Most novels about pop music fixate on how the troubled but talented recording artist gets screwed over by the big bad business; this first novel, by a veteran industry journo and senior veep at VH1, is about how the suits screw each other – not so much physically, but fiscally.
An uncivil war story about the battle for control of a diskery between its mercurial, entrepreneurial founder and those false prophets who would follow the numbers-crunchers-come-lately, it’s a tale told through the eyes ‘n’ ears of a 30-ish A&R veep, who – like the full spectrum of bizzers represented here – wins as much as he loses, just not in the ways he expects. The constant unpredictability of the music biz sounds a leitmotif throughout.
Although drawing inspiration from several stories that have been played and replayed in the trades, Flanagan avoids turning the novel into a cheap roman a clef. But if the scammers are composites, the specifics of their byzantine, scratch-my-backstabbing financial chicanery are firmly rooted in off-the-record cocktail chatter and sealed court documents.
Aside from chronicling all this double-dealing, and the rationalizing that goes along with it, the novel’s other strength lies in its devilishly observed details – from classifying every link in the music flackery food chain to explaining just exactly how a young man goes from wearing thrift-shop surplus to Prada.
Flanagan’s overarching thesis about how and why things have changed in the record biz is defined by linking each character’s philosophical outlook to the precise points at which they entered the biz. And that’s all good.
What’s bad – from a commercial standpoint, anyway – is that there’s not a whole lotta sex and drugs in these rock ‘n’ role-player’s lives, although noting the havoc that the biz wreaks on most of their familial relationships is a deft touch. And the sequences set in the exotic tropics teeter into a melodrama that’s thankfully missing when the action shifts into the meaner suites down which a bildungsroman must go.
Music bizzers and weasel-watchers will love “A&R,” but most civilians will probably derive more pleasure from listening to records than reading about how the business of making those records has become more concerned with bottom lines than bass lines.