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One on one with R.E.M. manager Bertis E. Downs, IV

Spanning a career of over three decades, R.E.M. achieved what few bands ever do: become one of the biggest names in the music industry without faltering or losing control over their content. The local Athens group formed in 1981 and recorded 15 studio albums inviting critical acclaim many times over. From 1981's hit "Radio Free Europe" to 1992's No. 1 hit "Losing my Religion," up to their last studio album, "Collapse Into Now," the group helped to define the college radio movement, alternative rock and recorded some of the greatest songs in rock 'n' roll history during the process. R.E.M. was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 and went on to release its final two studio albums, 2007's "Accelerate" and 2011's "Collapse into Now" (an appropriate title to end on). In September 2011, the band formally announced that they were "calling it a day," and with the typical grace and dignity they had shown for over 30 years, R.E.M. calmly, composedly and serenely disbanded.

Like many people who grew up in Gwinnett County or in the surrounding area, I grew up feeling like R.E.M. was my band. They were our local group and they were our hometown heroes. We were excited when they garnered national success and even more so when they became an international sensation. After my first R.E.M. record, 1986's "Life's Rich Pageant," I immediately became a devoted fan. It wasn't long after, that R.E.M. belonged to the world.

This is not, however, a story about the music. This is a story of the lawyer behind the music.

On Jan. 30, 2012, a beautiful and cloudless Monday afternoon, I traveled to Athens to meet with attorney and long-time R.E.M. manager Bertis E. Downs, IV. Our discussion over the next hour was conducted in his home, sitting at his dining room table, modestly and candidly discussing his career as a lawyer and manager for one of the world's biggest bands. From the outset, I made clear that my request to sit down with him was my interest in his story, as an attorney, about how he became the lawyer and manager for one of the world's best known musical acts. His response was overwhelmingly warm and receptive. If you've met Bertis, or Bert, as his friends know him, you know him to be kind, enthusiastic and very thoughtful and deliberate in his communication. He will dismiss in self-deprecation a good measure of his success, by stating that he simply got lucky. It is undeniable, however, that his positivity is infectious and has no doubt served him well over his career.

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 80's as more management, I'm really more of a manager at this time. 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, so we have those kinds of law firms that we have long standing relationships with and will use them depending on what the situation is. So I really function more in an executive or management capacity going back for years. Although it is true that my initial entry into this was at the time I was just getting out of law school and helping out with some very early legal work.

You all have had an amazing career, thirty years of great music.

Yeah, we recorded fifteen studio albums, five with IRS and 10 with Warner Brothers. Plus the live stuff. It's quite a large body of work, and a lot of songs.

R.E.M. formed in the very early 80's at a time when you were in law school.

I graduated law school in 1981 from the University of Georgia, College of Law. Their first record was that same year and then another one came out in 1982. From there they started putting out records about once a year. 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 Journal and Constitution at the time of his abduction). I went there just as a guy off the street interested in the case and spent several days watching as a spectator.

So that sort of piqued your interest?

It did. 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. I was interested in law, was interested in several types of issues from the liberal arts courses I was taking in college. Long story short, I ended up working a summer with three other college students at the Fulton County jail. It was a part of a program that Judge Etheridge and the Fulton County Commission enabled us to do. It was a recreation program implemented in what was then a very crowded jail, at the time about one thousand inmates. I'm sure it is now a lot more than that but it's in the same location where it is now. Needless to say it was a really educational experience.It sounds like a pretty unique opportunity.

It was. 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 which was brand new and is now the "W". I worked there as a bellhop with another friend from Davidson. He also worked with me at the jail. We worked as bellhops two nights a week.

(I took a Barbri course in preparation for the bar exam at the top of that same hotel in 2003) What was it like being a bellhop?

It was the summer that the Rolling Stones, 1975, did their "Tour of the Americas" and they based their southeastern dates at the Fairmont Hotel. So I didn't know that at the time I started the job, but I ended up doing a lot of work with them and I remember my main sensation being "how can these really old guys, who are like in their thirties, how can they still be doing this? They've been around forever and in their thirties they are still doing this." I remember thinking it was really neat that they were still at it, and here I was a college kid being their bellhop, running their errands and doing all the things that bellmen do. I was experiencing and working with this operation, this incredible moving city that a rock tour is.

Wow, do you see that as foreshadowing what you'd be doing later in your life?

I don't know ... it was the first time I was exposed to that glimpse of the world of rock bands and touring. But it was an interesting summer. I went from being a Davidson student as a freshman, then sophomore, deciding to be a history major, then deciding to maybe go to law school. It was a very forging summer for me, having those two jobs, working early mornings and then being on the 3-11 shift at the hotel. But it was fun. It was a very varied summer. Not a lot of college kids get both those experiences in the same summer.

It sounds like a great experience and lesson in both public service and seeing what it takes to be with a band on the road.

Yeah, it just sort of happened that way and I had taken a couple of courses in sociology and a comparative study of society. It opened my eyes that not everybody had grown up like me. I had grown up in suburban America. I went to high school in Decatur and it was a summer for me to realize some aspects of the world that I had never really considered and had never been a part of my personal experience.

You received your undergraduate at Davidson College in North Carolina? How did you end up there?

My dad went there. He was Bertis Downs the third (3rd) and I'm the fourth (4th). Davidson was the only school I ever wanted to go to. My dad graduated in 1953 and I graduated twenty five years later in 1978 and then went to law school.

You went straight from Davidson to Georgia College of Law?

Yeah, I had considered Vanderbilt, but Georgia made the most sense for me.

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.

So you really came out of law school like a lot of people, coming out of school wanting to do something but the opportunity is not there ... there are a lot of students and new lawyers who can relate to that in this market.

