Louis Barfe
Where Have All the Good Times Gone?: The Rise and Fall of the Record Industry

Who won between Madonna and musical cyber-pirates? And is Richard Branson really a tightwad?

By Ashish Ghadiali

The decline of the record industry at the hands of pirates making the most of CD-burners and file-sharing sites such as Napster has already become a common theme in the cultural history of the 21st century.

What such histories omit, though, is the idea that this was a continually occurring theme of the last century too, with new technological developments – the rise of radio, recordable cassette and digital compact disc – repeatedly stirring an atmosphere of crisis, slaying industry giants and engendering new evolutions in the way recorded music was received. Even the oil crisis of the early 1970s created a climate of fear amongst the music community, as the vinyl from which records are made is a product of oil.

But with every threat and change the industry has always found a new direction. As Sony's Muff Winwood has said of the current situation: 'the outlook for CDs is poor. For music, it's fine. There will always be music.' Tracing the story of the industry from Edison and the first tin-foil cylinder phonographs through to the concerns raised by EMI and Sony today, Louis Barfe's meticulously researched and clearly written volume offers the evidence to support this claim, without, somehow, ever making it in its own analysis.

It is the strange character of this book that without there being any flaw in terms of historical detail, there is a seeming reluctance to weave all of the history together into a unified narrative. Barfe becomes more engaged with his subject as the story approaches the present, with the result that the dryness of the early chapters develops into a more energetic and personal style as we enter the same time-span as the author's own life.

Looking back over the last 30 years, the book covers potentially familiar territory in a surprising and magically anecdotal way. We discover how Richard Banson was reluctant to shell out £20 for the tubular bells on Mike Oldfield's famous track, which has gone on to sell more than 13 million copies and turned round the fortunes of the Virgin label. We are told that the barrister and novelist John Mortimer got the Sex Pistols off their obscenity charge by showing how the title of their album, Never Mind the Bollocks, was rooted in the ancient sense of the word 'bollocks', meaning 'priests'. We learn that Madonna's response to internet piracy was to make an aggressive mp3 of herself saying 'what the fuck do you think you're doing?' which she then disguised as a track from her new album as a way to guilt trip thieving fans. The new sample became hot property, and its uses can be found at the Madonna remix project website. Rumour has it that the grandam of pop is now trying to license some of these remixes back.

So, undoubtedly full of treats, though on balance the book is perhaps less of a rip-roaring read than a kind of informative textbook on a subject that is sure to interest many readers of the Bear.

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