From race records to hip-hop and beyond: an exploration of the business of recorded music.
Irish music producer Murphy begins his survey in 1853, when the first practicable idea for a sound recording device entered history. Then, the author immediately jumps into the age of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, who took the idea to town. The recording industry began as an adjunct of the machine and not the other way around, though its early practitioners discovered that ditties such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Maple Leaf Rag” did very well in a marketplace curious for technological novelties. Even though, as Murphy notes, “many established singers and entertainers were terrified of this peculiar science,” recordings became a big business, bringing great wealth to studio heads and music publishers—and even some to the artists. The author examines many familiar stories—for one, Sam Phillips’ fire-sale transfer of the rights in Elvis Presley’s recordings to RCA for $40,000, just in time for Elvis’ version of “Blue Suede Shoes” to sell 1 million copies—though he makes an extended case study of the less-well-known saga of Jac Holzman, the mastermind behind Elektra Records, which branched out from folk to rock at just the time Bob Dylan plugged in at Newport. Murphy can be entertainingly dishy, as when, speaking of Dylan, he recounts an ugly spat over the division of spoils between Dylan and budding mogul David Geffen, who sneered, “Bob Dylan is as interested in money as any person I’ve known in my life.” However, Murphy devotes too much space to stars (anyone for yet another Gene Simmons spotting?), with rather by-the-numbers recitations of their rises to fame. The author does not spend enough of the narrative on the behind-the-console and back-office figures who make up any essential crew, the attention to Holzman notwithstanding.
A serviceable, readable overview. There’s not much here that informed music fans—readers of Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus, say—won’t have heard.