Guest post: Gareth Murphy on Cowboys & Indies
Ahead of a hometown appearance, the Dublin author of an exceptional history of the record business talks about the process of history repeating itself
Gareth Murphy is the author of Cowboys & Indies, a fascinating book about the wild mavericks, wide-eyed dreamers, Machiavellian messers, ruthless hard-chaws and entertaining head-the-balls who created and shaped the record industry. Ahead of his hometown appearance at the Dalkey Book Festival on Sunday June 14, Gareth talks about the process behind the book, the intriguing idea of how history repeated itself in the record business and the recent visit of Nemesis to Dalkey.
Bringing it all back home, the Dalkey Book Festival provides a poignant setting for my Irish landing. Before emigrating to France in 1995, I grew up in Dalkey, which back then was a different place – wilder and slightly lost in time thanks to its community of eccentric old Protestant families. When I left, the jet set was only just moving in, their iron gates and security cameras hadn’t yet been installed. The story of why I quit 1990s Dublin may some day be the subject of further writing. Suffice to say, that I now return to my old town hall with a book – the one with the arrow on its cover.
Five years ago, when I began what would become Cowboys and Indies, the music world was in nuclear meltdown. The conventional wisdom at the time was that nothing like internet piracy had been experienced before. For those of us who worked in records, this was the end of the world as we knew it. Time to get normal jobs.
Or was it? Suddenly, a book made perfect sense, some kind of milestone reality check that would point us towards a better future. Seeking answers at first for myself, I checked into the nearest library – absorbed, determined and unconcerned about what the commercial market of literary publishing might want to read. I spent months digging up the forgotten past, before blues, right to where record production was born in the vaudeville era. To accurately map the true story of music as seen from the inside, I had to cut through all the lazy rock mythology that has us believe it all started with Robert Johnson at the crossroads.
It was in the lost world of gramophones that I made my first game-changing discovery. I’ll never forget that shock of paradigm shift when the bigger picture suddenly jolted into place. There was a giant record crash before, as seismic as the recent one and eerily similar in the way it happened. With the arrival of the wireless in the 1920s, a young generation of radio geeks began flooding the airwaves with free music. Blindsided by this teenage wave, the Victorian gramophone corporations slid into an angry decline as their opera stars pointlessly boycotted radio. Even weirder was the surrounding socio-economic context of both record crashes; twice in one century, the music business collapsed just before Wall Street, like a canary in a coal mine.
Here was my cue to go knocking on doors in New York, Los Angeles and London. Did the most powerful players of today’s music industry know all this? Turns out not one of them did, but they were interested enough to read my drafts. One by one, they introduced me to their peers and began helping. And so the second half of Cowboys and Indies was written in close collaboration with nearly all of the last surviving pioneers, those who founded the iconic labels and discovered the greatest artists of the last half century.
Getting to know these “record men”, as they’re affectionately termed in record business tradition, I was struck by their faith in music as medicine for the masses. These were the last remaining kings of the music world who were never in it for the money. In fact, the recent crash confirmed what they’d been saying since the 1990s: that all the corporate greed and celebrity culture would destroy music and possibly ruin a generation.
However, my struggle was not over. Even with the moral support of the industry’s most respected leaders, I needed a book publisher. A series of lucky accidents – again involving networks of fanatical records collectors – lead me to my literary guardian angel, a Macmillan VP in New York’s Flatiron Building. After an American release was secured, more flukes brought me to another literary muso at Serpent’s Tail in London, arguably the most cutting edge British imprint for music literature. From there, key authorities in the media all over the world just kept connecting.
How many times along that long road did I get the feeling the universe wanted this book to happen? Running on empty, lights still kept turning green. Sounds crazy I’m sure, but that’s how it felt, and in Dalkey Town Hall in a few weeks, I hope to tell all the background stories I couldn’t divulge in the publicity campaign.
Timing is everything in music and the book’s release coincided with a number of industry developments which, I think it’s fair to say, have validated the book’s overarching ideas. Perspective has come. The record business lobbies have begun seeing the computer giants not as existential threats, but rather as new broadcasters who must now be regulated. Even the computer giants themselves are coming to the same conclusion; to stay on top they need a steady supply of hot music from healthy, innovative record labels. They’ve even begun turning their attentions to traditional radio stations who better understand how broadcasting works. After 15 years of crisis, the seeds of recovery have sprouted, and now, we reach the pivotal point in this slow, painful renaissance.
An intriguing name was recently whispered to me: Nemesis, the ancient Greek goddess of retribution who punishes all who succumb to hubris. The context was Tidal, the twice-the-price Spotify copy launched in April by Jay Z, Kayne West, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Madonna, Daft Punk and various other deluded spoiled brats. Within hours of their grotesque launch declaring a tide change of artist power, the internet surged into a tsunami of disgust. As if today’s young adults, currently experiencing poverty levels not seen since the Great Depression, can afford $20 per month for higher definition audio, let alone the speakers to hear the difference.
But Nemesis had already paid a visit to Dalkey. Amid the court intrigue, she hid inside that $100 million Apple deal. When U2, hungry for young blood, bit in expecting relief from their downward spiral, the public backlash was unparalleled in music history. Had Apple instead given away, say, the Beatles’ white album, people would have been happy, but the severity of U2′s humiliation was years coming. Plenty of multi-millionaire rock bands dodge tax, but only one also campaigns for the poor. The thing about Nemesis is that, like the Buddhist law of karma, no amount of PR redemption can reverse what is inescapable. She is judgement for those above the law.
These vast and spontaneous revolts against music business hubris reveal how the single biggest impediment to recovery is not piracy. It is the public’s broken faith. We can haggle over subscription prices and tinker with the laws that govern technology, but the underlying problem is that our star system is broken – morally and creatively. Which brings us full circle to the big question, how do we clean up the temple and restore faith?