

What would have happened if Tower Records had pursued a complementary digital and physical strategy?  If Tower had turned their stores into bundled experiences, and their online presence into unbundled distribution?

Tower should have been able to take advantage of the affordances of digital music.  Tower had a trusted brand, deep knowledge of the music industry, and even content (through their Pulse! magazine) that they could have wrapped around online music sales.

Traditional residential institutions need to figure out how digital education can complement - not replace - residential learning.

How can blended, low-residency, online, and open education add value to campus life?

Lesson 3 - The Risks of Losing Focus On the Core:

Tower Records was particularly vulnerable to the rise of streaming music largely because the company was not disciplined enough to focus on its core.  The company was hugely in debt, as it had borrowed to fund ill-thought out rapid expansions in markets that they knew little about.  (Such as South America).

The bet that Tower Records made in Japan paid off - indeed Japan is the only place that the brand and the stores survive - but the world’s music buyers proved much less enthusiastic than the Japanese.

Beyond debt fueled expansion, Tower went into other businesses (such as Tower Books) - businesses that they did not know well.

The allure of expansion is strong on many campuses.  There are enticing opportunities to start satellite campuses, to initiative new programs, and to enter into new partnerships.  In higher ed, we need to be figure out how we can be judicious, cautious, and conservative - while also finding opportunities to experiment and learn.

In the case of Tower Records, they expanded so fast that they lost touch with their core audience and their most important service (a huge music collection paired with a knowledgeable staff in a cool environment).

In the case of higher ed, we need to keep our focus on learning and knowledge creation - and be willing to forgo opportunities that look positive in the short run - but that don’t serve our long term values or goals.

Did I mention that the documentary is really good?

Do you have memories of going to Tower Records?

When was the last time that you were in a record store?

What do you think of the whole idea of trying to learn lessons for higher ed from other industries?



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