Bully for Bill Flanagan, a onetime rock critic who’s now a senior VP at VH1, for writing A&R, a hugely entertaining first novel that lampoons the current tragicomic state of the industry. ”A&R,” of course, is record-company shorthand for ”artists & repertoire,” though as one character here points out, to cops it signifies ”assault & robbery” — a correlation that anyone who feels what’s happened to music is criminal will appreciate.
Against the backdrop of the fictional label WorldWide Records, Flanagan introduces us to a cast of fully realized archetypes, characters who’ll be instantly recognizable to anyone with a passing knowledge of the music industry: Jimmy Cantone, an idealistic talent scout fresh from a stint at an indie label; Wild Bill DeGaul, WorldWide’s freewheeling founder and president (whose CV bears a marked resemblance to that of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell); J.B. Booth, DeGaul’s second in command, a Harvard educated ex-Marine who covets his boss’ throne; Zoey Pavlov, a disillusioned A&R drone rapidly approaching a meltdown; and the members of Jerusalem, the talented but clueless baby band Cantone signs to WorldWide.
Laced throughout the book are pungent observations about the increasing uniformity of modern day record company careerists (”It was as if every boy who dreamed of growing up to be Keith Richards had decided as a man to become Felix Unger,” Cantone muses).
Sure, there are a couple of duff notes. Cantone, the provisional protagonist, is the sort of terminally nice guy you’d expect to find in a John Grisham novel, not at a record company. And the ostensible villain, Booth, who suffers an exquisitely humiliating fate, in the end seems no more evil than many of his real life counterparts: He’s too easy an effigy.
One of ”A&R”’s strongest themes is the emotional toll exacted on those naive souls who persist in believing that it’s music, not profits, that matters. In one memorable scene, a wrung-out Pavlov turns on a TV to be confronted by a peppy video from the latest prefab pop nymphet, a shiny, happy creature who seems to mock everything Pavlov ever loved about music. ”When did everyone decide they wanted to be a Pepper, too?” she wonders, recalling her roots in an alt-rock milieu ”where the freaks got to be cool and the cheerleaders were the weirdos.” Her forlorn conclusion: ”Barbie and Ken have taken over rock and roll and nobody admits they care.”
Flanagan — real-life industry wheel though he may be — evidently cares enough to worry about such issues without taking them too seriously. By the book’s end, through a hilariously ironic set of circumstances, Pavlov has become the president of a major record label. If art really does imitate life, we can only presume she is now happily and successfully presiding over a burgeoning empire built on vapid pop. And you can bet your Bob Dylan CDs she’s more concerned with stock options than with the imminent demise of rock & roll.