Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 3 Apr 02 11:40
David Menconi is the music critic at the daily paper in Raleigh, North Carolina, the News & Observer. He has also written for Spin, Billboard, Request, No Depression and a host of other publications that no longer exist. He resides in a creaky and decadent Victorian house in downtown Raleigh with his wife Leigh and three children Aaron, Edward and Claudia. "Off The Record" is his first novel. Take a volatile rock band, a king-making concert promoter, a downtrodden club owner and a rock critic with questionable journalistic ethics; add one hit record, a drug problem, a couple of riots and shake well. There you have the essence of this novel, the very unauthorized account of the rise and fall of the Tommy Aguilar Band. "Off The Record" will confirm your worst suspicions about the music business, an industry in which musicians are like the infantry -- the first to die, and the last to get paid. Leading the discussion is Ed Ward, who was a rock critic from 1967 until sometime in the mid-80s, at which time "the inevitable parricidal impulse, mixed with some misunderstandings about my stand on censorship, caused me to be blackballed by most of the magazines. I had David's job (or a similar one) at the Austin American-Statesman from 1979-1984, responsible for two columns, two features, and three reviews a week, which ought to hip you that it's not a Guild paper. Currently I live in Berlin and write about art and culture for the Wall St. Journal Europe, and contribute to Fresh Air on NPR." Please join me in welcoming David and Ed to inkwell.vue!
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 4 Apr 02 00:51
<scribbled by captward Thu 4 Apr 02 09:39>
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Thu 4 Apr 02 10:23
> What went wrong with the regular publishing industry? > Almost everything that could, Im afraid. After years of false starts, I finally started writing this book for real in late 1994. The first draft took about 3 years, which I spent in cloistered isolation; I told very few people what I was doing, and didnt let anyone actually see it until after the first draft was done. I didnt do any of the networky things one is supposed to do join writers groups, go to readings, etc. and maybe that had something to do with what happened next. Finding an agent was very difficult, far moreso than I expected. I did the drill they tell you to do scoured Writers Market, looked for names in the acknowledgements section of other similar books, sent queries and sample chapters. But most of the agents I approached were completely unresponsive. The ones who bothered to respond at all passed with the explanation that, Rock novels are a tough sell. This appears to be conventional wisdom in the publishing industry, for reasons I cant fathom. I guess there havent been any hugely successful, best-selling rock novels (High Fidelity is probably the closest, although Ive never really thought of that as a rock novel per se). But youd think its a subject with built-in appeal, plus a readymade and easy-to-reach audience. Guess again. It seems to be like anything else its not what you do or even who you know, but who knows you. So if youre Bill Flanagan, a bigtime mucky-muck at VH1, you can get a deal with Simon & Shuster and a sizable advance for A&R (a book with some similarities to mine). But if youre a critic at a midsize newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina, its a lot tougher. After several dozen turn-downs, I did finally find an agent who was willing to take me on in late 1998. The initial stages of the process were very positive. He had excellent editing suggestions, and I think his input improved the book a lot. By the summer of 1999, I had revised it to his satisfaction. He started sending it out in June of that year... ...And nothing happened. He sent it to about a dozen places, and no one bit. I got very little feedback as to what publishers thought or why they passed, just that they had. The next thing I heard from my agent was that he was leaving the literary field for personal reasons, and that was that. By the spring of 2000, I was on my own again. At that point, my options were to start looking for another agent (not an appealing prospect), or try to do something on my own. I opted for the latter, mostly because I was getting such good feedback from music people who read it. This happened over and over again. As far as I could tell, the publishing industry dismissed this book out of hand because it was a somewhat unusual subject. Meanwhile, I was passing around copies to clubowners and people in bands the sort of people I imagined to be the books potential audience and they invariably understood it, and liked it. I decided to go the print-on-demand route in May of 2000, and started working on the aforementioned website (http://www.OffTheRecordBook.com). I signed up with iUniverse in early July and did their submission drill, and it was ready to go by late September of 2000. It cost me $134. A quick primer on how print-on-demand portals like iUniverse work: You submit everything (your manuscript copy, cover art, jacket copy) either by e-mail or on a computer disc. They typeset it on their computers, and send you page proofs by e-mail. After you return the page proofs, it takes several weeks for them to make it available. Once they have it ready to go, your book can be ordered from the bookstore at the iUniverse website (http://www.iuniverse.com/). Its also listed on amazon and the Barnes & Noble website, bn.com. And it has an ISBN serial number, so you can order it through any brick-and-mortar bookstore. When orders come in, iUniverse makes copies and ships them, one at a time. Authors can also order discounted copies for readings, which is how Ive sold most of my books. Now, theres no substitute for having books physically in stores for impulse buys, and for clerks to talk up. But POD does at least enable you to get a book out into the world to see if theres an audience for it out there. Its also a farm system of sorts for the publishing industry. If a publisher comes along and wants to buy your book, you can get out of the iUniverse deal at any time with 90 days notice. Off The Record has attracted a lot of favorable press, including good reviews in the Los Angeles Daily News, Arizona Republic and Salon. Im hoping to parlay that into a deal with a publisher before too much longer, and there are a few possibilities. I also have an agent again, funny thing.
