"When It Stopped" takes place at a major record label in 2001, which is a year a lot of us would frankly prefer to forget. God knows I was a hot mess.
You were a mess, Viola. But you were so hot. "Nineteen year old lips and ninety proof breath." Beautiful and damaged, catnip for Brian Jones.
That was the last decent year in the music business, and the beginning of the end of a fifty year boom cycle. When we meet Brian on the verge of taking his dream job at major label, the gravy train is still rolling. In 2000, the majors set records for sales and profits. Business had quite literally never been better. But they'd also just lost a class action lawsuit for price-fixing. Their recording and marketing costs were out of control and unsustainable. The last Teen Pop wave was crashing on the rocks, like they always do, with nothing compelling surfing in behind it. They’d succeeded in their quest to shut down Napster, but filesharing and piracy were only getting worse. The campaign to sue consumers still seemed like a good idea to a lot of people. And then Apple rolled out a little device called the iPod.
Everything's changing, slowly and quickly. Brian sees a lot of it coming. But that doesn't mean he can do anything about it. It was this moment in time, where you couldn't invent the kind of tension that was building week by week. Oh yeah, and 2001 was pretty much when I started writing it.
Shut up. So you were working on "When It Stopped" for like twelve years? Holy f’in’ Chinese Democracy, Axl.
Hey, "Chinese Democracy" had its moments. And I can totally relate to poor Axl. There's the crazy perfectionism that takes over. You just want to Make It Awesome. And then hey, who doesn't love a massive string arrangement?
Knowing when more isn't more anymore is so hard. Then there's this thing where, at some point, you know it's not going to be yours anymore. You spend so much time creating this world. Part of you is living in it, at least if you’re doing it right. And then you have to make a clean break and let it go. I still don't think I've wrapped my brain around the fact that I have to just stop. I'm sure I'll be copy editing it in twenty years. That's a big part of what the book is about: when things fade out or stop suddenly. And you've got to fill the hole.
Beyond that, nobody should ever start writing a novel with less of a clue than I had. I had no idea what I was doing, and was too stupid to realize it. Plot development. Character arcs. A major dramatic question. A sense of place. I knew all that stuff was important, but it felt totally beyond me. I wasted a lot of time -- fully five or six years -- building this foundation over a couple of drafts, before I figured out I just needed to blow it up. I can't even look at those now. It mortifies me that I ever showed them to anybody. I'm amazed I didn't just quit.
Um, yeah? What kept you going? And don't say masochism. I know damn well you don’t have a kinky bone in your body.
I’m kinda into finishing shit lately. Marathons, books. Don't know what’s gotten into me. Maybe that's my new kink.
But seriously, it was you, Viola! You were kinky enough for both of us, let's be honest. You were the first character that I just totally whipped out of thin air. And yet somehow you were the most real by far. You just got up off the page and started messing with people immediately. You demanded my attention, sucked up all this bandwidth. By then I had mercifully found a writers' workshop. You have to learn real fast not to bore people. And the more run I gave you, the more interesting my pages got. Pretty soon Brian Jones became, like, this dude that wasn't me anymore. My protagonist started doing stuff I never could have, like wrestling with his artists over their drugs. That was another huge moment. And I didn’t care anymore if people liked him or not. The other characters sort of started demanding equal treatment. The more I wrote, the more real they became, the more unique to themselves, less like anybody I specifically knew. But you were my first.
Dude, pleasure’s all mine. But it ain’t like you're rockin’ science fiction here. You did actually work at a major label. You lost your father as a teenager, just like Brian and me. And you've been in the music biz since before I was womb-based.
Dude, you just duded me. And, yeah. The first thing any of us in the music business do when we read so much as a trade article is scan the entire thing, looking for our own names. Everybody I know is scanning past this sentence right now, to see if I've name-checked them below. Maybe that's true in any business. But the music biz ego is so special. Just because you're a narcissist, doesn't mean it's not about you.
When you start writing, you slowly realize there are hundreds of people who've influenced you in ways big and small, personally and creatively. Most of the people who truly inspired me know specifically how, when, and why. With others, it’s more of a vibe, or a conversation or anecdote that sticks with you and you sort of recycle, maybe you don’t even remember where you heard it. If you've had beers with me, or survived a label meeting, you're probably in the book. And I reserve the right to recycle anything you say the next time we have beers. The challenge is to make it all feel both cohesive and true. I'm lucky to have been touched by some pretty compelling characters. That's one of the things I hope comes through in the book. The music business in the glory days was full of all these well-meaning, colorful characters. Plenty of them loved music passionately and cared about doing a good job.
So ... not naming names? Sounds like somebody had some media training at some point.
I made a conscious decision to write a novel and not a memoir. I sacrificed a lot in the process. Starting a literary novel in the 21st Century makes about as much sense as starting a major label. A memoir would have been easier to write in my case, and perhaps to get published. There've been times when the whole “death of the music biz” was topical and sensational. I knew where some the bodies were buried. I had dirt, and a story I wanted to tell. But that wasn't the way I wanted to tell it.
My bag was examining what happens to us when things die. I grew up with this rather uncommon loss and tragedy personally, more than just losing my father. And then I ended up in my thirties with a thriving career in a dying industry. It struck me that everywhere I looked, people were dealing with having the rug pulled out from under them. Whether or not they deserved it … whether their reactions to it were competent or intelligent … whether or not they’d been evil or exploitive before. Those distinctions became way less compelling than the larger existential questions. Pretty soon other industries were dying ... entire economies were tanking ... and it felt like a more universal thing. We started losing entire cities, right before our eyes.
Being in the music business is probably like living in Detroit. What the hell happened there? Well, obviously, a lot of shit happened. Some of it probably could've been planned for, if not prevented, and smarter people than me will write about that. But how do you process having to go through that, with a front row seat, and just getting on with your life? That’s what fascinates me. It's like the sensation Brian Jones has watching millions of files being downloaded illegally on Kazaa. It feels like looking at a video game, but he’s well aware that it’s an industry flat lining right before his eyes on those monitors, and with it a whole way of life for a lot of people. Did everybody in the music business deserve that? Because – what? – CD prices were too high and people wouldn’t pay for music if they could steal it? Maybe. But even that question kind of bores me. I got fascinated with the notion that I don't know anybody who hasn't been seriously grieving for most of the last decade.
Yep. The five stages of grief. I beat you to acceptance, btw, bitch.
You beat Brian to acceptance, Viola. Technically. And grief is not a competition.
I added the Kübler-Ross references to the very last draft, for fear I’d been too cute about grief thematically. Death is no parenthesis, as e.e. cummings wrote. And it strikes me that grief is never a subtext. It's the entire point. At all times. I think it’s what forces people to get real for various moments here and there. Grieving people are way more interesting. And I was pretty pleased to discover all the characters in the book were already displaying recognizable benchmarks for their respective stages of grief. Denial. Well, that was everybody in the music biz in 2001. Anger's always the easiest to spot, especially in others. Brian's bargaining buys him some time when he needs it.
And, Viola, your depression is so in our faces. You deal with it the old fashioned way. Self-destruction and medication. But I wanted it to be almost as clear that Brian’s stuck in a deep, long-term depression, which is exacerbating his internal and external conflict. It's more insidious and probably more common. He’s been able to keep it on the run for twenty years. Changing jobs every two years. Dating inappropriate women, or trying to anyway. He’s running out of real estate finally. The old bag of tricks ain’t working. And then there's acceptance ... that might be giving away too much, except to say that it’s where music comes in.
And, yes, Viola Holliday does seem to advance through all fives stages rather successfully.
Music helps me get there in the end. But isn’t music like totally enabling Brian’s depression? He did think telling me “Unsatisfied” by the Replacements was his personal theme song might help him get in my pants.
That was just him trying to bond with you. He definitely expected you to reciprocate. What do you mean you don't have a personal theme song?
Brian’s a total music obsessive. He buys into this notion that music sort of magically filled the hole when his father died. And that was probably useful for a while, at a stage when he just needed something. But he sacrificed having a normal relationship with music, and with other people for that matter. Now he’s fixated on figuring out why music filled the hole. He can't leave it alone. He tries to sort of mentor Viola through her grief issues, and he clearly means well. But it’s the blind leading the blind. And Viola’s just not a purist about anything, unless it’s her love for her father. She’s such a daddy’s girl. Brian was his father’s son, but …
It’s different for girls. Way easier for me to be vulnerable, obvs. People kinda dig it, swooping in to save me. Brian’s got this lovely sensitivity too, but he’s always being pushed to toughen up.
