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Book Review: ‘Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry’ by Gareth Murphy

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cowGareth Murphy’s Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry is indeed epic, but it isn’t the definitive volume its publicity claims. Of course, trying to pull 130 years of history into one hefty tome is no mean feat. Cowboys and Indies, without question, should be required reading for anyone interested in the past and present of the record business. But readers should be aware important gaps leave out significant events and there are holes in certain eras, notably the early 1960s.

For many readers, the most revealing sections are where it all began, when inventors like Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison discovered how to capture sound waves with 19th century technology. In short order, the focus shifts to businessmen who battled to control the marketplace with early jukeboxes and then players for the home. Foreshadowing the future of the industry, companies like RCA Victor and Columbia began building competing empires that took control of the music that would be available to the public.

In fact, there were many harbingers of things to come in the early years of broadcasting. With the advent of radio, some record companies saw the new medium as a threat and boycotted the use of their material on the airways. Because teenage pranksters created false emergencies on amateur sets, the Federal government had to step in and regulate frequencies. By the 1920s, a generation gap was growing as younger listeners were more interested in newer pop songs than the more familiar forms of classical, opera, and marching band music recorded by the likes of John Philip Sousa. Most importantly, the importance of African-American audiences and performers contributed to the roots of many genres of popular music to come.

As the story unfolds, we begin to hear the names of recording artists who would influence not only the choice of songs being recorded, but also the performers audiences wanted to hear doing them. Names like Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, and Cab Calloway became stars, and producers like John Hammond became important as the role of talent scouts grew. For various reasons, the industry went through periods of boom and bust before World War II, and then everything changed.

It’s the late ’50s and ’60s where Murphy skips over the importance of small regional labels that launched local artists into prominence, ignoring store-front East Coast studios that shaped the doo-wop era and beyond including Federal, Specialty, Bang, Imperial, and Cameo/Parkway. Yes, Murphy gives Sun Records its due and provides in-depth discussions of Warner Brothers, Motown, Atlantic, Decca, VeeJay, and Elecktra Records, but only the skimpiest of mentions of Chess, Vanguard, Verve, or Stax. There’s nothing about the labels that cranked out pop hits like King, Fantasy, Mainstream, or Buddah/Kama Sutra. Even while Lou Adler gets a passing reference, there’s little about Dunhill Records despite the fact it was Adler who helped set up the Monterey Pop Festival which Murphy does include. Strangely, Murphy points out the stardom of Frank Sinatra, but not the story of Sinatra creating his own label—Reprise Records—in order to earn creative freedom for himself and other artists, hence the nickname, “Chairman of the Board.”

Instead, Murphy gives us hit-and-run summaries of the well-trodden stories of The Beatles, Dylan, The Stones, and The Doors which don’t really contribute to his scope. In his early chapters, he had discussed the importance of technological changes like the introduction of the 33 and 45 RPM formats, but now says nothing about the growth of transistor radios, the move from mono to stereo, the divide between AM and FM audiences, or the marketing of 8-Track tapes, cassettes, or the short-lived Quadraphonic recordings.

Once Murphy gets into the ’70s, however, he gets back on track and, to the end of the book, provides an excellent overview of the contributions of moguls like David Geffen and Chris Blackwell who created their own Indy labels like Asylum and Island. He covers the origins and demises of Stiff, Virgin, Polygram, Chrysalis, Sire, Sub Pop, and Casablanca. Based on his interviews with industry insiders, Murphy takes us into the corporate offices of most of the major players when even the larger entities were forced to buy out, sell out, or disintegrate in boardroom power plays as a spirit of weariness infected an industry becoming less and less creative. He’s also good at demonstrating the different directions taken by American and British labels.

Special attention should be made to the final chapter where Murphy spells out the lessons he learned. It shouldn’t be as controversial as it sounds, but he notes the importance of Jewish businessmen to the industry because, some believe, such men are prone to be risk takers and the music biz is all about risks. It’s not mentioned, but it occurs to me the entire story is strictly a men’s club with nary a female exec in the mix. That’s just history, and the reasons why can be explored elsewhere. (To the best of my knowledge, the few exceptions included Vivian Carter—the “Vee” in “Vee-Jay”—and Florence Greenberg who owned Wand Records.)

In the final pages, Murphy gives a good summary of the importance of the Internet but, again, leaves out mentions of specialty labels serving the niche markets of, in particular, blues, roots, heavy-metal, and other genres and sub-genres. Many newer artists tend to avoid worrying about major labels and rely on tours to make money, now issuing CDs to supplement their live appearances and not the other way around. With the ease of home recording, the volume of polished material hasn’t slowed down, but the role of producers and engineers has moved from major studios to more, well, independent facilities. As a result, one major growth area for contemporary artists is the increasing number of independent publicists who promote performers outside the ranks of label PR departments. In other words, Murphy knows his “Cowboys” very well—but less so the “Indies.”

No, Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry isn’t the industry Bible some maintain, but it remains indispensable reading for anyone interested in the subject and easily belongs in every public and school library. It is extremely well-researched, drawing from many primary and secondary sources, and no single volume could possibly be expected to be a complete encyclopedia of the saga. Still, few readers, no matter how knowledgeable, can read Cowboys and Indies without learning a considerable amount about what, how, and when the recording business developed and by whom. It would be an ideal textbook for an introductory course on the history of record making, providing supplementary texts would be assigned to fill in the holes.

 

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