Behind the Music

VH1 Vice President and Editorial Director Bill Flanagan takes the recording industry to task in his novel A&R.

A&R By Bill Flanagan
Random House, $23.95.
Bill Flanagan's first novel meets all the needs of blurb immortality. It's a compelling read, its characters are larger than life, it deals with issues of integrity, creativity, and marketing, and it's topical enough to qualify as docufiction. Unfortunately, its plot line is not only melodramatic, but also implausible and even creaky. And the way the facile, superbly networked Flanagan dwells on stock characters, such as WorldWide Records mogul Wild Bill DeGaul, his nemesis J.B. Booth, and moral tightrope-walker Jim Cantone (your basic A&R man), suggests his book won't resonate deeply. In addition, Flanagan's focus on what might be a dying record business and its outmoded practices ignores the rapid technological changes transforming the business.

Flanagan certainly knows his stuff. As senior vice president and editorial director of VH1, he hobnobs regularly with the frequently talented egos at the core of this business, and he's no doubt mollified many on his way to the top of his profession. He also has written for Rolling Stone, Musician, Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, and Spy -- celebrity-oriented publications that feed on the very businesses they so often decry.

It's telling that the dust jacket of A&R (the industry abbreviation for Artists & Repertoire, the part of the record industry devoted to signing and grooming artists) is studded with testimonials from Turn of the Century scribe Kurt Andersen, Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, and Lou Reed (if they haven't been VH1 subjects yet, they surely will be). Because they like it, you'll like it too, Flanagan's publicity machinery assures us.

And on the surface, there's plenty to like. Midway through the book, Flanagan shifts the DeGaul figure from a Clive Davis model (besieged by the "foreigners" who run WorldWide Records, as toppled Arista Records chief Davis was by the Germans in control of Arista owner Bertelsmann Music Group) to a Chris Blackwell model (early on, we learn DeGaul began his career by founding Tropic Records, as Blackwell founded Island Records, which was acquired several years ago by PolyGram, another global conglomerate). DeGaul goes to an island to oversee the debut recording by Jerusalem (think U2 meets Lone Justice).

The way Flanagan describes Jerusalem and Lilly Rope, its lead singer, is plausible enough; the band is so talented and industrious, you'd like to hear its record. He's also on the mark with Cokie Shea, a country-leaning diva wannabe with a rightward religious bent, who snares Booth with her voice and her honeypot. The minor characters, like Jerusalem discoverer/Black Beauty backer Zoey Pavlov and Al Hamilton, the man who really runs WorldWide, are realistic as well. Flanagan's names for groups are semi-clever, like Loudatak (cross Aerosmith with Spinal Tap), and so is his tracking of the power plays that eventually bring down both DeGaul and Booth, DeGaul's venal, vivid career assassin.

But the simplistic conclusions Flanagan draws and the plot machinations he puts his characters through ultimately capsize the book. Take Zoey Pavlov, a rising star at WorldWide until DeGaul elevates Cantone over her. Flanagan traces Pavlov's career, setting up issues in her championing of the black, all-women group Black Beauty that he could have explored to greater depth. But ultimately, Pavlov becomes a cartoon, dismissed in a simplistic exchange between mercenary lawyer Asa Calhoun and Al Hamilton (both black caricatures themselves). "No one in the world would pay a million dollars for Zoey Pavlov," Calhoun says. "Why not?" Hamilton asks. "She has no taste of ethics. She could be a big success."

Credulity is similarly strained when DeGaul and Jerusalem are recording the latter's debut on the fictional island of St. Pierre and come across a wrecked boat containing tons of cocaine. The coke strains the island's economy and culture, not to mention the band and DeGaul. It also strains the reader, as does a fatal storm that all too conveniently helps drive the plot.

The way Flanagan dissects the record business is bracingly cold-eyed, but too often, his characters are stick figures, seemingly only designed to prove key points. "We are in the era of late high capitalism," Cantone tells himself when confronted with an ethical dilemma at the highest corporate level. "Everything has been reduced to its dollar value. A painting is as good as its auction price, a movie as good as its opening weekend, a home as nice as its resale value."

True enough, but the plot of A&R detracts from such insights, suggesting Flanagan may be better at criticism and biography than at fiction. There's no doubt he's on target when the ultimate survivor, Hamilton, tells Cantone: "Rock and roll doesn't have to carry the bottom line anymore. It doesn't have to pay for everything else. Let hip-hop take that financial burden, and you let rock flourish as an art form. It's a mature style now, like jazz. It doesn't have to carry the company. What a wonderful liberation."

At the end, a newly mature Cantone rediscovers his family (which has been a mere prop throughout), keeps his ever more lucrative job, and gets in touch with his roots -- the reasons he joined the business in the first place. The final scene is heartwarming, evoking an image of Jimmy Stewart toting a boombox. But like everything else in A&R, it's facile, too -- unlike the complicated industry to which Flanagan is too closely attached.

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