Especially at Mars. The pressure's really turned up. Those are the other big questions. Brian’s passionate and knowledgeable about music. "The product." He’s got a track record of programming and marketing success. His vision tends to be acute. He considers himself a fan first, and actually cares about his fellow music fans. Artists like him and trust him. But is that particular skill set more of an asset or a liability? Would it be better if he were a more adept and calculating businessman? It becomes abundantly clear what his bosses think. Are those traits mutually exclusive? Can he give the bosses what they want, and stay true to himself? Can any of us?
No shit. Why do you think most of us learn to fake it?
Which is exactly the choice confronting Brian. He’s getting the stripes, the salary he couldn't turn down, the fancy address, the expense account, the corner rooms at the Four Seasons. He’s turning left instead of right when he gets on planes. And as much as he means it when he says that's not what winds his clock, a big part of him digs it. He’s basically been a geek all his life. Now he’s getting attention from the kinds of women who wouldn't talk to him before. It’d be easy for him to sell out, at a certain level. There’s this question of whether anybody would even have to know.
But his father would know. The curse of the Joneses. It was definitely fun for me to give Brian that foundation in Woodstock, those benchmarks of hippie purity. To name him after the beautiful, dead Rolling Stone. To situate him in the orbit of Dylan, however tangentially, as sort of the idyllic icon of artistic integrity. Poor Brian Jones had a lot to live up to, so much more at stake for him.
The real music biz has always been filled with obsessives. People who never forget a Billboard chart fact, or own every single ever released by any label, or never played a stiff or wore the same outfit twice. It didn’t seem like a stretch to have Brian’s “thing” be that he wasn’t going to listen to bad music.
Ugh. He can be such a pain in the balls. Doesn't Brian realize how crazy he drives everybody?
Well, yeah, of course he does. Clearly he’s driving himself craziest of all. But I love this notion that keeps coming up that Brian just needs to be less passionate about everything, especially about music. As if all these disruptions would have just sorted themselves out, if only people had been able to somehow not care so much. The real problem with the music industry was that everybody loved music too much! Unsurprisingly, in times of crisis, we tend to go the other way. The survivors end up being the sort of mercenaries, willing to do “whatever it takes” to "survive at all costs." It’s interesting to see whether Brian can get on board with that.
That’s pretty much where the music business has gotten since “When It Stopped.” And that’s kind of the real shame. For all the flaws, the major label system worked really well, for everybody, for a very long time. They bankrolled the careers of a lot of artists, ninety percent of whom never recouped. People don't seem to realize the labels didn't turn up at people's doors asking to be paid back, like for student loans or something. The majors took all the risk for every note of music anybody ever made or heard for several decades. I don’t hear a lot of music fans complaining that the music wasn’t any good in the ‘70s, ‘80s, or ‘90s. The indies just aren't in the same position, and fragmentation is making it so they can't just skim the cream of what the majors don't sign. The Indie Era might be ending already. I love to challenge people to name something about music or the music business that’s gotten better since the end of the major label era. It’s not easy. But I think that makes for a better story than if the majors were simply evil, the notion that something’s ending that we might actually miss one day.
Okay, smart guy, if the Indie Era is over already ...
Why am I self-publishing my creative baby? At a certain point, I decided to start taking the advice I've been giving to music artists over the last several years. You've got to take control, for better or worse, and not wait around for other people to figure it out for you. Put your record out. Sell one copy to somebody. Play some gigs. Don't suck. Build a social network. I hate when artists labor under the delusion that it's up to somebody like me to do that shit for them. It would've been the height of hypocrisy for me to wait for some literary version of me to come along and save me from the heavy lifting. Get in the ring. As Danny Neri says in the book, "You can't recoup on a record you never fuckin' release, folks."
And I'm excited to see how transferable some of the tricks of my trade end up being. I know the book world is going through all the same challenges as the music business. As Terry Mercer tells Brian ... some of us were born too late for the golden parachutes and the houses in the Hamptons, and are gonna have to work like dogs 'til the day we stroke out. I can live with that. I've frankly given up on ever finding my way into a field that's actually burgeoning, like Health Care or something. The notion that sickness and death are going to be our only growth enterprises is way more depressing to me than, say, ending up a greeter at Wal-Mart in my seventies, writing and doing music stuff as an avocation. Just don't trample me to death on Black Friday. Not a Top Ten Rock N' Roll Cause of Death.
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