Flanagan's Wake

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, America Online content, Rolling Stone, 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 Websites, 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 Jack Bruce 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.

But it is fourteen 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 is 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 possibly the only one 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 hourlong 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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky