Flanagan's wake

VH1 vice president's novel about the music business mourns an era just since passed

When attacking the music business, one need not even break a sweat. After all, how hard is it to land a punch or a thousand upon a bloated carcass that can no longer move? In the not-so-distant future--maybe a decade from now, or a year from now, or the day before yesterday--the music business as we know it will cease to exist. The days of record companies signing bands, releasing their records, recouping their meager advances, and breaking promises will have passed. The concept will be as foreign to future generations as porn is to priests. CDs and, yes, even MP3s will have gone the way of the reel-to-reel and the eight-track. Napster will be a nickname given to the narcoleptic.

There will be no record labels, as they all will have merged into a single, multinational entity run by a corporation that also manufactures missiles, beer, network television programming, American Online content, Rolling Stone magazine, and sex dolls indistinguishable from the real thing. CD stores, rendered irrelevant in the post-MP3 millennium, will become parking lots or liquor stores. Label employees--from A&R men who think broadband means Sleater-Kinney to publicists who'd sell pork to rabbis--and music journalists will become pimps and prostitutes; finally, an honest living. The lawsuits will have piled up--the Recording Industry Association of America will have abolished two of a thousand MP3-swapping Web sites, Metallica and Dr. Dre will have destroyed those fans who dared to pick pennies from their gold-lined pockets--and the corpses will be buried beneath the paperwork.

Though you can't see it while walking through the aisles at Best Buy, the music industry is committing suicide, and from the sidelines, Bill Flanagan writes its epitaph. Mind you, Flanagan does so from a corporate suite--his leather-padded, cable-ready box seat is paid for by VH1, where Flanagan is senior vice president--but he's fan enough to know the light at the end of the tunnel is just hell's glowing embers. Not so long ago, Flanagan was editor-in-chief at Musician magazine, the last American rock-and-roll publication that mattered, and not only if you wanted to know the kind of drum heads Ginger Baker used. As a rock journalist and author of the 1986 book Written in My Soul, he wrote like a fan; the protagonists of Written in My Soul were Willie Dixon, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Lou Reed, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell--"rock's great songwriters," as the cover heralds.

"I do feel like we're at the end of something," Bill Flanagan says of the music business.
Stefan Studer
"I do feel like we're at the end of something," Bill Flanagan says of the music business.

But it is 14 years later, and Bill Flanagan has a new book in stores--this time, with a hero named Jim Cantone, who runs the artist-and-repertoire division of a fictional music company, WorldWide Records. Jim's both good guy and bad: He's the man who signs bands and watches them fade in the cutout bins; he promises them the world and delivers Toledo. Perhaps, then, the true hero in Flanagan's novel--A&R, which might stand for "Assault and Robbery" after all--is a flamboyant but vestigial music-industry figure named Wild Bill DeGaul, who has a golden ear but a blind eye. DeGaul doesn't see it coming when his second-in-command, Jack Booth, wrests control of WorldWide from the palms of his soft hands. Only, Booth isn't necessarily evil: He's immoral, yes, but he's perhaps the only man in the entire novel who understands that the future of the music business is in business, not music. DeGaul still believes in the healing powers of rock and roll, but no band in the world can mend the wounds inflicted upon him by his Brutus.

If this all seems a bit melodramatic, it isn't really. A&R is the hyperbolic battle for good and evil, and the music business runs on equal parts of both. Flanagan writes as though he's bidding farewell to an old friend who was a lovable pain in the ass. By the novel's end, even true believer Cantone can't bring himself to give much of a damn: "Hippie jam band," the A&R man comments about one demo tape. "Not as good as a lot of acts who don't sell anyway. Of another, he insists, "Female rocker. If Bob Seger were a girl. Too 1998." Also caught up in this feud is an up-and-coming band signed by Cantone (Jerusalem, which might be mistaken for the New Bohemians); a toiling A&R scout named Zoey Pavlov, who exists on a diet of nightclubs and caffeine; and the toadies and lackeys who keep convincing themselves they aren't extinct, though they can smell their own burning flesh.

"I do feel like we're at the end of something," Flanagan is saying over the phone, from his office in New York. During the course of this hour-long interview, Flanagan never once puts anyone on hold, despite the fact that his other line emits a beep every few minutes. No doubt, it's someone at VH1 who wants to talk about a forthcoming episode of Storytellers or Legends, both of which he oversees. Flanagan also likes to describe himself as the cable outlet's "resident historian." Given A&R's subject matter--the beginning of the end of the business as we know and love it--it seems an apt job description.

"I'm sure that something else will come and replace the music industry, and whatever comes to replace it will be bigger and better, and I'm enough of an optimist to think that it's going to allow more artists more access," Flanagan says, revving up (he still speaks like a writer, searching for his lead). "It'll be something like the Internet; it'll be something to allow people to bust open the gates and knock down the gatekeepers and be able to hear all kinds of music, whether it was made in a million-dollar studio or whether it was made in somebody's bedroom. But we're not there right now, and I think the record business is in sort a terrible moment of convulsion and insecurity.

"The people who have to make the decisions about what music to sign and what music to support all feel that they're going to get fired tomorrow. They think they're going to get downsized, or the company they've worked for for 20 years is about to be absorbed into another company that probably has nothing to do with the music business. Therefore, they don't feel they have the freedom to sign the Neil Young, a Bob Dylan, a Bruce Springsteen--someone who's going to require a long time to develop and a long time to find their audience. So for the sake of hanging on to their jobs or the perfectly understandable reason to make sure their children don't go hungry, they're saying, 'I don't have time to get a new Lou Reed, if I'm lucky enough to find one and have time to develop him. All I can do is get me a Mouseketeer.'"

This is the background against which A&R is set: the world of pre-teens playing sex-you-up, cashing in before anyone can say longevity. It's a world in which Lenny Waronker (the DreamWorks boss who signed the eels and Rufus Wainwright and Elliott Smith, thinking it's still 1978 at Warner Bros.) climbs into bed with Edgar Bronfman, the man who began merging the music world out of existence in January 1999, when he welded Universal Music Group to Polygram and created a one-eyed monster. It's a world in which art is some guy's name, A&M is just a university in College Station, and a C-note is just a hundred-dollar bill. The subculture is sunk; the Beatles and Bob Dylan are exhibits in a museum, the revolution safely behind glass.

Or, as Flanagan says, "the invasion, the conquering of the music business by the counterculture, has had a great 30-, 35-year run, and now it's about over. Now, Doris Day and Mitch Miller and 'How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?' are kind of coming back. And the record business is going back to being what it used to be--entertainment, here today and gone tomorrow. It's a catchy song on the radio, and it's got a good beat, and you can dance to it."

The cynic might claim that Flanagan sheds crocodile tears. After all, he's no longer a rock journalist; he's climbed up the music-biz food chain, out of the basement and into the apartment next to Carson Daly's bachelor pad. He no longer calls publicists and begs for records; he now works for a company that, in essence, sells them. Ask Leif Garrett and Mötley Crüe, whose Behind the Music episodes convinced them and an audience they were somehow relevant again. Or Don Henley, who last month released Inside Job, his first album in 11 years, and was more ubiquitous on VH1 than episodes of The List.

Flanagan doesn't disagree with the notion that he has become part of the industry; he doesn't dispute his ascension in the ranks. But he insists he is still on the side of right, working for a company that gives Tom Waits and Elvis Costello their own Storytellers, despite the low ratings (a meager 400,000 viewers for Waits' episode). He insists he is less the problem than the solution, and perhaps he is right; simply because he has moved to a more powerful medium doesn't mean he sold his soul for a better view. But Flanagan can afford to lament the passing of the industry, because he works for one of the companies bringing the shovels to the funeral: VH1 is owned by Viacom, which owns CBS Television, Paramount Pictures, Infinity Broadcasting, Blockbuster Entertainment, Simon and Schuster, TV Networks, and myriad other powerful old- and new-media outlets.

"I was 40 years old when I came to VH1, and I didn't have an awful lot of illusions about the business," Flanagan says. "At the same time, I really believed there are great artists, and I believe there are great people at the record companies who are in it because they love music and are in it because they're fighting for good music. In the 10 years that I was at Musician magazine, I made many friends who work at record companies who are managers, who are A&R men, and I have friends who are artists. I have friends who are obscure artists and friends who are very successful artists, so I already knew a lot of how it worked, and certainly every year that went by I knew more about how it worked. But when I was an editor at Musician magazine, if I were at a party or a club or a concert and I ran into a well-known musician and we got a chance to talk, he would probably say to me something like, 'I really want you to hear this new stuff I'm working on. You should come by the studio; I think I've made a real breakthrough. I think that I'm getting into a creative level that I haven't before. I'm listening to a lot of music from North Africa. I'm learning something about the common thread between the Celtic and the African.'

"Now, flash forward three years, and I'm a vice-president at VH1. I'm at a party, and I see the same artist, and he comes over and says hi. He'll pull me aside and say, 'I really want you to hear this new stuff I'm working on. I'm very excited, I think it's going to appeal to a much broader demographic. I think it's going to fit a lot of different radio formats. You know, I've been meeting with this video director. This is the kind of thing that kids are really going to go for.' Now, the easy cynical reaction is, 'Oh, what a phony,' and sometimes it is a phony, but the fact is that sometimes both those things are true...It certainly is a juggling act. At times, it's like having one foot on the dock and one foot on the boat and the boat's pulling out."

When Flanagan arrived at VH1 five years ago, the station was moribund--caught between soft-rock and a hard place. It was the place where old farts went to take a deep breath, where MTV's children had gone to grow up and grow old. MTV Networks boss Tom Freston was close to pulling the plug, so Flanagan and a crew of new employees breathed a little life into the corpse. Long forgotten are the jazz and blues and alt.country shows VH1 aired on Sunday nights, before the network became a Behind the Music marathon. So, perhaps Flanagan sees a bit of himself in all the characters of his novel--the dreamer, the idealist, and the realist who struggles each day to keep his kids in private school without selling them out cheap. It's not for nothing that he likes to say he is fond of his characters, even the most merciless of them.

"I'll tell you something funny," he says. "I've been thinking of writing this book for years, and when I really sat down to write it, I really thought I was going to do a Martin Amis-Hunter Thompson kind of thing. I thought it would be this ruthless dissection of these greedy people, but I actually couldn't do it, because I realized I didn't feel that way. I kind of love these guys, you know, with all their enormous flaws and their greed and their vanity. Then I realized, maybe it's because I see them going away, and it's easier to love them when you don't feel they're bestriding us like King Kong. In the course of writing the book, it became apparent that they were going away, and all of a sudden, I just found myself feeling a lot of affectation for them."

Think of A&R, then, as a kiss on cheek, from one family member to another. One of them will expire on the deathbed tonight. The other will get up and go to work tomorrow morning.

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