Flanagan's Wake

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“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 believe 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 ten 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, if I was 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 altcountry shows VH1 aired on Sunday nights, before the network became a Behind the Music marathon. So maybe 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 affection 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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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky