The record industry is in crisis, its moguls and their spokesmen would have us believe. Swift action and stern measures are needed. But what sort of crisis? Should we be stockpiling food? A Channel 4 news presenter was once asked what bothered him most in the world. After a rapid mental survey of war, famine, the Aids pandemic, the debased condition of our political class, he plumped for ground elder. These things are relative.
It may be, then, that some very rich people are having to assess whether mooring rights at Antibes are better value than those in the Bahamas. But the UK record industry is taking things seriously enough to do something rather extraordinary on the face of it: it has announced its intention to sue some of its customers, those who are making available free music downloads via the internet. As Louis Barfe's survey of record industry travails points out, when they tried this in America, the result was a great deal of publicity for two unlikely felons - a 12-year-old girl from New York and a 71-year-old Texan who imprudently allowed his grandchildren free rein with his computer.
Barfe also demonstrates, in his impressive survey of the record industry's first 130 years, that crises are the very lifeblood of businesses such as record manufacture, compelling participants to regenerate, adapt, innovate, improvise and all those things business is supposed to be so good at and which justify the substantial rewards bestowed on its practitioners. There was the question of the round cylinder versus the flat disc, the 78 or the long-player, stereo, quadraphonic, the compact disc: crises are a cause for concern but hardly constitute a crisis.
Barfe starts with the dawn of the technology, which owes more than a little to Thomas Edison. As often happens in the inventing game, more than one person came up with the same idea around the same time. Frenchman Charles Cros was the other bright spark. He lodged his theory of sound reproduction with the Academie des Sciences in 1877, three months before Edison's phonograph experiments, but published his findings only after Edison had applied for a US patent. No one suspects gazumping, but no one can really say who invented the thing, either.
Initially Edison did not know what to do with his new toy. He listed ten uses, with music reproduction coming fifth behind letter writing, dictation, book reading for the blind and elocution instruction. Contemporaries speculated that Edison was more likely to be remembered for his electric pen-wiper. Nor, when the implications of a sound-recording device became clear, was it universally hailed as a good idea. The New York Times said of Edison: "Recently he invented the phonograph, a machine that catches the lightest whisper of conversation and stores it up, so that at any future time it can be brought out, to the confusion of the original speaker."
One can see the problem. "Weapons of mass destruction? Did I really say that?" The Spectator raised a philosophical objection to vie with the damage done to political standing, agonising over "bottling up their voices for the ears of our posterity, as well as making their forms visible to future generations, till 'earth is sick and Heaven is weary'". The fact that there is so much past floating around can fairly be laid at the door of Edison.
Among the many delights in Barfe's book are the accounts of owners of this new technology scurrying around trying to find something to record. The earliest extant musical recording is thought to be of a performance of Handel's Israel in Egypt from the Crystal Palace in 1888, after which music - and particularly opera stars - became an obvious way of filling up wax cylinders. The Gramophone & Typewriter Co. (later His Master's Voice, with Nipper the dog its trademark) was a London-based outfit that around the turn of the 20th century sent its man Fred Gaisberg out to nobble opera singers. In 1902 Caruso was captured, in 1904 Nellie Melba, and the next year Adelina Patti was bearded in her Welsh castle. She was apparently entranced by the sound of her voice, cooing to the recording trumpet: "Ah! Mon Dieu! Maintenant je comprends pourquoi je suis Patti! Quelle voix!"
The human voice had a frequency range and timbre particularly congenial to early recording techniques, but stringed basses, for example, were hopeless, and in some ensembles had to be replaced by tubas. By and by, however, the technology developed, a wider range of instruments could be recorded, and the rest is the history that can be found on any domestic bookshelf (where the books used to be).
Alongside the science, Barfe provides much gossipy stuff about squabbles inside and between rival record labels during the second half of the 20th century. Decca is a source of much piquant anecdotage, and the story of that label's failure to sign the Beatles is evocatively told. That the Beatles were signed by EMI may intriguingly have hinged on George Harrison's laconic response to George Martin questioning whether there was anything the band didn't like about the session: "I don't like your tie."
Perhaps understandably, Barfe finds the pop world a richer source of recyclable myth than classical music recording, and after Caruso et al have sung their last, classical hardly gets a look in. Indeed, the brusque and questionable statement "The classical canon has largely been recorded in unmatchable performances, so further recordings of the same repertoire do not make economic sense" is a clear warning that Barfe's is not the book in which to seek an analysis of the state, woeful or otherwise, of classical music recording. But for an entertaining history of a world-altering invention, and an insight into the realities of how to make a record label make money, look no further.
Christopher Wood is a freelance writer on music and film.
Where Have All the Good Times Gone?: The Rise and Fall of the Record Industry
Author - Louis Barfe
Publisher - Atlantic
Pages - 396
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 1 84354 065 7