Book review

Author tracks history of selling music

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

All too often, the word “epic” is tossed around to describe something that rarely warrants such a powerful word. Gareth Murphy’s “Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry,” however, is exactly that — epic.

By Gareth Murphy
Thomas Dunne Books ($27.99)

Mr. Murphy begins with this disclaimer: “To begin at the beginning, the craft of discovering and selling music isn’t really an industry. It’s a game. It’s a way of life. It’s solitary hunters chasing their music through wilderness. It’s a marketplace of sellers. It’s preachers and fanatics. It’s collectors, browsers and Saturday strollers.”

In about 300 swiftly moving pages, Mr. Murphy catalogs the ups and downs of the record industry, charting more than 160 years of musical history and territory. He tells the story of the mavericks and the iconoclasts who’ve made the industry thrive — some iconic and some unfamiliar.

He starts at a more obscure beginning — the story of a Frenchman, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, who stumbled upon a physics manuscript in 1853 that diagrammed sound waves and subsequently invented the phonautograph — the first known sound-recording device.

Mr. Murphy then follows Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, who also made changes to the world of sound, and notes the invention of Emile Berliner’s gramophone in the late 1880s. He traces the influx of music during the turn of the century to the influx of immigrants in America.

He chronicles the birth of jazz — a term that initially meant “spirit” or “fizziness” that reflected the zeitgeist of the Roaring ’20s. This is followed by the birth of rock ’n’ roll, R&B, the British Invasion, punk, disco, pub rock and pop, and everything in between, interspersing anecdotes and facts for every genre, every era and every record label.

From the rise of the telegraph industry, the growth of the radio age, the boom of the record player, the introduction of the LP format, to the upswing of the compact disc, Mr. Murphy visits every decade and tracks the way we’ve listened to music for years.

He leaves us at the doorstep of iTunes and Apple products with a nostalgically bitter taste in our mouths about the future of the record industry, which Mr. Murphy claims turned into a “supermarket industry” around the 1990s.

These anecdotes and rags-to-riches stories give dimension to a timeless industry but also to household names we know and love. Everything, from Columbia Records to Elvis Presley, has an elaborate backstory and hinges on economic, historical and cultural context. Everything is connected.

The chronological narrative discusses the history of the record industry against the societal, cultural and political backdrop on both sides of the Atlantic, shining light on the interwoven reality of the effects music has had on politics and culture and vice versa. “Cowboys and Indies” is enlightening and edifying.

The book is reflective of a commendable amount of research by Mr. Murphy, who conducted more than 100 interviews and consulted memoirs, archives and big-name sources to attain such detailed anecdotes, colorful quotes and dozens of archival photos that inject even more life into the narrative.

The book is more than an index of famous names and iconic record labels. It’s a humanistic, historical and cultural approach to an iconic industry. Mr. Murphy shows the business behind the music, and the music behind the business — a rare and insightful treat. He reminds us of the movers, the shakers, the mavericks and the minds behind an industry that’s never ceased to provide comfort in a tumultuous world.

Kate Mishkin: or 412-263-1352.

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?