Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy

From TheBookbag
Jump to navigationJump to search

Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy

Buy Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy at or

Category: Entertainment
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An engrossing history of the music industry from the invention of the first sound recording machines in the 1850s to today's digital streams, and many of the entrepreneurs and talent scouts who discovered the major musical names and launched the record labels that made them household names
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 382 Date: January 2014
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 9781781254523

Share on: Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn

It's not difficult to find a history of popular or recorded music, written around the musical names who made it happen. Cowboys and Indies takes a different approach. While there is plenty in these pages about several of the most important stars, there is just as much again if not sometimes more about the movers and shakers, the inventors, managers, impresarios, and record label founders without whom there would not have been a record industry.

According to Murphy, the saga begins with Scott de Martinville, a Parisian typesetter. Inspired by reading a physics manuscript to make what was the world’s first sound-recording device, he was granted a patent in 1857. Soon after that came Thomas Alva Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Emile Berliner and a parade of others - not forgetting Nipper the fox terrier, immortalised in the His Master’s Voice logo. The humble wax cylinder was succeeded by the easily mass-produced shellac gramophone record, which became a booming industry in the 1920s, until the collapse of the stock market in 1929. Within three years, the once-lucrative business had almost collapsed in America and Britain. But thanks to a little luck and a few solitary individuals who were prepared to take chances, it recovered and went from strength to strength.

Part of the story is that of the names who discovered and nurtured talent, or at least spotted a gap in the market and came along at just the right time. One of the most interesting, and often overlooked, was John Hammond. A young jazz enthusiast of the 1930s, he helped to build up a roster of names for the Columbia Record Company from Billie Holiday to, some three decades later, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. (It might be significant that the two latter have remained with the same company for around half a century each and are still recording today). Later came Sam Phillips, whose Sun Studios launched the career of the young Elvis Presley, Berry Gordy, the father of Tamla Motown, and the great producers such as the now sadly-disgraced Phil Spector and the Beatles’ guiding light, George Martin.

From the 1960s onwards, to some extent, this is a broad history of popular music. You cannot write about the Beatles or the Rolling Stones without mentioning George Martin or Andrew Loog Oldham, or the small independent record labels like Track, Reaction and Blue Horizon, without whom there might have been no Hendrix, Cream or Fleetwood Mac. One man in particular stands out; according to Murphy, Chris Blackwell is probably the most important figure in the history of British music, the one who founded Island Records and broke a variety of acts such as Traffic, King Crimson, Roxy Music, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Bob Marley and the Wailers.

One of the joys of this book is the regular meeting with names of the unsung heroes, the ones who in some way helped to initiate a revolution yet without really getting the credit for it. Martinville was one, and over a century later in New York, David Mancuso was another. The boy who grew up in an orphanage in the post-war years became something of a party animal, and while equipping his apartment with a state-of-the-art sound system, was arguably the man who created the whole concept of the disco. In doing so, he helped to shape the music of the 1970s in one way, just as such diverse entrepreneurs like Richard Branson of Virgin Records (as well as Virgin much else besides), David Geffen of Asylum, Dave Robinson of Stiff, the Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren, and musical giants like David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen did in others. And just when one recession after another threatened to decimate what had become an often bloated, strangely fragile industry, there was always some new name waiting in the wings, such as Michael Jackson (a very young music veteran who in the 1980s managed to reinvent himself bigger than ever before), U2, or Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Then when the industry thought it had found a way to render the time-honoured vinyl disc in all it sizes and speeds obsolete, along came the CD – even though there were enough devotees to ensure that vinyl was not consigned to the museums after all. Then came illegal downloading and filesharing, iTunes, Spotify and others, and with it more dire predictions of the end of the music industry as we knew it. But as history (and this book) shows, these things can often be cyclical, and it takes a brave person who dares to predict how the music scene of twenty years might look.

I found this a fascinating read. Murphy has written an almost immaculate account of the rollercoaster that is the industry, and how the recording industry developed from its beginnings at the end of the nineteenth century. It will surely be an eye-opener for anybody who has ever purchased one of its artefacts, whether on a seven-inch single, a CD or a download, and wondered how and where the whole process started. That surely includes nearly all of us.

If you enjoyed this, may we also recommend Branson by Tom Bower, although arguably a somewhat slanted account; Mr Manchester and the Factory Girl: The Story of Tony and Lindsay Wilson by Lindsay Reade, an insider's story of one of the 1980s music entrepreneurs; and Black Vinyl, White Powder by Simon Napier-Bell, a story of pop and rock music from the 1950s onwards

Please share on: Facebook Facebook, Follow us on Twitter Twitter and Follow us on Instagram Instagram

Buy Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy at


Like to comment on this review?

Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.