What the Web industry could learn from my Tower Records jobs

Minimum wage. A good chance you’d have to work until after midnight on New Year’s Eve, and then at 8:30 AM on New Year’s Day (happened to me). Boring, unglamorous duties. Dealing with clueless, irritating, or just plain drunk customers. So what was it about working at Tower that makes us former employees so nostalgic about it?

There’s a lively group on Facebook just for veterans of the San Francisco store at Bay and Columbus. The wall refreshes almost daily with someone’s anecdote, relevant link, or “whatever happened to…?” query. I don’t remember my stints working at Tower stores as nonstop fun, but I share these people’s eagerness to talk about it, decades after the experience. What was so magical, then?

  • People really shine when they’re allowed to specialize. Russ Solomon’s most impressive innovation with Tower Records was to stock a few copies of many titles, in many music genres, rather than stock a lot of copies of a few titles in only, say, rock ‘n’ roll. Customers came to believe that a recording didn’t exist if it wasn’t in stock at Tower. The huge inventories meant that Tower stores ballooned into multi-story, multi-department shrines to music retailing, staffed by people with deep knowledge of particular genres.

At the Tower store in Washington D.C. we had the king of the soul music department upstairs, a nebbishy white guy with years of data on singers, musicians, and producers committed to memory. Downstairs in Imports we had Neal, who pored over record company newsletters to sift out which nearly unobtainable European releases he could order for the store. Both of these guys had a number of fans among the customers, who would seek them out as kind of personal shoppers. Nobody ever suggested moving these guys to other departments, so they could get more acquainted with other kinds of music.

In the Web industry we’ve come to dismiss specialties for creating “silos.” We demand that people “cross-train,” “take responsibility for the full stack,” as if specializing creates some kind of weakness. But whose customers seek out the generalists on the team?

  • Money isn’t everything… Wages at Tower were lousy. You started at minimum wage, and obtained tiny raises at infrequent intervals. There wasn’t much room for negotiation: if you didn’t like the arrangement, tough–there was a waiting list of people eager to take your place. So what was the draw?

On the job at Tower D.C. Photo by Madeleine Morrissey.
At Tower we felt we could be ourselves. We could wear pretty much anything, style our hair any way, talk passionately about the music, books, or movies we really cared about–we didn’t have to pull back to fit in with someone’s idea of the workplace’s culture.

  • …But it is something. As grateful as we were to Tower for providing us such a cool, accepting workplace, none of us would’ve worked there “for equity.” For one thing, a lot of us were deep into other non-paying pursuits like playing in obscure bands or writing terrible poetry, and to pull our attention away from these tasks Russ Solomon et al. had to pay cash. For another, working at Tower involved–work. Employees were still required to do things we thought boring, stupid, uncool, and beneath our adolescent dignity. Compensation was a motivator.

  • Working part-time is okay. Many of us at Tower were still university students. May through August, hey, pile on the hours…and come September, not so much. Rather than deal with massive attrition every fall, Tower managers adjusted schedules to fit employees’ lives (not vice versa). There were sufficient full-time employees to staff the less desirable weekday shifts. Nobody was accused of lacking “passion” or “commitment” for requesting a part-time schedule, nor demoted when it was obtained.

  • Company culture must reflect the people currently working there. When first opened in 1967, the Tower San Francisco store at Columbus and Bay had groovy, Summer of Lovin’ employees who probably said things like “Deep!” and “Far out!” without irony. Twenty years later, it was staffed by edgy kids in leather and Mohawks who slapped a video of Woodstock in the store VCR to watch for laughs. Had Tower insisted on keeping its original flavor of tie-dyed mellow, it would’ve repelled prospective hires with fresher ideas about music.

It’s common in Web companies to whine of “growing pains,” which usually turn out to be resistance from earlier employees to requests for working space, documentation, and professionalism from newer ones. By this point, the company is radically different from what it was at its founding, so why retain that atmosphere?

  • Even companies that do these things can still fail… Tower dwindled into bankruptcy by 2006, undone by online music sales. It did scramble to build a Web presence, but there was little to deter customers from buying instead at Amazon or iTunes–after all, where was the personal touch of people like Neal?

  • …but this is no reason to avoid trying them out.

Finger Busting

The other night my husband and I indulged in some old-fashioned diversion by picking through our collection of 78 r.p.m. records, playing the selections on the 1947 Delco phonograph. He surprised me with a record I’d forgotten we had: Jelly Roll Morton, late in his career, playing Willie “The Lion” Smith’s “Finger Buster;” B-side, “Creepy Feeling.”

We listened to “Creepy Feeling” first. Here was all of Morton’s legendary talent in one side–the ragtime and jazz piano styles he excelled in and defined. We had great expectations for “Finger Buster.”

This piece was also rendered with impressive virtuosity, but ultimately left us cold. The point of it seemed to be for the pianist to cram as many notes into every moment as possible, a challenge Morton met and bested. But getting all those notes in meant he discarded tone, mood, contrast–almost everything that makes a piece of music memorable. “Finger Buster” had no hook.

I’m reminded of “Finger Buster” when I look at some of the ways people write JavaScript. I see cryptic, single-character variable names, rigid adherence to object literal syntax, disdain for whitespace and for comments. Some people seem to treat their applications as the Web equivalent to the Apollo moonshot: everything must be rigorously minimized, milliseconds shaved off like millimeters, as if, say, the rendering of the lightbox on the regional sales division’s intranet login has profound, mission-critical implications.

Still others want to impress with their scripts’ obscuring structure. They don’t want you to understand it readily; they don’t want to provide the f*cking manual for you to read. They want to dazzle you with their finger busters.

Okay, time for a test.

Quick: hum the riff for the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.” Now do the same for any of Steve Howe’s solos on Tales from Topographic Oceans. Maybe a few of us can do the latter, and some would even prefer it. I confess to a bone-deep dislike for prog rock, and admit bias for “Louie Louie.” I’m not alone–which recording do you think has great influence?

The Kingsmen, “Louie Louie”.

Steve Howe in 1971 BBC documentary.

A trick question. Both do. Punk arose in the 1970s from both emulation of the do-it-yourself, technically simple example of 1960s garage bands like the Kingsmen, and contempt for the pretentious, technically complex example of prog groups like Yes. The original punks knew finger busting really doesn’t signify great music. If the music can’t make its point quickly, if you need lots of post-production and exotic instruments and huge concert venues to create it, and if nobody can easily recall what it sounds like, then it’s failed–doesn’t matter how many notes it has.

It’s high time finger busting JavaScript met its punk counterbalance. Too many blog posts, presentations, framework docs, and lines of code seem written with complete disregard for the basics of communication, as if hoarding information makes the writer more powerful. Just as you don’t need conservatory training to make good music, you don’t need an MS in Computer Science to write good JavaScript. My stress is on “good”–is it good if nobody understands it? If nobody can reuse it, add on to it? No. Web development isn’t a cutting contest. Let’s save finger busting for novelty records.