A&R: A Novel
by Bill Flanagan
Published by Random House
342 pages, 2000
The Vagaries of War
Reviewed by Emru Townsend
The timing of A&R's release couldn't have been better. Had it been released last year, I would have wondered if its satirical yet all too real peek inside the music industry was a little too inside.
Then along came Napster, and the spotlight switched on. Maverick bands like Consolidated have railed against the industry for years, but when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) started flinging lawsuits like Frisbees and high-profile musicians like Lars Ulrich, Chuck D and Courtney Love weighed in, the workings of the music industry were laid bare for anyone who cared to look.
You really have to wonder: are the executives -- "suits" -- born evil, or do the Byzantine workings of the industry make them that way? Are the megastars who manage to thrive corrupted by the political jockeying they endure to survive? And what about the people, suits and artists alike, who really do just love the music?
A&R helps answer these questions and more with the kind of levity and restrained ferocity that can only come from someone who knows the business intimately. Which, of course, is the case. Author Bill Flanagan is the senior vice president of music network VH1, which skews to those a bit older (or at least calmer) than the guests at sibling station MTV's perennial frat party. This is the same network that's home to Behind the Music, the fame-flameout-redemption show that has featured such where-did-they-go celebrities as Milli Vanilli, The Bangles and David Cassidy.
I'm sure that dealing with so many stars past their prime, their agents and the studios that package them has exposed Flanagan to more greed, desperation and pettiness than most of us will ever witness -- this in an industry which pats itself on the back for being all about the love of music, or at least of keeping kids entertained.
It's this sensibility which informs A&R, which centers around the fictitious WorldWide Music. One has to wonder how many of these characters are based on Flanagan's encounters: "Wild Bill" DeGaul, the beneficent and just-crazy-enough CEO and founder of WorldWide; J.B. Booth, his fast-talking number one, an ex-marine whose principal skill is bending the rest of the world to fit his reality; Al Hamilton, the Machiavellian money man who laughs at every joke about his being fat, black, or gay and quietly tallies these affronts in his head; and Zoey Pavlov, a talent scout who has settled into a permanent state of paranoia.
Treading somewhat gingerly into all this is Jim Cantone, a talent scout for a small label who jumps to WorldWide. The book follows Jim, a guileless family man from Maine who honestly loves rock music, as he navigates WorldWide's treacherous waters while shepherding the promising young band Jerusalem to their first CD. Along the way, we watch him gradually adapt to his higher income and more corporate environment; his wife watches his transformation too, in quiet horror.
Although the book starts and ends with Jim and one of the major storylines is directly influenced by him, A&R really is an ensemble piece. Flanagan does a remarkable job of flipping the focus from character to character without losing the threads of the stories or confusing the reader. He even leaves room for a few minor players. My favorite of these is Joe Precious, concisely described as "head of West Coast A&R at WorldWide," whose "real job was overseeing black music." In just over a page, Flanagan neatly sums up the current state of hip hop as perceived by record execs, rap artists and the young-black-male demographic -- all while painting a vivid picture of Precious as a young black man whose background may or may not have plenty in common with the gangsta rappers he promotes, but either way is overly fond of his own erudite sophistication.
But for all that, A&R's most compelling character is the music industry itself: a merciless machine capable of great rewards and greater punishments. Booth hints at this early on when he confides to Jim, "Musicians come and go and they're all stupid anyway. But the corporations are here forever." It's interesting to note that the ones closest to the music itself are the ones in the most danger. J.B. Booth, Jim Cantone and Zoey Pavlov spend much of the book looking over their shoulders at dangers real and imagined. The musicians themselves are, depending on where they are on the parabola of fame, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, or cynical has-beens. (The latter is epitomized by Kelvin Burner, an arena rocker a decade past his prime who destroys his bassist's budding music career as casually as he might crush an ant. Again, one has to wonder if this is based on Flanagan's experiences.) The few who are ever at the apex aren't there long enough for it to register. As for the lawyers and financiers who deal with the music and the artists only in the abstract sense -- as words and numbers on contracts and pieces on a chessboard -- they prove to be the only ones impervious to the vagaries of fate. Some, like lawyer Asa "Kingfish" Calhoun, know this well and spend their days laughing. Others, like Al Hamilton, just keep their amusement to themselves. But there's no doubt that the bean counters rule the roost.
Flanagan's breezy and often hilarious prose may make A&R seem featherweight, but it's his frank admission of truths like these that make it essential reading for anyone who is even casually interested in the music industry. Like the best satire (and, occasionally, the best music), the book educates as it entertains, enough that some of the rather pat denouements are forgivable. That Flanagan accomplishes this in his first novel is icing on the cake; one hopes his encore is as auspicious as his debut. | December 2000