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R.E.M. Manager on His Favorite Songs, What’s Next, & Ronald Reagan’s Role in the Band

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By Weeping Elvis on January 30, 2012

Bertis Downs was R.E.M.’s manager and lawyer for more than three decades until their breakup last year. He’s widely regarded as the fifth member of the band (or fourth after the departure of drummer Bill Berry).

I met him in the ’90s, when I was Music Director at WHFS in Washington, D.C., and I can say he’s also one of the most down-to-earth and genuine people I’ve met in the music industry.

He spoke with me from Atlanta about about all things R.E.M., including how if it weren’t for President Ronald Reagan, he wouldn’t have been their manager.

Is it still possible for bands to have a long career, like R.E.M. did?

It’s a very good question, I think about it all the time. It’s a very different world and there are very different tools now. It’s easier than ever to get your music out there [but] it’s harder than ever to get attention for it and to get paid for it and to make a career of it. I think it’s sort of the best of times and the worst of times these days. You certainly wouldn’t go about it the way we did. It was a pretty simple world back in the early ’80s. You kind of had this goal that you were going to make it and there was a way to do that, and some good, talented, lucky bands did that — now it’s just not as clear of a path. There’s just a whole lot more ways to go about it and I think in a lot of ways harder and harder to make it add up into a career. That’s not to say it can’t be done, it’s being done — musicians are always going to find a way to figure it out.

What advice would you give to new bands?

I can’t think of anything that isn’t incredibly cliché. Touring is still a band’s bread and butter — now there are just way more ways to release music and maybe harder to get paid for it in any substantial way.

It was like clockwork with R.E.M. They put out an album once a year, you bought it and you went to see them on tour. It was a pretty simple world. It didn’t seem that simple at the time, but looking back, there just weren’t that many variables. You had this massive record company that eventually did one thing: got us on the radio. There were only a limited number of records that could even could get on the radio; now everything in the world is on all the various services, so there’s more music than ever proliferating. What’s the key? There really is no magic formula.

How did you end up managing R.E.M.?

I got out of law school in 1981, in the spring. That was the spring after Ronald Reagan had been inaugurated president. I graduated from Davidson where I thought I was going to become a public interest lawyer. I thought I was going to be an advocate on issues around poverty, prison and public service. There were no jobs. Places like Legal Services or Legal Aid, anybody I wrote to, wrote me back to say: “Dear Mr. Downs, thanks for your letter, we think you are very qualified, but we have no money, we’re not hiring, we don’t think we’re going to be around in a year.”

I stayed in Athens to sort of tread water—to pay the bills, I taught at the law school and I moonlighted by helping these guys out in a band. A few years later it became like a job. I’d gone to DC; I’d done my clerkship. I came back to Athens and there was enough work that we had a career. That was kind of gradual from ’81-85. If it hadn’t been for Reagan getting elected I probably would have gotten a job in Virginia, or West Virginia, I applied at various places and I got all rejections because nobody was hiring because it was such a bad time for the public interest sector.

It’s kind of funny, because of the band’s and my interest in a lot of those same issues we got to have a different influence through wherever we were in a public sector or philanthropy or benefits. I still got to get that part of my interest in public sector issues executed even though it wasn’t by being a lawyer but as being a manager of a band.

Click on over to Weeping Elvis to read Pat Ferrise’s full interview.

(photo by John Curry)



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