BOOK REVIEW: Gareth Murphy, “Cowboys and Indies”

Written by Book Reviews, Books, Music, Popdose


As someone who worked for nearly two decades in the music industry for record labels, distributors, etc., I was quite eager to read this book.  Unfortunately, my appetite was whetted for something that never came.  While author Gareth Murphy does a very good job of reporting the straight history and evolution (or un-gluing, as we’ve seen in recent years) of the recording industry, there are no great revelations nor insights.  Now, to be fair, my involvement in music and the formal industry is now thirty-plus years and I always felt it was my responsibility to know every facet, element, label name, their histories and identities of their founders/directors, so I’m bound to be a little on the rigid side – thus, for anyone reading this without a knowledge of the who/when/where, it would be something of an eye-opener.  On that premise alone, the reader does, indeed, get a very good look at an unscrupulous, sometimes repulsive and highly combustible industry.  Plus, his very detailed and painstaking “pure” history of recorded music – going back to the 1800’s, the birth of the “original” record labels, etc. is admirable and well done.

I don’t think I was looking for sensationalism; if anything, I was looking for perspectives on the here and now – the 2011 final splintering and absorption by the (seemingly insatiable) Universal Music Group of the legendary EMI/Capitol; the explosion of the internet really putting some well-deserved nails in the coffin of the industry by giving artists direct contact to their fans, thus negating the middle men of the labels that never like to pay their artists anyway and so on.  Plus, my criticism includes a factual mistake about a certain musician’s religious background and most surprisingly, the omission of one of the worst/most questionable record deals in recent history – the 1996 re-signing of R.E.M. by Warner Bros.  Again, I say that having been in the industry and having acquired the education that I have over these last three decades, I’m bound to be a bit more nit-pickish.

Nonetheless, for a first-timer’s guide to the music industry over the years if you are so interested, Cowboys and Indies is a good primer.  Thus, I recommend it.  And always remember about the bigwigs of the record labels – when you go to shake hands with them, behind their backs, in the other hand is a dagger just waiting to cut you somewhere – that hasn’t changed one bit…