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Bill Flanagan's "A&R"

By Matt Ashare

AUGUST 28, 2000: 

A&R by Bill Flanagan (Random House) 342 pages, $23.95

Bill Flanagan's new novel about the music business begins with a typical example of the kind of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing that's endemic to the entertainment industry. It takes place, of course, in the back seat of a limo, because limos and executive washrooms are where the real decisions are made. J.B., the second-in-command at the mega major label WorldWide, is trying to sell Jim Cantone, the thirtysomething A&R scout whose misadventures are the focus of the novel, on the notion of leaving his job at a smaller label for a better-paying position at WorldWide. The situation itself is a microcosm of a much larger drama that's played out in the music industry every day: art versus commerce; small versus large; integrity versus power. Cantone doesn't choose sides yet, but his course seems a foregone conclusion: he will sign on with the big label, and everyone -- the reader excluded -- will end up looking somewhat foolish.

But first a disclaimer. Business, by nature in a capitalist society, is, well, unsavory. And there's no reason the entertainment industry should be different. What does set it apart is the product itself, which we are encouraged to think of as something more than just product. We like to think that different rules apply to the music industry. And at least on the level of mid- to lower-level management, that's sometimes the case -- A&R (i.e., "artist and repertoire") scouts like Jim Cantone really believe in the music. But when it comes to the bottom line, upper management invariably sets the ground rules. Artists who aren't moving enough units are dropped, lose tour support, or are prevailed upon to change their ways, to write a hit, to wear different clothes, to appear half-naked on the cover of a national magazine. And those idealistic young upstarts in lower to middle management are the ones called upon to set the new plan in action. In fact, the artists themselves, sick as they are of their day jobs and eager to start moving some units, are more often than not complicit in whatever marketing plans the label has in mind for them.

There have been a number of entertaining and alarming nonfiction exposés written about the seedy underbelly of the music business, the best of which is Fredric Dannen's Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money in the Music Business (Vintage). And there have been histories written about how rock and roll's social rebellions can be and are co-opted by mainstream business interests -- Fred Goodman's The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce (Time). But whereas those books dealt with specific aberrations or generalized trends, Flanagan's A&R sticks to the mundane world of everyday life within a fictional record company. This, we're supposed to come away thinking, is what it's like to be working at Warner Bros. or Atlantic or MCA. And in that sense, A&R paints a much more disturbing picture.

The music business has always gotten a bad rap, perhaps deservedly so. Major labels offer artists the capital necessary to make a record -- recording budget, manufacturing, distribution, promotion. In return, they exact a ridiculously high price from the artists, in terms of both money and rights over the recorded material. A&R does humanize the faceless major label to a degree: we meet the various movers, shakers, and coffee makers who ultimately decide which artists will get deals, how much money will go into promoting their album, and finally which ones will be dropped. And we meet the various artists who are too blinded by dreams of stardom to look after their own interests. It's a tragicomedy of errors in which no one comes out smelling like roses.

A&R is an entertaining read -- the music-industry equivalent of a John Grisham legal thriller. Flanagan was the editor at Musician magazine before taking his current position as a program developer at VH-1, so he's intimate with the inner workings of the industry. And though there may be a few areas where exaggeration takes over in the interest of telling a good story, he gives us a reasonably accurate picture of what goes on behind the closed industry door. But perhaps the most compelling and depressing subplot of A&R involves the shift in the industry away from the maverick music-loving nuts (like former Island Records mogul Chris Blackwell and Virgin Records founder Richard Branson) and toward the bean-counting men in suits who are assuming control of the multinational conglomerates that count music as one of their many products. The days when a record-company president might give himself songwriting credit on a B.B. King tune he had nothing to do with may be long gone, but we've ended up with corporate suits who wouldn't consider signing a B.B. King in the first place.

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