Cowboys and Indies

The Epic History of the Record Industry

Gareth Murphy

Thomas Dunne Books

Cowboys and Indies is nothing less than the first definitive history of the recording industry on both sides of the Atlantic.

From the invention of the earliest known sound-recording device in 1850s Paris to the CD crash and digital boom today, author and industry insider Gareth Murphy takes readers on an immensely entertaining and encyclopedic ride through the many cataclysmic musical, cultural, and technological changes that shaped a century and a half of the industry.

This invaluable narrative focuses especially on the game changers---the label founders, talent scouts, and legendary A&R men. Murphy highlights:


·         Otto Heinemann’s pioneer label Okeh, which spread blues and jazz “race” records across America

·         how one man, Henry Speir, discovered nearly all the Delta blues legends (Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson)

·         Sam Phillips’s seminal work with Chess and Sun Records

·         John Hammond’s discoveries (Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen)

·         the behind-the-scenes players of the British Invasion

·         Clive Davis, Ahmet Ertegun, David Geffen, and the corporate music machine

·         the Machiavellian moves of punk impresario Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols)

·         Chris Blackwell’s triumphs for Island Records (Bob Marley, U2)

·         Sylvia Robinson and Tom Silverman, the hip-hop explorers behind the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa


…and much, much more. Murphy also offers a provocative look at the future through the ruminations of such vanguard figures as Martin Mills (4AD, XL Recordings, Matador, Rough Trade) and genre-busting producer Rick Rubin (Run-D.M.C., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Johnny Cash).

Drawing from memoirs, archives, and more than one hundred exclusive interviews with the legends of the record industry, including the founders and CEOs of Atlantic, Chrysalis, Virgin, A&M, Sub Pop, and Sire, this book reveals the secret history behind the hit-making craft. Remarkable in scope and impressive in depth, Cowboys and Indies chronicles the pioneers who set the stylus on the most important labels and musical discoveries in history.




Read an Excerpt



The story begins in Paris. The tangled branches—producers, labels, and recording artists—that form the record industry’s genealogical tree can be traced back to one precise point. The year was 1853. In a little bookstore on rue Vivienne, a man was sitting in a chair, reading.

The man, a thirty-six-year-old typesetter named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, was proofreading a physics manuscript. He turned a page and was struck by a diagram of sound waves. Fascinated by these curling lines, he began dreaming of a machin




  • Meet Gareth Murphy, Author of Cowboys and Indies

    Written with the commitment and help of all the greatest label founders and talent spotters alive today, Cowboys and Indies truly is the music business’ bible. Gareth Murphy explores the history and evolution of the ever-changing scene, drawing from memoirs, archives, and over one hundred exclusive interviews with record industry legends. The book reveals the secrets behind the trade, and in the its final chapter – "Revelations" – readers will understand what makes the record business spin.



Praise for Cowboys and Indies

“A must-read for any music lover.”
Parade.com, “20 of the Summer’s Best Books”

“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.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“This lovingly written book…is a celebration of the indie heroes who shaped the industry while giving groundbreaking artists a platform… Like the Last Shop Standing of record labels, Cowboys And Indies tells their story.”
— Record Collector, 5 star review 

“A new, impressively wide-ranging history of the record biz.”
—Eric Alterman, The Nation

"A fascinating account of the way recorded music has evolved, touched people and helped shape popular culture as we know it today.”
—Sir George Martin, legendary record producer, arranger, composer, conductor, audio engineer and musician

“Record labels, at their best, are invariably driven by the taste, the personality, and the ambition of one man, or woman - this book fascinatingly charts their course, their perversity, their bloody mindedness. It's those men, those labels, that found and broke the artists who have created our musical world.”
—Martin Mills, founder of Beggar's Group

“Just when you thought the record label beast was dead and buried, along comes Gareth Murphy with a tour de force that makes you almost want to dance with that devil again. Through COWBOYS AND INDIES, new artists will get a sense of history that will enlighten their success and lessen the pain of being ripped off!”
—Andrew Loog Oldham, Rolling Stones producer, Immediate Records founder

"Murphy captures the ever-changing nature of the record industry as it ebbs and flows with trends, technology and time... He lets the record execs, producers, and talent scouts tell their own stories, giving this work a personal feel and providing music lovers with first-hand accounts of how many great artists were discovered, what it is like when labels fight over bands, and the perilous nature of being too big or too small... Through setting out to document the lineage of the record industry, which he's done, Murphy has as well created a history of popular music told from the inside out to give music fans and historians a new and dynamic perspective of this oft-covered topic.”
Publishers Weekly

Cowboys and Indies details the juicy history and monumental egos of record companies…[it is] a fascinating subject and is packed with interesting facts …a worthwhile read.”
Montreal Gazette

“Gareth Murphy’s Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry comes just as billed…this is a rich and rewarding tale, a survey course on the history of recorded music.”
Relix Magazine

"Snappily-written...The result is the ever-evolving story of the record industry and thus of popular culture itself...it is indispensable as a single-volume overview...it's an immensely satisfying appetizer, served up on a platter of paper instead of vinyl."
— The Houston Press

"Spectacular, compelling, evocative - this book places you at the heart of the record industry's defining moments. Far more than a recounting of the history, it's an artful and long-overdue look at the fantastic characters, companies, and shifting cultures that have given birth to the soundtrack of modern life. Essential reading."
—Craig Kallman, CEO at Atlantic Records

“Thought I knew everything about the music business. Must admit, I learned quite a bit inside these pages. Highly recommended!”
—Seymour Stein, co-founder and chairman of Sire Records

Cowboys & Indies passionately tells the story of those driven individuals who trusted their own taste and instincts and, in turning a deaf ear to the commonplace, gave shape to the world of modern music. Essential reading!”
—Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra

"If this book was a group, I would definitely sign them. It is that good."
—Geoff Travis, founder of Rough Trade 

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Gareth Murphy

  • Gareth Murphy was raised in Dublin surrounded by music and the musicians with whom his father worked as a concert promoter. A graduate of University College Dublin, Murphy has worked at various record companies and has produced thirty electronic compilations. Composing and producing original music, he is a freelance writer and researcher for journals and think tanks. Murphy lives in Paris with his wife and four-year-old son.

  • Gareth Murphy © Judith Azoulay


Available Formats and Book Details

Cowboys and Indies

The Epic History of the Record Industry

Gareth Murphy



Thomas Dunne Books