BOOK REVIEW: Gareth Murphy - Cowboys and Indies

Gareth Murphy - Cowboys and Indies
(Serpent’s Tail, 396pp., £14.99. Book Review by Chris Parker)

This catchily titled book is puffed on its jacket as ‘the story of the “record men” – the mavericks and moguls who have shaped the music industry from the first sound machines of the 1850s through to today’s digital streams’. Those who suspect that this might be too large a subject for in-depth coverage in a single volume will not be reassured by spot-checking, via the index, figures in whom they are especially interested. In the jazz world – Granz, Norman: nothing. Lion, Alfred: nothing. Keepnews, Orrin: nothing; John Hammond (about whom – quite correctly – there is a great deal) has to bear almost the entire weight of post-1930s jazz-recording coverage. In the soul world – Stax (the history of which provides a pretty neat paradigm for the recording industry as a whole): no mention in the index, one very brief mention in the text.

So, despite its title, Cowboys and Indies concentrates on mainstream popular music, tracing the history of recorded sound from the patent wars of the late nineteenth century, through the rise (and fall) of the phonograph, the format wars between LPs and 45s, then vinyl and CDs, to iTunes and the demise of the discrete album. In the process, Murphy shines a spotlight on a series of extraordinary figures, ranging from the disinterested aesthete-enthusiasts (the aforementioned Hammond) through committed amateurs with great ears (Sam Phillips) to more ambiguous figures (David Geffen, Chris Blackwell, Ahmet Ertegun etc.).

What all the stories seem to have in common, though, is a depressingly familiar ending: corporations (and their lawyers) are generally the main money-makers, not the artists or the people who ‘discover’ (used in this book in the sense of Columbus ‘discovering’ America or Cook ‘discovering’ Australia) and nurture them.

It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that, well-researched and discreetly committed as this lucid and sensibly arranged account is, it will be of interest mainly to those coming to the subject for the first time, needing a brisk and reliable overview to introduce them to a complex and controversial subject. Those wishing to dig deeper into the reasons why most record company–artist relationships end in recrimination (and the courts) would be more likely to find enlightenment in single case studies: of Stax, for instance (see Robert Gordon’s excellent Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, Bloomsbury), or of Tim and Jeff Buckley (David Browne’s superb Dream Brother, Fourth Estate).

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