Cowboys and Indies: A Talk with Gareth Murphy


The minute I finished Cowboys and Indies:  An Epic History of the Record Industry (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) I thought to myself, who is this Gareth Murphy?  I’ve read a lot of books about record labels, changes in the music industry, and musical genres and eras, but a book that takes it all on, and nails it?  Who is this nutter, and when can I talk to him?  Well, the time is now…

Music Lit 101:  Your book “Cowboys and Indies” is subtitled “The Epic History of the Record Industry.” It is an apt subtitle for a book that covers the industry’s history in 359 pages. Did you ever feel like you’d bit off more than you could chew when you were researching and writing the book?

Gareth Murphy:  Yes, taking on such a huge time frame was pretty crazy. Two journalist friends, both excellent writers, warned me that I was embarking on something that I might never finish. But I loved my subject, and love will last the distance. I sensed there were secrets about the nature of the music business out there. And I wasn’t going to give up until the job was properly done. It became clear from early on that to see the bigger picture, the story needed to go way beyond rock n roll, to a world long before Elvis and baby boomers. I also needed to interview as many pioneers while they were still alive, and basically let the record business tell its own story. The whole thing was like a giant jigsaw puzzle that I had to crack.

The research alone took about two years. At one point, the manuscript was up to around 650 pages, until I found a publisher who insisted that I edit it down to a manageable size. The third year was mostly focused on the narrative; reading, combing, condensing, shaping, cutting out the fat, re-reading, correcting, re-reading. As my wife will confirm, it was an epic project. But the adjective “epic” in the subtitle, is actually a reference to the book’s format. Like the The Odyssey or Ulysses, each chapter in Cowboys and Indies is its own individual adventure through some particular land. Yet there are common threads throughout. The whole starts to make sense as you get towards the end.

One of the characters, Seymour Stein, called up and ran through a speech idea he had for the book’s launch. “It’s a text-book,” he began, “but it reads like an adventure story. It’s like a swashbuckler’s book for boys.” I think he was worried I might take his description badly. But he nailed it. I never set out to write an Encyclopedia for scholars. I figured that if the kings of the music world got excited about this book, if it spoke to them in their own language, then it would probably inspire teenagers to get into the business too.

So this book is technically a history book covering 130 years of pioneers, formats and hit records. But really this book is all about today. It’s a road map to hopefully get us out of the desert we find ourselves in.

Music Lit 101:  In the early days of the record industry, records seem to have been primarily produced to help sell the player, not the music itself. Is that still the case or has that changed over the years?

Gareth:  It’s cyclical. Every time some new machine or format hits the market, a particular generation is hooked. It happened with the phonograph, the 78, the radio, the Long Player, the compact disc, iPods. It happens every 20-25 years or so – what you might call a generational unit. But there comes a point in every gadget’s life, when the magic wears off – usually as prices fall and everyone has them. By that point, the supply of music is abundant, the competition has shifted to content. A dense marketplace of producers are busily chasing the hits.

It first happened around 1910 when the phonograph market stabilised, thanks in large part to the dominance of the Victrola. Once there were millions of players in people’s homes, there were major international stars selling millions of records, like Enrico Caruso. That template has kept repeating itself over and over ever since. It’s just like razors and blades.

Music Lit 101:  Technology has always played a large role in shaping the record industry. What do you see driving the next big sea change in the industry?

Gareth:  I wish I knew! It could be just that: massive migrations caused by rising sea levels! Or a religious war. My guess, however, is that cultural events, and not technology, will be responsible for the big recovery.  Or it could be a new drug. Or some big wave of feeling amongst tomorrow’s teenagers. Who knows? Technological revolutions only really tend destroy old markets and clear the field for something new. But it’s people who make booms happen.

The last catastrophic record crisis was provoked mainly by the arrival of radio in the 1920s. It ended with the Second World War. It was the anxiety of war that brought the almost dead record business back to life. Families were separated by war, and in that loneliness and fear, music became medicinal. Sales went through the roof in the forties, and continued growing all the way to the end of the century.

We can never predict these types of events. We know we’re at a very low tide right now – the worst since the 1930s, but market conditions have improved slightly in the last few years.

Lawyers, lobbyists, and CEOs will definitely play their part in the law making process. In the Great Depression, the musicians union, ASCAP lobbied and sued the all-powerful radio corps to pay royalties for airplay. It was small victory at the time, but it helped point the crisis to recovery. At the same time, RCA and CBS were slowly realising that they needed music to sustain their spectacular growth. So, they invested in record production. There was a push and pull effect.

I believe the same thing is happening today. Steve Jobs understood the interdependence between hardware makers and music producers. Sadly, he died too soon. Today’s IT corps will kick and scream because they’re young, arrogant, and above the law. But in the end, the likes of Google will have to work with producers because, like the radio corps of old, they can’t keep selling advertising without new music.

Music Lit 101:  In your book you highlight a variety of label heads, talent scouts and A&R men, as a record industry vet yourself what do you think draws people to work at record labels?

Gareth:  People get into the music business for different reasons. And there are wide variety of record labels out there. Luck is the number one factor in most people’s destinies. But generally, people gravitate to the particular corner of the business they feel most excited by. For example, David Geffen began as an agent and I think, throughout his career as a label boss, he was always more into the stars than the records. I can think of  others like him. Mo Ostin, Clive Davis; these execs have a taste for celebrity and the show biz lifestyle. I don’t think they sit at home listening to records.

But amongst the indie founders and talent scouts, the principle motivation is the music itself. The typical indie founder or A&R person was a teenager who collected records. None of them set up a record label to get rich. As a business model, the risks are insane. Even the most successful labels barely break even most of the time. So it’s all about passion and adventure. This is why, I suspect, you get so many migrants, agnostic Jews, gays, and other outsiders. It’s not a career. I remember the boss of A&M’s UK label, Derek Green, describing what he’d look for when he was hiring staff. “If they ever asked me what the hours were,” he explained, “I’d NEVER give them the job. It’s a life!”

Music Lit 101:  You devote a large part of your book to one such industry titan, John Hammond. What made him such an influential player in the industry for so long?

Gareth:  It’s almost hard to believe that one guy was responsible for discovering Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Aretha Franklyn, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and others. Actually, the very first book I read before I put a pen to paper was John Hammond’s autobiography. It had a huge effect on me, and probably inspired the direction of my subsequent research. He was a Vanderbilt heir and a NAACP board member. He believed that jazz and folk would make America respect black people. He was a crusader. But Hammond was a trained musician and a writer, so he heard music and lyrics in a way that his peers probably didn’t. He also knew his history. All these things gave him an edge, not least the fact he had family trust funds to help finance his adventures.

I think John Hammond set a standard that influenced the entire rock n roll business. One other titan who knew and looked up to John Hammond was Jerry Wexler. It’s strange that both Hammond and Wexler began as journalists – both gifted writers in fact. I think nearly all of  the important record men of the last 60 sixty years were erudite, eloquent crusaders. Rick Rubin struck me as that kind of person too. Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis is an English example. “The only way to run a record label is to have faith in your judgement,”  he told me. “But your judgement has to be informed by a lifetime of work.” All the guys I interviewed, were fascinated by the story of John Hammond. Because he’s proof that record men can make a real difference.

Music Lit 101:  The 1960’s seem to have been a seminal time in the record industry, one driven as much by the artist as the medium. Why do you think that was the case?

Gareth:  It was a type of perfect storm. The funny thing is, all the audio-visual innovations we associate with the sixties, like colour television, stereo sound, multi-tracking, and electric guitars were invented in the thirties and forties. LSD was even discovered during the war. But suddenly all these diverse things became possible, affordable, available. I don’t think however, that “the sixties” would have exploded in the way they did without the underlying baby boom. For the first time ever, a generation vastly outnumbered their parents during a period of rapid economic growth and cultural change. Which is why early sixties pop music was so juvenile, and why it matured so rapidly towards the late sixties. Pop culture documented a huge and wealthy generation growing up and taking over. There hasn’t been a party like it since. But let’s not allow sixties nostalgia to lessen the importance of the jazz explosion, forty years earlier. Jazz was just as important culturally, and arguably more-so as a musical innovation.

Music Lit 101:  The late 1980’s in contrast seem to have been the decade of corporate consolidation of the industry. What effect did that have on the industry both financially and creatively?

Gareth:  From the 1980s onwards, American Top 40 radio became controlled by independent pluggers, whose exorbitant fees could only be afforded by the majors. Big money ruled the airwaves. At the same time, the compact disc doubled prices and sparked a wave of corporate buy-outs. The thing is, if you talk to UK indies, the eighties were a golden age, because there wasn’t this payola system on English radio. Also, for the first hip hop labels in New York, the eighties were where it all began. So the decade was a crossroads: corporate concentration and million-dollar payola at the top of the industry, while all these small indies were busily supplying America’s underground stores with alternative music: hip hop, indie rock, early techno, the first grunge records. Unfortunately, in the nineties, the corps just got bigger and bigger, then the retail market changed. The indies really struggled to fight back. I believe that whole process lead to the public’s loss of faith. Piracy has thrived ever since, because a generation grew up with brands, plastic stars, and music as audio merchandise. We’re still paying for it today.

Music Lit 101:  You clearly interviewed a lot of people for this book. Was there any one person who you felt helped you understand the industry as a whole better?