Berliner (captward) Thu 4 Apr 02 10:58
Funny thing indeed. Nothing succeeds like success, I guess. But your story is pretty common for a first-time novelist. Forget what you do for a living; unless you were the bright star of the fiction farm system (all those writers conferences and -- shudder -- creative writing departments at university level), you'd get the same response. Which is weird; the publishing industry's never figured out that rock and roll is a world, not just a name on a record bin. People like to read about it, and not just the sanitized fan books and the endless regurgitation of the pages of Rolling Stone. You really can market things other than records to people if it has a connection with the music. We know this, but the publishing industry is stuck in another time, I think. Backtracking a little, something weird happened to my initial post. I'm not sure how it happened, but it did, and it's electrons now. What I did was begin by welcoming David to this interview, and telling him that because I was so intimate with the kind of job he does for a living, discussing that aspect of the book, which features a guy who does what David does for a living as one of the central characters, didn't appeal to me as much as discussing the publishing end of it, especially since, with the website and the publish-on-demand aspects, that was more interesting to me. We'll also have <jonl> along to ask about the book itself, and I think <tnf>, who's on tour at the moment, is also going to chime in with the musician's viewpoint. Should be cool. Stick around.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 5 Apr 02 05:30
David, I'm curious about the relationship of this novel to your own experiences, or what you've observed, working as a rock critic. There's a rumor that TAB (the Tony Aguilar Band), which for those who havent' read it is the focus of the novel, is based loosely on the 'alternative country' band Whiskeytown, and I found myself wondering if you put much of yourself into the Ken Morrison character...?
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Fri 5 Apr 02 09:24
Starting with TABs connection to real-world people/places/things, I would liken Off The Record to Peter Gents North Dallas Forty a novel about professional football that I read during my formative years, and found hugely influential. I believe that most everything depicted in North Dallas Forty did happen; but probably not to just one guy and not all in the same week. Same with OTR, which is fairly over-the-top. TAB, the protagonist band, fills a rather Job-like role; theyre on the business end of more bad karma than you could possibly imagine. Everything that happens in the book is rooted in reality (even if it's just rumor), but exaggerated for dramatic purposes. As for how Whiskeytown figures into this, they wandered into my life at about the time I was casting the book. They were a local band here in Raleigh, just getting started in 1994-95, and I them play many times. They didnt sound much like the fictional TAB (in my head, TAB sounds like a poppier version of the old punk band X, fronted by the sort of singing you could imagine hearing on the radio). But for an unstable band led by a cocky/crazy-smart young lunatic, you could not ask for a better real-life model than Whiskeytown. Ryan Adams was the aforementioned cocky/crazy-smart young lunatic, and a lot of his mannerisms and attitudes wound up creeping into the character of Tommy Aguilar. Tommy isnt Ryan, but it became useful to think of Tommy speaking in Ryans voice when I was mulling dialogue. Its been strange watching Ryan turn into a star the past six months. A lot of the magazine profiles you see of him nowadays read like something out of the book (especially the Rolling Stone one back in November; and there was a big CMJ profile that read like Ryan and the writer were auditioning for bit parts in Almost Famous). Ryan is a lot more like the caricature of Tommy now than he was when I was writing OTR. Which brings us to Ken Morrison, the rock-critic character. Theres a disclaimer in the books credits where I make a point of saying that I am not Ken Morrison, but I acknowledge that weve met a time or two. Hes not me, but I do understand his temptations, frustrations and dilemmas. Id also like to think Im not as much of a dope as he turns out to be that I could avoid getting used the way he does. But as with Ryan and Tommy, yes, there are some things that have happened to me that also happen to Ken. Ken was the hardest character in the book to get right. In my first draft, he really was me, basically which I wanted to avoid. That was one of the reasons I wrote it in third-person rather than through any one first-person character. Moreover, Ken-as-me just didnt work. Ken needed to be a lot flashier and more self-aggrandizing, somewhat of a weasel; but also not unlikable. He moves the plot along in some key places, so the reader has to care about him at least a little. And he does eventually come around to the right side. But that doesnt mean he doesnt also deserve a pretty thorough beat-down.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 5 Apr 02 12:20
It was cool to find some of TAB's music on the web site. Would I be breaking the voodoo if I asked how you put that together? And whether you got the sound you were after?
