Ballad of History's "Record Men" Sings Familiar Tune

Categories: Get Lit

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Photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
L-R: The great record men Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun in 1960
Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry
By Gareth Murphy
Thomas Dunne Books, 400 pp., $27.99

For a music-industry executive, label head, A&R scout, producer or agent, there was once no higher praise than to be known far and wide as a "real record man."

That meant you were someone who wasn't simply concerned with the bottom line of deals and financial figures, but a person who actually gave a shit about the artists and the music they produced -- whether it was something following that week's trend or a piece of work that would outlive anybody involved with its creation.

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Murphy's snappily-written tome features a lot of "real record men." Today, these people's names are familiar mostly to liner-note readers and record heads: John Hammond. Alan Lomax. Henry Speir and Ralph Peer. Sam Phillips. Jac Holzman. Jerry Moss. Ahmet Ertegun. Chris Blackwell. George Martin. Neil Bogart. Seymour Stein. Jerry Moss. Rick Rubin. And the list goes on.

Throw in more business-minded sharks like David Geffen, Clive Davis and Walter Yentikoff, and you've got enough characters with outlandish personalities to populate their own books, which many of them actually already have.

Beginning with the 1857 patent on the "phonoautograph" and the first human voice engraved on glass three years later to the downloading of digital files of today, Murphy's subject matter is nothing if not ambitious, but he manages to pull it off nicely via extensive research through "dead men's letters, and archives, journals, and correspondence."

The result is the ever-evolving story of the record industry and thus of popular culture itself. And while many stories and profiles may be familiar to hardcore music fans - and the narrative speeds through its players at a rapid pace - it is indispensable as a single-volume overview.

Murphy's most entertaining passages chronicle the anything-goes '70s, where cocaine ruled and magazine music editors, DJs and radio program directors could be swayed with a line here, a whore there and a down payment on the house around the corner from record pluggers looking for exposure and chart action. In fact, it made the payola of the '50s look tame by comparison. Want me to come to the private area of Studio 54 to hear about your latest disco disc? You betcha.

As mentioned, Cowboys and Indies is a bit Cliff Notes-y (and has to be) in telling the whole story of the record industry, which has now spanned more than 150 years. But it's an immensely satisfying appetizer, served up on a platter of paper instead of vinyl.


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