Off the Record
by David Menconi
David Menconi has attempted to set the record straight about the record business with Off the Record, a sort of non-fiction story about a fictitious band. But who knew telling the truth could be such a perfunctory exercise? Off the Record has been touted as a sort of exposé of the music industry, a tell-all account of its heinous practices and profit-mongering scams. But for all the bluster, the book is surprisingly predictable. In fact, anyone with even the most generalized knowledge of the music business should find himself in fairly familiar territory. See if you recognize this arc: small-town band makes some waves on the local scene, gets prematurely picked up by a major label but can't handle the rapid ascent, and a quick tumble ensues. Throw in a few corporate weasels and colorful characters, including a drug dealer named Skull and an ex-girlfriend with a predilection for gunplay and you've got the basic outline for Menconi's dark tale.
Although Off the Record is Menconi's first foray into novel writing, he is hardly a rock'n'roll novice. He has been a critic for the Raleigh News & Observer for the past eight years, and his music writings have featured in numerous national publications. He also happened to be in Raleigh during the rise of Whiskeytown, a celebrated alt-country band that spawned one the genre's leading stars in Ryan Adams. In fact, there has been rampant speculation that Off The Record borrows from Menconi's actual conversations and experiences with Adamsalthough it's quite clear that some plot points draw inspiration from other sources. (Nirvana, for example).
In any case, the book itself chronicles the rise and fall of the Tommy Aguilar Band, comprising a prodigiously talented but mentally unstable guitarist/singer Tommy Aguilar, a classically-trained bassist named Michelle, and the stereotypical, "I just wanna rock" drummer, Ray. After conquering the local circuit with headlining slots at the city's preeminent rock club, Each, Tommy Aguilar Band agrees to be managed by the club's owner, Bob Porter. The seasoned biz vet takes the traditional indie, do-it-yourself approach: producing a cheaply recorded single and following it with relentless touring across the southeast: all in the effort to build a solid fan base and, subsequently, to gain bargaining leverage when the majors come calling. But trouble starts when the band becomes dissatisfied with the slow pace and Bob's grueling tour schedule.
Enter Gus DeGrande, regional concert promoter, who's decided that it might be fun to exploit, er, manage a rock'n'roll band to platinum record glory. DeGrande is supposed to be the Devil Incarnate of the record industry, and Menconi does a good job, portraying the promoter as a thoroughly despicable scumbag. He schemes to maximize his profit margin by remixing the band's entire debut album without their knowledge, getting Tommy hooked on drugs to make him more pliable, and essentially bribing a newspaper man to drum up the hype.
Menconi can writethat much is clear from the outset, but the story itself seems a bit tired. We've heard variations on the "music biz is evil" theme a thousand times before. It begs the question, "So what?" If Menconi is really trying to expose the industry for what it is, his take is a little too superficial and generalized. Yeah, major labels are bad, the music business sucks, etc. What else is new? Menconi still might be able to get away with these broad strokes if he could just emotionally engage the reader. Unfortunately, reading about the band getting screwed over time and again is a lot like watching those infomercials featuring starving third-world children: it's sad, but strangely unaffecting. So what we're left with is the story, and while it's entertaining, it's not exactly riveting either. Part of the problem is that for all the TAB concerts and lengthy descriptions of the band interplay and dynamics, it's damn near impossible to get a handle on their sound. What at first is just a minor distraction becomes a nagging annoyance by page 300. How can I be expected to care about the fate of this band if I can't even figure out what their music sounds like? I assume Menconi keeps the style vague on purpose so as not to turn off readers who might not share his taste, but in doing so, he winds up unintentionally infuriating his audience.
Toward the book's end, Menconi himself seems to realize that the premise is painfully thin, as he belatedly introduces a conspiracy theory and tries to mold the story into a mystery. However, it comes off like a desperate attempt to revive a cold corpse. Still, Meconi's crisp and succinct prose assures that the book is never dull, even when he does lose his grip on the story or falls back on recycled ideas. I might even recommend Off the Record to those looking for an entertaining introduction to the depraved music biz culture. But, chances are, anyone with enough musical knowledge to seek the book out (i.e. anyone who heard about it through a Ryan Adams mailing list) is likely to be sorely disappointed.