R.E.M. recorded its first album in 1981, and one person who was there from the beginning was attorney Bertis E. Downs IV, who started out providing legal services for the band and ended up managing its business affairs, a role that he continues today. Late last year, the band announced it was disbanding, but Downs said he remains busy taking care of the band’s business.
Downs recently talked about his role with the band in a conversation with attorney Shawn Bratton, a part-time Gwinnett County magistrate judge, an associate at Mahaffey Pickens Tucker and a lifetime fan who grew up with the band’s music. Their conversation, edited for brevity, follows.
How does a sole practitioner act as legal counsel for a world-famous band?
You don’t. I’ve really functioned for years now, going back to the ’80s, as more management. I’m still a lawyer, but the band uses a firm in Atlanta—Kilpatrick Townsend—and a firm in Los Angeles—Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown—for actual contract work and for legal compliance issues. That kind of lawyering is impossible for a solo practitioner to do on the scale of a band our size. My role just sort of developed slowly until it became more of a management capacity in the late ’80s.
What got you interested in law school? Did the law profession run in your family?
Not at all. My dad had been a minister. Both Bertis the first and second were pharmacists. I remember always being interested in law, and I really became interested as early as middle school and high school. I recall going downtown and watching the trial of the man who kidnapped Reg Murphy [the editor of The Atlanta Constitution at the time of his abduction].
Years later I went back and visited the Superior Court judge of that case, Judge Jack Etheridge. I was a freshman at Davidson College at the time and remember going to visit him during Christmas break. I went over looking for internships or anything at the courthouse I could do. Long story short, I ended up working a summer with three other college students at the Fulton County Jail. That summer I worked at the Fulton County Jail during the day, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. ,and then I went to work at the Fairmont Hotel at Colony Square.
It was the summer that the Rolling Stones did their Tour of the Americas ’75, and they based their Southeastern dates at the Fairmont Hotel. I remember my main sensation being, “How can these really old guys, who are like in their 30s, how can they still be doing this?”
Did you do any clerkship as a student?
I did. I worked for Hudson and Montgomery, which is a law firm here in Athens that is still going strong. I am still good friends with them. They are a litigation firm and I clerked for them at different times over a couple of years.
You first met the guys who would become R.E.M. while you were still in law school?
Yeah. I met them very early on and began helping them over time as they needed it.
What were your first jobs out of law school?
After law school, I started teaching at the university, teaching the writing program, which was my first job. It was a way to be in Athens. The real story is that I was trying to get a job in the public sector but it was the year of the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. I was applying for jobs at the same time that everybody’s budgets were completely frozen or cut. It was a terrible time to be looking for that kind of work, which is what I had thought all through law school that I would be doing. I had done legal aid and defender clinic and those kinds of things. There were very limited clinics then compared to the ones that we have now. So when I graduated, being able to stay in Athens and teach law school sounded pretty good.
Were you able to still help the band out during that year?
No. That year I was not actively involved in their career, but I came back to Athens in 1984. That was basically when they had their second record out so I came back for their second record. That was almost 30 years ago.
Your varied positions right out of school sound like they provided a good range of work and the opportunity to enable you to learn a lot and build a good practice.
And I got lucky. There is a certain amount of fortuity, luck, fortune, hard work and experience that go into that. I did the volunteering with the band early on because I was just happy to help out. At Davidson I had been on the concert committee and had a radio show. I was always interested in music but I was interested more in the business side of music: how does it work?
Were there any concerns with presenting these songs prior to the album’s creation or release?
What was really interesting about those shows is that when you play something in 2007 live it goes over the Internet. It’s on peoples’ cellphones and it’s immediately all around the Internet. We decided it was fine. We decided to kind of go with the flow.
In fact, a lot of the early word that Accelerate was a really good record was because of that and it didn’t hurt us. It’s hard to tell exactly what the effect was, but we didn’t ever sense that it did. What it did do was let people hear these same songs live, rougher versions of them that eventually get perfected into this beautiful masterpiece … same songs. They still bought the record.
It was a very successful record for us. We didn’t feel like it hurt; in fact, it probably helped that there were some advance fans. People in Atlanta who would have loved to have been there ended up seeing it on YouTube. It ended up being a good thing. But it definitely at the time felt like it was kind of risky.
Over the years did you ever feel any power struggles with defining your duties as manager against the duties being imposed or put on you by others in the business?
I’ve always tried to approach things with collaborative, pardon the cliché, but as transparent, fair-dealing, and direct and, you know, just good clear communication … but no, the world’s definitely changing in the way record labels, managers and agents and artists and advertisers operate. There are just so many more variables now than there were when we started.
When we started it was a really simple world. When we started you made a record, you got a record deal, you put it out and you toured. You might make it. These were pretty much the possibilities.
Now, there are so many more ways to release records, so many more ways to promote records, so many more ways to reach people. So everybody’s doing it, so it’s a more cluttered world but nobody really knows what the magic combinations are to make it any more.
One thing is for sure, you can’t monetize the sale of the recorded music the way that you once did. Sales are just not the same. There are other things, streaming services, touring, etc. There are just so many more variables now so it’s a much more complicated world than the one we started in.
What are your thoughts on the decision to formally disband after all this time?
It feels to me that they decided to stop as a band when it made sense for them to do so. They felt like they had a great run, a great career, and they wanted to stop when they did as opposed to just going through the motions, which can easily happen.
I admire it as a very mature decision, a very thoughtful and considered decision, and obviously we are still sort of figuring out what’s next. That’s not at all conclusive, just because nobody really knows.
Now that the band is no longer actively recording or touring, what will you do?
There is still a lot happening. They obviously have a large catalog of music. There is still work to do on the business end. They continue to be in business together. They are not active, meaning they are not making new records, but there are still decisions to be made about songs and catalog licensing rights. So there is going to be a category of work that’s still not as busy but there will still be work to be done.
Editor’s note: Initially, this article about R.E.M. business manager and lawyer Bertis E. Downs IV, “Taking care of business for R.E.M.,” mistakenly said, due to an editing error, that Downs served in the U.S. Navy. The article should have said that the interviewer, Shawn Bratton, served in the Navy. This article now reflects the correction.