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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review: The Sound of the City - The Rise of Rock and Roll by Charlie Gillett

Book Review:
The Sound of the City - The Rise of Rock and Roll
 by Charlie Gillett

  Something that is amazing to me is that 9/10 local musicians are incredibly knowledgeable about bands and songs and equally ignorant about the history and structure of the music industry.  For me it is the opposite- I know there will always be tons of people who care more about ANY band/album/song then me, so I don't bother to compete in that department.  On the other hand, I've learned a ton of lessons from the "history of rock and roll" that I've been able to directly apply in my own semi-pro career operating a record label.

  My favorite lessons from the history of rock and roll are 1) avoiding the situation where an indie label has one hit artist and spends all of that artists' money putting out the records of less lucrative artists, using the royalty money owed to the successful artist to subsidize the less successful artists.  2) The incredible ability of the "major" labels of the era to take the most successful artists from independent labels of that same era.  

  One fact from the early history of rock and roll is that very many indie labels have had hit records in the rock and roll era, but very few were still around five years after the hit. Failure is very common, success is always fleeting. That doesn't mean history inexorably repeats itself, you only have to be familiar with the bare outlines of the history of the rock and roll era to understand that changes in technology and distribution can make it more or less difficult for major labels to cherry pick the most successful indie artists.

  I would argue that the "internet era" is most amenable to the rise of indie labels since the early rock era, where a sluggish, complacent post-War record industry virtually ignored the early stirring of rock and rhythm and blues to the benefit of a number of regional record companies. Over time, the major labels of the early to mid 1960s reacted and adapted to the various changes in the composition of the rock market- notably the 'british invasion' of the early mid 1960s, the bonafide success of Motown records and the "hippie rock" revolution in the mid to late 1960s.   These three episodes were aftershocks of the initial youth-quake/emergence of rock and roll as a thing that existed.

  By the beginning of the 1970s, the major labels had essentially gotten a handle on the rock and roll situation and began a basically unchallenged dominance of the market that lasted until the dawn of the internet era itself.  The Sound of the City takes you from the antecedents of rock until the dawn of the 1970s, when the "rise of rock and roll" is essentially complete.  Author Charlie Gillett is a well regard authority on the subject of rock history, and his book is admirably complete.

  There are only a few unsteady moments, such as when he tries to describe late 60s garage rock as "punk." ( he understands what he's talking about, but seems to shy away from using "garage rock" for some reason.)  His perspective often discusses the contribution of independent labels, but typically it's a situation where you get a paragraph sketch of the back story, and then a paragraph about their one or two hit records/artists and that is the end of the story.

  Although the description of various independent labels can be cursory, his discussion of the underlying structure of the music industry and how it reacted (or didn't react) to rock and roll is priceless and I think it's probably the last word on the back-and-forth that went on in the United States and England/UK between the first rock and roll records and the early 1970s, when rock had secured its place in the music industry.

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