In his terrific barbed-wire of a book Kill Your Friends - about the serpentine pathways that must be negotiated by execs in the music industry - John Niven introduces us to his main character, an A&R exec called Steven Stelfox with these words.
"So here's what I do. I listen to music - singers, bands, songwriters - and decide which ones stand a good chance of commercial success. I then arrange for them to be recorded in a sympathetic manner and we, the record company, sell them to you, the general public. Sound easy? Get f***** - you wouldn't last ten minutes."
It is easily the most genial and cordial thing Steven says in the entire book.
In fact, Steven is an acidic mess of a man. Often sloshed and coked up, He acknowledges his lack of talent, but is so disparaging of the music business that he believes he is working well below his station of calling - which really should be Head of A&R at his (fictitous) label.
In one early scene, Steven is in a status update meeting with other execs at the label. A&R (Artists and Repertoire) primarily handles artist discovery and development. Rapidly Steven introduces us to his colleagues - he paints each one as a loser. He's particularly scathing on women, a behaviorial trait that often gives the book hilarious and shocking hues.
Later Niven writes a hilarious scene in which Steven is at Cannes and listening to a single produced by a German producer. It has wildly NC-17 lyrics, but the tune is ridiculously catchy. As Steven thinks his way through the pros and cons of buying the single - and subsequent marketing strategy - we get an insight into the making of a very (manufactured) hit.
Delving into Steven's mind is a technique Niven uses to great effect throughout the book. He's particularly adept at describing the blur that is Steven's life. And these descriptions are very immersive - they transport you right out of the book and into Steven's frenzied world.
Around the end of the first third, the book starts to drag just a little - primarily because Steven's cultivated dementedness begins to wear thin. But with near perfect timing, Niven has Steven indulge in an act that takes you by surprise and instantly gives the book a loose but propulsive plot.
Musical celebrities are interwoven into the fiction in this book. Each chapter describes the events of a month. Its prefaced with a summary of significant events that occured in music history - allowing the fiction to take root in the real world, and also giving us period markers.
May starts like this (links inserted by me).
"Spice Girls do massive Pepsi deal. Lots of interest in Ultrasound now. The Jamiroquai LP goes triple platinum. Audioweb's single 'Faker' charts at 70. Deconstruction signs this girl singer called Sylvia Powell...."
There are lot of details woven into Niven's story. We get great insights into how talent is scouted, coaxed, cajoled and "discovered". In a deeply amusing and interesting story arc, Steven develops a girl band with virtually no talent in the hope that they can ride post-Spice Girls Girl Power to a multiplatinum hit. One fascinating section has Steven talking about the amount of cash it takes to maintain his lifestyle.
There was one overriding concern I had while reading this book - that the central protagonists' personality would end up overpowering the story itself. Magically it doesn't happen - and 'Kill Your Friends' ends up being one hugely entertaining read of lasting impact.
Kill Your Friends: A Novel is available in the US from Harper Perrenial, a paperback imprint of Harper Collins that focusses on new and young writers.