Flanagan's Wake

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“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 of 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 twenty 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 a 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 preteens 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 exhibitions 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. 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 Flanagan sheds crocodile tears. 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 this past month released Inside Job, his first album in eleven 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 the 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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky