Flanagan's Wake

VH1 vice president's novel about the music business mourns an era just since passed

"I'm sure that something else will come and replace the music industry, and whatever comes to replace it will be bigger and better, and I'm enough of an optimist to think that it's going to allow more artists more access," Flanagan says, revving up (he still speaks like a writer, searching for his lead). "It'll be something like the Internet; it'll be something to allow people to bust open the gates and knock down the gatekeepers and be able to hear all kinds of music, whether it was made in a million-dollar studio or whether it was made in somebody's bedroom. But we're not there right now, and I think the record business is in sort of a terrible moment of convulsion and insecurity.

"The people who have to make the decisions about what music to sign and what music to support all feel that they're going to get fired tomorrow. They think they're going to get downsized, or the company they've worked for for 20 years is about to be absorbed into another company that probably has nothing to do with the music business. Therefore, they don't feel they have the freedom to sign a Neil Young, a Bob Dylan, a Bruce Springsteen -- someone who's going to require a long time to develop and a long time to find their audience. So for the sake of hanging on to their jobs or the perfectly understandable reason to make sure their children don't go hungry, they're saying, 'I don't have time to get a new Lou Reed, if I'm lucky enough to find one and have time to develop him. All I can do is get me a Mouseketeer.'"

This is the background against which A&R is set: the world of pre-teens playing sex-you-up, cashing in before anyone can say "longevity." It's a world in which Lenny Waronker (the DreamWorks boss who signed the eels and Rufus Wainwright and Elliott Smith, thinking it's still 1978 at Warner Bros.) climbs into bed with Edgar Bronfman, the man who began merging the music world out of existence in January 1999, when he welded Universal Music Group to Polygram and created a one-eyed monster. It's a world in which art is some guy's name, A&M is just a university in Texas and a C-note is just a $100 bill. The subculture is sunk; the Beatles and Bob Dylan are exhibits in a museum, the revolution safely behind glass.

"I do feel like we're at the end of something," says VH1 vice president Bill Flanagan of the music business.
Stefan Studer
"I do feel like we're at the end of something," says VH1 vice president Bill Flanagan of the music business.

Or, as Flanagan says, "The invasion, the conquering of the music business by the counterculture, has had a great 30 to 35-year run, and now it's about over. Now, Doris Day and Mitch Miller and 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?' are kind of coming back. And the record business is going back to being what it used to be -- entertainment, here today and gone tomorrow. It's a catchy song on the radio, and it's got a good beat, and you can dance to it."

The cynic might claim that Flanagan sheds crocodile tears. After all, he's no longer a rock journalist; he's climbed up the music-biz food chain, out of the basement and into the apartment next to Carson Daly's bachelor pad. He no longer calls publicists and begs for records; he now works for a company that, in essence, sells them. Ask Leif Garrett and Mötley Crüe, whose Behind the Music episodes convinced them and an audience they were somehow relevant again. Or Don Henley, who recently released Inside Job, his first album in 11 years, and was more ubiquitous on VH1 than episodes of The List.

Flanagan doesn't disagree with the notion that he has become part of the industry; he doesn't dispute his ascension in the ranks. But he insists he is still on the side of right, working for a company that gives Tom Waits and Elvis Costello their own Storytellers, despite the low ratings (a meager 400,000 viewers for Waits' episode). He insists he is less the problem than the solution, and perhaps he is right; simply because he has moved to a more powerful medium doesn't mean he sold his soul for a better view. But Flanagan can afford to lament the passing of the industry, because he works for one of the companies bringing the shovels to the funeral: VH1 is owned by Viacom, which owns CBS Television, Paramount Pictures, Infinity Broadcasting, Blockbuster Entertainment, Simon & Schuster, TV Networks and myriad other powerful old- and new-media outlets.

"I was 40 years old when I came to VH1, and I didn't have an awful lot of illusions about the business," Flanagan says. "At the same time, I really believed there are great artists, and I believe there are great people at the record companies who are in it because they love music and are in it because they're fighting for good music. In the 10 years that I was at Musician magazine, I made many friends who work at record companies who are managers, who are A&R men, and I have friends who are artists. I have friends who are obscure artists and friends who are very successful artists, so I already knew a lot of how it worked, and certainly every year that went by I knew more about how it worked. But when I was an editor at Musician magazine, if I were at a party or a club or a concert and I ran into a well-known musician and we got a chance to talk, he would probably say to me something like, 'I really want you to hear this new stuff I'm working on. You should come by the studio; I think I've made a real breakthrough. I think that I'm getting into a creative level that I haven't before. I'm listening to a lot of music from North Africa. I'm learning something about the common thread between the Celtic and the African.'

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