Several collaborators proved very important. Simon Draper, the ears behind Virgin Records was the first person to read one of my 260,000 word drafts and tell me this could be an “important” book if edited wisely. At the time, I didn’t have a publisher, and was seriously wondering about what I’d got myself into. So his positive help came at a crucial time. Incidentally, he was one of those academically minded A&R men who was fascinated by the story of John Hammond. He’s also a South African who’s lived in the UK since 1970. He advised me to better explain the cultural differences between the American and UK markets, and how both markets interacted. A bit later, Seymour Stein, Jerry Moss, and Dave Robinson gave me some great insights into England’s musical world – probably because, like Simon Draper, they weren’t English, yet worked in the UK. The whole book really benefited from these inside angles that only the outsiders at the top could see.

On the question of why so many people in the record business were Jewish, Rick Rubin gave me some invaluable angles that shaped the conclusion of the book. Geoff Travis was another key contributor. He actually proof read the final draft, and found loads of mistakes! Jac Holzman was very supportive and read about two drafts along the way, flagging errors and making suggestions. But I think, Martin Mills has a special place in all this. Don’t forget, when I was interviewing everyone, Adele was the biggest selling artist in the world. I’m sure money was gushing into his office through every window. But he was available. He opened doors, and was a such a gentleman. Martin Mills gave me probably the most important thing of all: a renewed faith in the future of the record business. He was the man of the moment and his support made me feel invincible.

Music Lit 101:  How is Martin Mills continuing to shape the record industry?

Gareth:  In a number of capacities. He’s chairman of Beggars Group, a federation of hot labels: XL Recordings, Rough Trade, Matador, 4AD. These labels have some of the coolest acts in the world. He also has interests in various other spheres like distribution and the Rough Trade shops. But it’s in times of crisis when the true leaders shine. Since the record crisis began, he’s set up Merlin, a platform enabling small indies to access all the digital stores. He fought the Universal buyout of EMI and helped convince the European Union of antitrust concerns. Right now, he’s lobbying for indies to get a better deal off Google when indie tracks get played on YouTube. I watched him operate at A2iM, America’s indie conference where Cowboys and Indies was first presented. There he was in the crowd listening to younger players. In the corridors, he was available for advice. At the party, he was introducing people. He does the same in London and Europe, where he’s involved with similar organisations like AIM and Impala.

He represents a certain ethic. He doesn’t have an assistant. He answers all his emails himself. He uses his money and connections to make things happen for others. The amount of people he’s helped and mentored is quite amazing in itself. Everyone loves him. The most impressive things I heard about Martin Mills were off the record. He’s saved quite a few souls on the high seas.

Music Lit 101:  The digital distribution of music has changed the dynamic between artists and record companies over the past decade. Do musicians still need record companies?

Gareth:  You have to look at the question from a musician’s point of view. In a record contract, you don’t actually see the term “record company”. The legal term is “Producer”, hence the (P) symbol you see on the back of album sleeves, or embedded in your MP3s.

The nature of talent is to reach for the top. Talent wants to be on a hot label, it wants to record in a proper studio, it wants to be on the radio, it wants videos, it wants to be in films and on TV, it wants to sell out a theatre in city near you. Getting to that level requires finance, advice, discipline, experience, staff. Good producers are types of midwives. They have rare human, artistic and business gifts that can transform raw talent. It’s not a science, most signatures lose money. But producers know how it’s done because they’ve done it many times before.

Cynics might not like this idea. We like to think of artists as nihilists. Back in the days of MySpace, around about 2005, we all thought musicians would produce themselves. We all imagined the public finding their own bands. But that Utopia didn’t happen. Because, people are not A&R men. So for as long as artists need producers, and people can’t find better music than A&R men, there will always be a music business.

The billion dollar question is more about whether the modern public feels musicians are losers who deserve to be poor. I’ve noticed that every person I know who spends hours and hours downloading music illegally, always has some big excuse. “Record labels ripped me off for years with $20 dollar CDs, etc.” But they same people will not bat an eye lid spending $5 for a Starbucks coffee. I don’t believe there’s any kind of moral significance to this. If they could take the coffee without paying for it, they would. So, digital distribution has only really crashed into an old system in which artists got paid. Nothing else has really changed.

These days, most musicians are very poor, and until we wake up and realise that we should be stealing the coffee instead, we will remain slaves in a corporate world. Computers have empowered us in some ways, but this revolution has mostly strengthened the IT corps. The likes of Google have become the new colonial empires, sapping the world’s ideas for their own profit. We’re all being profiled as consumers. We need a new Bob Dylan to wake people up to what’s happening. And it’s only a matter of time, before one comes along – probably spotted and developed by the next John Hammond!





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