Novelists who write about pop music tend to turn a blind eye to its biz side. Books like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and Barney Hoskyns’ underheralded The Lonely Planet Boy deal with troubled young men for whom rock is religion, solipsistic fanboys who find spiritual sustenance in the sounds emanating from their headphones. Such antiheroes don’t give a hoot about behind-the-scenes record-company machinations, viewing anything outside the province of art with scorn.
Yet as anyone who’s been monitoring the changes in the record business knows, it’s getting harder and harder to pretend art and commerce aren’t joined at the hip. Corporate rock has turned into corporate crock: prefab teen groups that make the Monkees look like auteurs, one-dimensional rap and metal acts peddling ersatz outrage, and the most vacuous wave of interchangeable solo stars since the early-’70s singer-songwriter boom. Thanks to sweeping demographic changes and major-label consolidation, the style-over-substance aesthetic isn’t anathema (as we once assumed), just the norm.
So 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). The evocation of the Machiavellian nature of label politics is masterfully rendered, yet at no point does A&R bog down in boring boardroom blow-by-blows. The story breezily speeds forward at a pace reminiscent of Stephen King (although the horror here is strictly man-made). Along the way we encounter familiar rock & roll touchstones — deviancy, drugs, duplicity, death — but Flanagan’s light touch keeps you grinning through the grimmest passages.
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. But in the context of A&R‘s overall achievement — if there’s a more entertaining or merciless book about the music industry, it’s news to me — carping about such minor flaws seems as silly as arguing about the respective supremacy of the Beatles or the Stones.
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. A-