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, DC, and 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.
What are some of your favorite R.E.M. songs?
I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for “Gardening at Night”. It’s one of the first songs they wrote and I was hooked from the word go. I really liked “Walk It Back” from the last record; I think it’s a fabulous song. I really liked “All the Best”; it’s an incredible rocker. I think that was an underrated song from the last record. “Oh my Heart” is a beautiful song too. The key to R.E.M. has always been the songwriting. They make good records, they did good tours, they did great shows, but they wrote great songs and that’s what I think they’ll really be remembered for is the songwriting.
Tomorrow I could give you three different songs; it’s always changing but I’d always say “Gardening at Night.” It’s just always up there. I was so tickled they played that at the Hall of Fame and it’s on the Live at the Olympia record. That song actually sounds better now in later years because they were brand new musicians when they first wrote it and they played it great when they recorded it for Chronic Town but they didn’t play it for over 20 years, so the few times they’ve played it recently the tapes don’t lie, they sound really good. They’re a very accomplished band playing that song.
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.
Who did you meet first in R.E.M.?
I knew Peter from Wuxtry, where I used to buy records, particularly Neil Young records and in those days I was a starving law student and he was a starving college student, he was very good at coaching me on which Neil Young records were worth buying. Peter would say, “Ah you really should get this one, that one’s not really that essential.” So he coached me one what Neil Young records to buy. There was also The Clash, I was into the British scene with band like the Buzzcocks too.
Peter is who I knew first, and then I was on the concert committee at the University of Georgia with a guy named Bill Berry. That was in the fall of 1978 turn of the year ’79. I didn’t meet Mike and Michael until the guys started the band, which was in ’80.
I was just a guy in law school who had a radio show and had been on the concert committee, I was always interested but didn’t know anything about it. They needed some help on things like trademark and their first contract so I started learning and went to legal seminars and worked with a law firm in New York, that helped us out. They helped me learn and helped the band as lawyers.
What’s next for you?
It’s kind of multiple parts. There will still be some R.E.M. business. There is likely to be ongoing individual guys in R.E.M. stuff going on, they’ll get busy they’ll decide to do things, I’ll be available to help them out on that. There’s the ongoing legacy stuff, catalog, licensing kind of things that we’ll still look after and take care of, I’ll do a bit of teaching at the law school. Athens is a pretty special place. I’m involved in a lot of community issues around town, especially public education issues — both our girls go to public school.
Thanks to Bertis Downs for spending time with us at Weeping Elvis.