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Fri 5 Apr 02 13:04
I enlisted some pals in local bands, and they got together one night and bashed out some music over a few cases of beer. The ringleader was a fellow named Kenny Roby, who used to lead the alt.country/soul band 6 String Drag (they did a fantastic cover of Sir Douglas Quintets Mendocino on the soundtrack to the movie You Can Count On Me; and their 1997 album High Hat is also terrific, produced by Steve Earle). Roby cut his teeth playing snotty punk rock, so this was kinda like a roots move for him. He jokingly called the group El Beau. One of the first readings I did here in Raleigh, they played a show afterward as TAB (which devolved into quite a drunken occasion, as you can probably imagine). Some of the songs they did were based on lyrics and descriptions in the book, others were just stuff they made up on the fly. It wasnt exactly the sound I had in mind; but I was not in a position to be too choosy, either, and Im more than happy with the job they did. Since then, Roby has occasionally played a couple of these songs live, and even talked about recording one of them. He asked if I wanted a co-writing credit, but I told him to just give the credit to Tommy Aguilar.
Berliner (captward) Sat 6 Apr 02 01:36
Hey, you're passing up some potential royalties there. I'm still waiting for the dough for my 1/5 of a Joe "King" Carrasco song.
sonically gorgeous with no real content (watadoo) Sat 6 Apr 02 06:19
El Beau, eh? I worked for 12 years for Elvin Bishop. His nickname to pals was/is Elbow. We always figured the band should have been granted stock option from Budweiser for his heroic adventures under the influence.
Berliner (captward) Sat 6 Apr 02 06:24
So, David, you made any dough off of this book yet? What's the breakdown with the publish-on-demand folks, anyway? Is it better (I'm sure it is, but maybe the question is how much better) than you'd get from a "real" publisher?
Suttle (su) Sat 6 Apr 02 09:32
Since you're a rock critic, I'm wondering how the ethics thing works when you have musicians providing favorable book blurbs. Or are the quotes from people you'll never review again?
David Gans (tnf) Sat 6 Apr 02 10:29
Welcome to the inkwell, David! I got a call from our mutual friend G. Brown of the Denver Post yesterday, and he sends his greetings.
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Sat 6 Apr 02 10:48
> Hey, you're passing up some potential royalties there. I'm still > waiting for the dough for my 1/5 of a Joe "King" Carrasco song. > Well, since I wasn't able to pay anyone for their help, I figured the two bits that song generates might be a start!! You asked if I've made any dough -- yes, but not enough so's anybody would notice (when you add in what I spend on webhosting, postage & such). But as you well know, books don't really pay. You do get a slightly better royalty from POD publishers than conventional ones, but not huge. They pay 20 percent, while the standard publishing deal seems to pay about 15 percent. There's another rate for digital downloads, but I do not believe anybody has bought the book that way yet.
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Sat 6 Apr 02 10:50
>El Beau, eh? I worked for 12 years for Elvin Bishop. His nickname to pals was/is Elbow. We always figured the band should have been granted stock option from Budweiser for his heroic adventures under the influence.> I've never met Mr. Bishop, but have heard he could knock 'em back with the best of 'em out there.
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Sat 6 Apr 02 10:57
>Since you're a rock critic, I'm wondering how the ethics thing works when you have musicians providing favorable book blurbs. Or are the quotes from people you'll never review again?> Mostly, it's a let-your-conscience-be-your-guide kinda thing. As with most aspects of the rock-write racket (a profession that seems to operate under the premise that conflict of interest is no big deal if that's what it takes in the name of access), there is no guidebook. It's very possible I might never have cause to review Mojo Nixon again, for example. And with the rest, I figure a good amount of time will have to go by before I write about a blurb-provider again; and chances are, it will take something really extraordinary to get me to type their name again.
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Sat 6 Apr 02 11:03
>I got a call from our mutual friend G. Brown of the Denver Post yesterday, and he sends his greetings.> Tell that rascal hidy from here, too. "Off The Record" has a bit of a G. Brown tribute. One night many years ago, G. spread the word that the Rolling Stones were going to play an unannounced club show (at the Blue Note in Boulder, I believe). A crowd gathered, but when the time came it was G. onstage lip-synching & playing air guitar to a Stones bootleg. Ken, the critic in "OTR," does something similar. He also accompanies a band onstage and "plays" a typewriter at another show, a la Lester Bangs.
