Bill Flanagan, senior vice president and editorial director of VH-1, spent Friday evening talking to students about artistic ambitions and financial solvency.
Flanagan, who also serves as vice president of MTV music group and is the author of a recent book, spoke to an audience of about 40 students at a Branford College Master’s Tea Friday. He discussed his aspirations from his years as an undergraduate at Brown University, the “zigzagy” path that led him to a career in the music industry, and the difficulties that today’s musicians face in their interactions with giant corporations and music labels.
At Brown, Flanagan studied writing and intended to become a novelist. Although he needed to support himself financially after graduation, he said he avoided “side jobs” that might have distracted him from his focus on writing. Instead, he said he wrote everything from film reviews to Marvel comics and political articles for underground publications. Ultimately, his writing about music received the strongest response, Flanagan said.
Flanagan worked with Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and GQ magazines, and later became editor of Musician’s Magazine. Ten years, a wife, and three kids later, Flanagan could finally support himself financially, so he decided to write a book describing the world of rock n roll. Having befriended the members of U2, Flanagan said he joined them on their tours around the world and wrote “U2 at the End of the World,” a biography of the band.
The success of the book finally gave him the financial support he needed to write a real novel while supporting his family, Flanagan said. It also caught the attention of VH-1 officials, who offered him control of the channel. Flanagan described the conflict he faced between making money with VH-1 and pursuing his dream of writing a novel.
Flanagan has also written two other books, including the recent “A & R,” a fictional account of a big record label.
Flanagan said the conflict between financial stability and artistic vision is among the most important issues facing musicians. He said part of the problem is the structure of the music industry, which does not allow musicians to survive on their art alone.
“Artists have had it,” he said.
Flanagan likened musicians to indentured servants, because music labels claim ownership of everything artists produce. Musicians are forced to become “bean counters” — paying close attention to every deal they make with labels, he said. This forces them into a strange hybrid career field that combines corporate and creative thinking, and ultimately constricts the possibility for creative expression, he said.
On the other hand, Flanagan said technological advances have created new opportunities for artistic expression. Given the expanded limits of music distribution, especially from file sharing technology, Flanagan said he expected the music industry to become more like the book industry.
“Everything will be out there,” he said.
He also suggested that the music industry may have to limit its expectations and break down into many smaller labels.
When asked his opinion of file sharing technology, Flanagan seemed resigned to the idea, but not completely happy about it.
“What can you do about it?” he said. “It’s definitely a blow to a struggling artist, but on the other hand, it’s like getting angry at a Xerox machine.”
Max Engel ’06, who owns a small record company, said it was encouraging to see someone on the inside of the music industry with a hopeful vision for small labels and aspiring artists.
“It was fascinating to get an insider’s perspective on the music industry,” Engel said.