Reviews

'Cowboys and Indies' Is a Helluva Book That Will Become a Go-To Guide

Despite its awful title, Gareth Murphy's extensive and compelling tome is the kind of stuff that music nerds' dreams are made of.


Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry

Publisher: Thomas Dunne
Length: 400 pages
Author: Gareth Murphy
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-06-17
Amazon

To be brutally honest, Cowboys and Indies is a pretty hackneyed title, especially for a book dealing with notable record-men from throughout the history of recorded music. Yet what is contained within Gareth Murphy's extensive and compelling tome is the kind of stuff that music nerd's dreams are made of.

This is a compelling, ever-fascinating journey through the history of the music industry, touching on its significant achievements, its major players, and too many juicy behind-the-scenes stories to count. Indeed, Cowboys and Indies is an absolute must-have for any self-professed music historian, and a delightful treat for just about anyone else.

Told in a very casual, fluid style that integrates conversations right into the text as if these people were characters in a novel (although a list of interview subjects is added to the end of the bibliography, Murphy never cites exactly where these "reconstructions" come from), Cowboys and Indies traces music's history all the way back to 1853, spending an extensive amount of time discussing the actual development of recorded audio from the get-go, with figures such as Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville and Alexander Graham Bell eventually leading the way to Columbia Records, the world's oldest record company.

People like Thomas Edison -- himself a key cultural figure and a surprisingly cantankerous and reluctant label head, we learn -- soon help companies like "Columbia Phonograph" get their start in the marketplace. In the early days, phonographs and Victrolas were more highfalutin' societal affairs, opera recordings leading the way in terms of sales even as novelty one-offs like 1911's "Alexander's Ragtime Band". Soon popularized certain styles, which up to the point were only relegated to certain regions of the country, expanded to include the likes of the German-born figure Jehuda Otto Heinemann, who used his Okeh record label to help bring blues and jazz to a national audience.

One can get absolutely mired in the details, but because Murphy delivers all of his facts in such a casual, relatable style, it's easy to retain this information without ever feeling overwhelmed by stats and figures. This is also due in part to the fact that by focusing on the major players in the industry, we get attached to their story. The big ones -- like John Hammond, Sam Phillips, Ahmet Ertegun, Chris Blackwell, etc. -- don't just have their accomplishments doled out like a Wikipedia entry, no.

Instead, Murphy takes time to provide background to these figures, giving them a short bio in the middle of a chapter, talking about their personal interests and other quirky, defining details that help paint a vivid picture in the reader's mind (much like the way the Rolling Stones' first producer Andrew Loog Oldham used to doll himself up in some outrageous makeup and outfits in order to get noticed when he first started out, soon realizing that he actually got more respect from other industry folk when they ran into this caricature of a man and realized all the rumors about his appearance were in fact true).

Indeed, the very backbone of what makes Cowboys and Indies so compelling is the stories that wind up making the careers of these numerous figureheads. There's John Hammond's constant perusal of finding talent. Hammon had a world-class ear for talent, but failed to develop his artists' distinctiveness beyond his rather dry initial productions (i.e., Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, a late-in-life find with Bruce Springsteen).

There's Sam Phillips, trying to deal with this too-insistent teenager named Elvis Presley, who keeps hounding him about trying to record some songs. Phillips finally relents, but realizes that Elvis is not that good ... until he's pared with the right kind of song.

There's Loog Oldham's story of how an initial recording session with an embryonic Rolling Stones doesn't go too well. To clear his head, Oldham goes out on the street to pace around, and just so happens to catch a drunken John Lennon and Paul McCartney as they tumble out of a cab. They recognize Oldham, ask him what's wrong, and he soon drags them down to his recording studio where the boys teach the Stones the basic framework of "I Wanna Be Your Man". It charts significantly higher than their first UK entry, "Come On" from that same year (1963).

Sure, other artists' stories get tossed around. Like when Bob Dylan wanted to introduce the Beatles to weed, which the label abided but only after spending a half-hour closing the blinds of the hotel room they were in and stuffing towels under the doors. However, the label men are given a much larger emphasis. Such as when Atlantic's Jerry Wrexler storms out of a session after being teased by a snotty David Geffen about poaching Bob Dylan. Or when Beatles producer George Martin had a fateful encounter with his EMI label bosses.

EMI tried to retain him as the band's producer after the Beatles started blowing up. The meager three-percent bonus offered Martin was to the tune of £11,000. Yet Martin soon realized that that was calculated turnover, not actual profits, because he should have been receiving £66,000, an actual three-percent of the £2.2 million the Fab Four happened to be pulling in for the label at the time.

Fair warning, though, for those looking at this book for artist gossip. Artists like Prince and Led Zeppelin are only given single-paragraph mentions, while a group like Frankie Goes to Hollywood is given an extensive section talking about not only the release of their debut album, but also how some clever playing with the press and the controversy created by the song "Relax" resulted in this previous little one-off effort turning into a monster hit. (Doubly strange about the bare presence of Prince: the man made sure to own his master recordings and at one point left Warner Bros. to become fiercely independent -- a story that would have played well into Murphy's narrative.)

Also, given the fantastically exhaustive levels of detail that Murphy provides from the start of the 20th century up until the late '70s, one wouldn't be too hard pressed to say that much is missing in the quick-run he gives the '80s to present. The last real major industry "event" he covers is the collapse of Rough Trade Records' significant distribution arm, and the way other industry men came in to try and fill it, all while Napster and the post-teen pop CD boom of the 21st century is given passive mention.

Murphy has said in interviews that the recent turmoil of the present-day record industry have fascinated him, and although sales are shrinking at an alarming rate as people turn their attention to streaming audio, this is mere peanuts compared to the post-WWI boom, when the appearance of radio absolutely obliterated traditional record sales, shrinking down the entire industry to a pathetic five percent of what it once was. It maintained on such skeletal means until the introduction of the jukebox, which helped spur interest in owning records once again.

Certainly, the lack of direct citation on some of Murphy's anecdotes is a bit cumbersome, and the fact that his loopy final chapter, "Revelations", spends an inordinate amount delving into the Jewish nature of a lot of these record men is bizarre. Yet such minor quips can't take away from Murphy's magnanimous achievement with Cowboys and Indies, as he has ended up crafting a hell of a book that over time may not only become any music-person's historical go-to, but may just very well become a cornerstone of the genre.

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