Years after its last album, 1990s icon R.E.M. has managed to carve out a lucrative niche by sticking to its original plan
From a renovated red-brick factory near the train tracks in Athens, Georgia, Bertis Downs orchestrates the afterlife of R.E.M. At its peak, R.E.M. had seven full-time office workers; now they’re down to two, plus Downs. The three administer the fan club, sell T-shirts, deposit royalty cheques, and otherwise ensure that the former band members are free to pursue their post-R.E.M. passions, which currently include teaching art at New York University (singer Michael Stipe), composing a rock concerto (bassist Mike Mills), and running a music festival in Mexico (guitarist Peter Buck).
R.E.M. officially ended 31 years together as a band in 2011. But they remain business partners by necessity, relying on Downs, a naturally caffeinated 58-year-old lawyer, to steer the ship. It’s not strenuous work. If you have a back catalogue as packed with classic albums as R.E.M.’s, the cheques will keep rolling in. You can throw a batch of dead-stock tour shirts up on the website and watch them fly out the door.
“If it had been a band that people felt less strongly about, I’m not sure we would’ve gotten all the cooperation we got”
But like everything else in the music industry, the place of a legacy band such as R.E.M. isn’t as solid as it once was. The shift from album sales to digital downloads to streaming has turned dollars to pennies, and the crowded cultural landscape is unforgiving to anything that smacks of age. (Recall Twitter during Paul McCartney’s appearance at the Grammys). Downs has no masterplan to combat this. But what he’s discovering is that the future of the band is like its distant past, the early days when they had the luxury of no expectations and simply focussed on doing things that felt right.
So while other disbanded groups indiscriminately pimp out their back catalogues and dream up remix gimmicks to get back on the pop charts, Downs is targeting true believers —with a $99 set of six DVDs called REMTV compiling a wealth of videos, interviews, and live performances from MTV and its affiliated channels. It’s a quirky product, yet seen in the context of the band’s history — and the intimate relationship its members maintained with their followers, even at the height of their stardom — it makes sense as a natural evolution of their unorthodox business strategy.
Before he was their lawyer and manager, Downs was R.E.M.’s first freaky fan. Cut to the Kaffee Klub in downtown Athens, in the wee hours of 19 April, 1980. Shortly after the band’s second-ever show was halted by the police (who cited the owner for “illegally running a discotheque”), Downs, then a 23-year-old law student at the University of Georgia, introduced himself to the four sweaty musicians. Recollections of the exchange vary. Buck has said that Downs told them they’d be the biggest band in the world and that they rolled their eyes. “I don’t know all of what Peter has said about it over the years,” Downs says, “but yes, early on I told them they could make it. Whatever that meant to any of us. I guess to have a career and a business of sorts.”
From the beginning, R.E.M. succeeded by studying how others screwed up. Buck, a record-store manager, was a self-taught expert in these matters. He understood that bands tear themselves apart when one or two members hog the songwriting credits and make a tonne more money than the others. Buck proposed an easy fix: Regardless of where any one song originated, all four members of R.E.M. would share the credit, in alphabetical order: Bill Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe.
When R.E.M.’s only asset was a $1,200 van, Downs got them incorporated and insured, then secured the rights to their name. Purchasing a fax machine was a huge breakthrough. They made five albums with the minimajor I.R.S. Records before signing with major-major Warner Bros. in 1988 for a five-record deal that was worth as much as $12 million. Still, they struggled with many aspects of success. In 1987, just as they were starting to play large venues, Buck told Rolling Stone, “If we ever did a stadium tour, I would imagine it would be about the last thing we’d ever do together.”
MTV was hugely important to the band. Born at the exact same moment in 1981 — R.E.M. released their first single, Radio Free Europe, in July; MTV premiered on 1 August — Buck and the others were initially worried about how videos interfered with the experience of listening to their music. So R.E.M.’s early video attempts were modest little art projects that Stipe oversaw. They eventually came around to the MTV-endorsed trend of hiring an outside director to bring his own visual style. “We saw how videos were transforming the business, and we changed our mind,” Mills says. “We didn’t want to be stupid about it.”
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