David Gans (tnf) Sat 6 Apr 02 13:20
From Gil Asakawa: Yo David, two questions: 1. Give us the nuts and bolts (I'm too lazy to poke around iUniverse to find out for myself) -- how much did it cost for you to actuallly do the book with them? I inagine you pay some sort of fee upfront for them to do the production wrk, then they make the majority of the money back on books sold? Even at a better royalty than the trades, you'd have to sell some big numbers to be able to say you had a "bestseller," right? Then again, it's a great book and you're still getting mileage out of it, so in that sense it's a terrific success. But, did it cost you (other than 3 years and a lot of quiet evenings at home) to make the book? 2. Has there been anyone who recognized a story in the book as something that happened to them? Cool chat! Gil
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Sat 6 Apr 02 18:02
Thank ya, Gil. As for nuts and bolts, yep, there's an upfront fee to get online with iUniverse. It cost me $134, a price that has gone up somewhat; I think it's about $200-$300 now for most books (depending on which package you select). My book's cover price is $19.95, and a 20 percent royalty comes to about $4 per book. So I was at the break-even point at 34 books sold (and I sold more books than that at my first reading). Of course, it's more complicated than that. I only had to pay iUniverse $134 to do the book, but I've spent more on other things -- webhosting for the website, postage, long-distance phone calls, review copies. Plus I make more than $4 on books I sell directly to people; more like $8-$9 on those, since iU authors can get a 45 percent discount on books they order for readings & such. But I make *less* than $4 for books sold through amazon, since iU only pays the 20 percent royalty rate on the wholesale price amazon pays. Bottom line, you can get a book out into the world pretty cheap through iUniverse. But you can't just throw something out there and expect anyone to notice; that's just step one in a very long, involved process. Don't do this if you're impatient, or unwilling to bust your tail flogging it for a good long time. Reality check time: POD is not a magic bullet, either. Dealing with iUniverse is about like dealing with an HMO, in terms of their general level of efficiency and humanity. I would advise anybody thinking about doing this to set it up in such a way that you depend on them for as little as possible, and you won't be disappointed. One bad thing is that they get to determine the price of your book. Originally, they wanted to charge $25.95 for mine, which I thought was way too high. After much begging/pleading, I got that down to $19.95 -- still higher than I'd like, but workable. I should also note that it's very difficult to sell too many books this way, even if you get a lot of press (and I've scored several dozen reviews, in some pretty visible places). It is possible to sell hundreds of books through POD; but I'm not sure you can get into the thousands unless you've got a website that already gets a lot of traffic. POD would be perfect for a musician of the stature of, say, Jerry Jeff Walker, who already does a lot of his business on the web. Just put a link on his website, and I expect he would clean up. As for question #2, yep, plenty of folks have picked up on things in the book that pertained to them -- including the aforementioned G. Brown. I have yet to encounter anybody who was angry about having something they did fictionalized (most seem flattered, in fact), so that's good.
David Gans (tnf) Sat 6 Apr 02 18:32
amazon takes a HUGE chunk out of stuff they sell. They take 55% of the price of my CD over there.
David Gans (tnf) Sat 6 Apr 02 18:32
What does a POD book look like? Is it properly bound?
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Sat 6 Apr 02 20:20
>What does a POD book look like? Is it properly bound?> It is indeed properly bound, and looks like a pretty standard trade paperback book (and anybody out there who has a copy of "Off The Record," please feel free to chime in). I was very pleased with the typesetting and layout job iUniverse did on my book. They'll also design a cover at no charge, but I didn't take them up on that. I got my brother Andy to do one for me. He's a crackerjack graphic artist/web designer, got a degree in computer animation from the Art Institute of SF. There's a link to his site from the "Credits" link at the bottom of my http://www.OffTheRecordBook.com site, for anybody who wants to see more of his stuff.
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Sat 6 Apr 02 20:21
p.s. Oh yeah, and my brother Andy also did an incredibly cool multi-media trailer that's on the website; the link for that is at the top of the page (you'll need Flash to watch that).
Berliner (captward) Mon 8 Apr 02 10:37
So you're not getting rich off of the book...are you getting famous? No, that's a serious question: have you had inquiries from magazines who want you to write for them, or (heh heh, fat chance, I know, but it happens) bites from film producers?
sonically gorgeous with no real content (watadoo) Mon 8 Apr 02 11:06
To the book. I found the first section remarkably spot on, vis a vis a small club scene the *glamour* of a crammed in a van tour. Have you spent time on the road, or was that pretty much extrapolated from talking with players? Either way, you nailed it with extreme prejudice.
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Mon 8 Apr 02 13:46
>So you're not getting rich off of the book...are you getting famous? No, that's a serious question: have you had inquiries from magazines who want you to write for them, or (heh heh, fat chance, I know, but it happens) bites from film producers?> It has done wonders in terms of visibility among my fellow rock critics; but that has not really translated into inquiries from magazines beyond a few things here and there (just my luck to be doing this at a time when the magazine world seems to be collapsing even faster than the record business). Actually, there have been a few tantalizing nibbles on the film end of things. But so far, it has come to naught (and my fingers are starting to hurt from keeping them crossed for so long). Most everybody who has read the book says it has film potential, so here's hoping.
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