Cowboys and Indies is the definitive record-business bible, chronicling the pioneers who set the stylus on the most important labelsand musical discoveries of the last century. The narrative follows all the musical trends and developments from the phonograph to the Internet age as it delves behind the big business of corporate hit machines and the diligent industry of small, curated labels. Drawing from memoirs, archives, and over 100 exclusive interviews with legends of the record industry - including the founders and CEOs of Virgin, United Artists, Atlantic, and A&M Records - this book reveals the secrets behind the hit-making craft. Cowboys and Indies focuses on the game changers - the indie founders, talent scouts, legendary A&R men - believers who understood the music business was two distinct parts: first music, then business. An industry insider himself, Gareth Murphy culls numerous behind-the-scenes anecdotes to bring together a clear genealogical map of the record industry’s 130-year international history. Among its revelations, Cowboys and Indies highlights the remarkable similarities between the industry crash of the 1920sand ’30s and the recent CD crash. Witty and evocative, Cowboys and Indies offers a fresh panoramic view of the cycles and grooves of pop music and is sure to top the charts with music industry classics like Hitmaker and The Mansion on the Hill.
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I would agree with Gareth Murphy's subtitle. There is an epic story of the record industry to be told. Unfortunately, after finishing this book, it seems like it's still waiting for someone to tell it. While this book makes an attempt, it's too rock-centric (and Euro-centric) to really live up to the title. Specifically, this books treads the well worn path from hippy idealism to Reagan era greed to the exclusion of much more than a passing glance at much else.
Things start off well enough with a history of the invention of recorded sound, which should be a book itself with all the characters and intrigue there, leading to the birth of the recording industry. I really liked this early part of the book and it gave me high hopes for what was to come. Things move along briskly, maybe too much so, until the beginning of Beatlemania and that is where the problems begin.
What follows is the meat of the book and a lot of the same faces and same stories that if you've read much about the recording industry you will already know. As the "sharks" take over, we learn David Geffen is a high-strung diva. Casablanca was a hedonistic wonderland. Walter Yetnikoff yells a lot. Etc., etc., etc. Murphy really focuses deeply on the already very well documented time period between 1966 and 1986. Then everyone gets bought up, Nirvana happens, then the Backstreet Boys, then Napster, then EMI is broken up and then a very bizarre and rambling final chapter.
Along the way, a lot falls through the cracks. Seminal jazz and r&b labels such as Stax, Blue Note, Savoy, Prestige, Chess, Modern, etc., are only mentioned in passing, if at all (most of the labels I’ve named aren't even mentioned.) Hip-hop is reduced to Tommy Boy records, Rick Rubin's story and a sentence or two about Sugar Hill Records. Country music is all but absent entirely. And on and on.
While I do understand this is just one book and we're talking about a big history, my issue is with the decisions made, not that every thing under the sun wasn't covered. For example, we get to hear a lot about Chris Blackwell and the rise and fall of Island records. A whole lot. Maybe the most space of any one story line in the whole book. But I'm still not convinced the amount of space given to telling that story is proportional to the importance it has in the larger narrative.
On the other hand, the 90s, which may have been the most profitable time in the entire industry's history, are rushed through rapidly, quite literally jumping from grunge to boy bands in a matter of minutes. No discussion of Soundscan, which drastically changed the chart situation. No mention of the hip-hop and country music booms. No mention of Interscope records or Jimmy Iovine, who is maybe one of the last of the true record men. It just seems like a major over site to me.
Also, if it didn't happen in the UK or America, it didn't happen. I suppose it was too much to expect a global approach, but there are some fascinating record cultures around the world worth of study as well. Jamaican music, for instance, is mentioned in the context of Island's story, but their own homegrown industry, at one time the largest in the world, believe it or not, is completely ignored.
And that last chapter, I'm still trying to figure out what that was about. It starts with the expected "where do we go from here" wrap up, then veers into a discussion about Jews in the music business and spirituality in general and I'm not even sure what else. At least it does help explain why Murphy goes into great detail on the Jewish backgrounds of many of his subjects throughout the book (prior to this chapter, this always seems like a bizarre tangent.) It still seems like a tagged on afterthought rather than anything really important to the history he's telling. (Again, there's probably a book on this subject waiting to be written, but this isn't it.)
If it seems like I'm picking nits on this book, you have to understand there has already been a lot written on the record business, specifically on the time period Murphy choses to focus on. I was hoping for some new insite or piece of the story that hasn't already been written about else where. While I won't argue that what's in here isn't important and entertaining, it's just more of the same stuff that people writing about the biz like to write about. I'm sure if this is your first read on the subject, you'll get a lot more out of it than I did. Just know it's only a piece of the story, not the whole thing.