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Tower’s pop fire flickers?

by Steve McClure

A lot of people in the music biz — not to mention regular music fans — were shocked by reports that surfaced last week to the effect that all or part of Tower Records’ Japanese operations will be sold.

Although Tower has no comment to make concerning the reports, I am reliably informed that the reports are true.

So why would Tower want to sell its Japanese stores (of which there are now 51)? Who might the buyer(s) be? And what will happen to Tower’s stores in Japan?

The answer to the first question is relatively straightforward. Tower’s American parent company, MTS Inc., has in the last several months been caught in a credit crunch and must come up with a large chunk of cash very soon to placate its creditors.

The fastest way for MTS to do that is to sell equity in its wholly owned (and profitable) Japanese subsidiary, Tower Records Inc.

As for who might be interested in investing in Tower Japan, one report mentioned Tokyo-based Culture Convenience Club, which operates the Tsutaya video and music rental and sales chain. But when I spoke with a CCC spokesman, he said the report wasn’t true. We shall see . . .

Another rumor is that Sony Corp. may be interested in buying Tower’s Japanese operation, but I find that hard to believe.

Now whoever buys or invests in Tower Japan, it’s not likely that the Tower brand will disappear from this country — it’s too well-known and too valuable an asset. The concern is that a new owner or shareholder may not understand the Tower style — as exemplified by its staffers’ deep knowledge and love of music — which makes Tower a great place to shop.

Broadcaster Carole Hisasue speaks for many when she emphasizes the unique “vibe” of Tower’s Japanese operation.

“I think what distinguishes Tower from the other [foreign music retailers] is that at the core, it is run like a family business,” she says. “The key staff are specialists and know so much about their individual areas of expertise.”

I know what Hisasue means. I often go to the J-pop section on the second floor of Tower’s Shibuya store and ask the staff there what cool new CDs have come in, especially indie stuff, and they always come up with the goods.

And will the new owner preserve unique features like the excellent book and magazine section on the seventh floor of the Shibuya store? I hope so.

Tower — which has been doing business in Japan since 1979 — started out as an import specialist, and so did a lot to promote foreign music in Japan. But in recent years, the chain has also done a fantastic job of promoting Japanese music, getting behind local releases such as Okinawa ska-core band Mongol 800′s album “Message” and pushing them nationwide.

And Tower Japan senior vice president/Far East managing director Keith Cahoon has also been one of the biggest boosters of Japanese pop overseas, playing a key role in introducing Osaka female trio Shonen Knife, for example, to the world through his industry contacts.

Expect an announcement about who will be buying into Tower around mid-January. My heart goes out to the good folks at Tower, having to deal with this kind of uncertainty at this time of year.

On a happier note, it’s very interesting to see how well Kumi Koda’s single “Trust Your Love” (released in the United States by Sounday/Orpheus) has been doing in there. The song is No. 45, up two places from the previous week, on Billboard’s Hot Dance Music/Club Play Dec. 29 chart, and is No. 3, down from No. 1 the previous week, on the Dec. 29 Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales chart.

It’s also No. 35 on the Hot 100 Singles Sales chart, down from No. 19 the week of Dec. 22.

Not bad at all for this female vocalist, who in the U.S. is known simply as “Koda.” I’ve been getting lots of phone calls from various Japanese media outlets, anxious to hear me tell them what an earth-shattering event this is. But like a previous episode this past May, I have to tell them that while it’s great that Koda is doing well on these various specialized charts, she’s yet to crack the real biggie among the Billboard charts: the Hot 100, which is based on sales and airplay. But good luck to her — maybe next time she’ll do it!