Certainly, and so being able to be at the law school and getting to help this band out that had just gotten started, it seemed like something that would be a decent couple of years. I had applied for some clerkships that first year out and ended up getting a job in D.C. with a judge on the federal circuit.When was that clerkship?

That was for one year.1983.

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.

That was with IRS Records?

Yeah, they signed with IRS in 1982 when I was at the law school.

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? You know, the inner-workings of the business, concerts etc. I always had an affinity for it, but I wasn't an expert at all...there wasn't such a thing of it at the time. Not as an expert and certainly not in Athens, so I sort of fell into it.

But attitude probably goes a long way, wouldn't you think? The times we have met, you come across as a very positive person.

I try to be ... and (the band) had a lot of potential. They were, and are, great songwriters. Every time they got together and wrote a batch of songs they kept creating more and more great songs. Then one record, another record, they clearly had, you know, to me, they clearly had what it took to become a successful enterprise. I didn't really know at the time what it was but it seemed that they had it. They had great songs, they played really well, had a great line-up in terms of cohesiveness between the four ... a true band. So they had really good potential and why not give it a shot? We signed with IRS and then a bunch of years later they started being more successful and it started being like a career. They started buying houses and thinking this is something that can last a while. We ended up signing with Warner Brothers in 1988 and that was our label from 1988 until the final album.

From the time of your clerkship to 1988, you were back here with the University?

Yes, I was teaching writing full time and in 1987 I made the transition to teaching the entertainment law class. I taught that for a long time, from 1988 until only a couple of years ago. I still may teach it at some point but right now things are still hectic so I haven't gone back to teaching.

You have also had the opportunity to teach a lot of international students.

Oh yeah, over the years I've taught quite a few in both the writing program and in the LLM program that you're familiar with. As a result, a lot of international students, particularly the ones interested in Intellectual Property would be interested in taking the entertainment class, so I've interacted a lot with some of the various parts of the world, and I've kept up with a few of them.

You taught Dr. Christof Siefarth, LL.M., who is a partner in a German law firm in Cologne and my former boss - at least during the summer of 2001. I know that he has been able to do some work for the band in Germany. I imagine that your exposure at the College must give you all some good ability to create ties all over the world.

Oh yes, absolutely. We have really good ties.

Outside of the United States, what have been your favorite places to go and visit?

Well there's too many to just say one, but certainly Italy is a really strong market for R.E.M. and is also a lot of fun to go to. We finally, on the last tour, got to go to Turkey -- Istanbul -- and that had never been done.

Any places you never got to?

We never got to India or China. It just never occurred. It is very costly to get to all of those places and in terms of the touring and various things that have to come together. How you route a tour and the places you know you're going to be able to do fine and the ones you want to take a little more of a risk on all have to be calculated. We have been able to throw in some exotic places. We played the Balkans a fair amount, we played the Baltic area twice, Lithuania, Latvia, some of those places, that's just kind of fun because at the same time places like Dublin, and London, and Chicago, where you go all the time, where you've been since a little baby band all the way up, those are great too. That's a terrible answer ... I guess there are no stronger places for R.E.M. around the world than I'd say Ireland and Italy. Those two places, in terms of the love that those countries have had for our guys, their songs and over their career that they've played shows ... those two places. They are also really fun.

Yeah, I recall some shows in Dublin that were rehearsals for a tour?

It was actually not a rehearsal for tour. What it was is that they decided to kind of reconnect with the way they used to work which was that they would work out new songs while touring. So all year long when they had a new record out, like say "Reckoning," they would be playing songs that would eventually become "Fables [of the Reconstruction]." Well, there gets to be a point with the way things work ... longer time between records, time off being an important part of things ... when they get back together, write an album, record an album, go tour an album, they start thinking you know ... sometimes songs really take a life of their own when you play them for a live audience. We had to plan this pretty far in advance but we rented a theater (The Olympia) for a bunch of nights in Dublin. It was smaller, about, 1500 seats, roughly a third the size of the Fox [Theater in Atlanta]. We rented it for a week and let the fan club know about it. That way we got the tickets out on the website in a way that would be going to real fans and not scalpers.That was to audition the new songs?

The idea was to play new songs and in playing those new songs they may find some aspects of arrangement or tempo or just things about the song that they liked better with that actual feedback from a crowd. So it wasn't really rehearsing for a tour. They went straight from playing those shows into the studio to record the record. It was the record "Accelerate." We did those shows in Dublin in the first week in July 2007, and then recorded "Accelerate" and put it out the following March.

So they got the advantage of a tour without having to go on tour?

Yeah, they weren't really on tour but they were getting feedback from an audience, and then the other really neat thing about that was because they had these people come from certainly all over the U.K., but in some cases from other countries as well, they decided that in addition to playing all these new songs, they also decided to play a lot of classics that they really don't play anymore. A lot of old IRS stuff. So they played "West of the Fields," they played "Pilgrimage" ... they played "Gardening at Night," stuff that they'd really pretty much not played in twenty 20 years. So that was kind of fun because the fans that are there, they are kind of a captive audience, they're happy to hear the new stuff from their band R.E.M., they also got to hear some real treats ... that was totally the band's idea ... they didn't play the normal stuff. It made it a really special show. So that was kind of nice.

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' cell phones 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. It felt like, uh, is this the right way to do this? It's like a lot of things you do that you're just trying to figuring out, meaning that there is no particular set playbook like there was when there was more control and less ability for that kind of thing to happen.

I remember buying "Accelerate" over by the Mall of Georgia and sitting in my car and being blown away ... it was like being thrown back into my teenage years.

Well it sounded like a live album ... like an album that would have been meant to play live and they did tour that record.

It's actually in my CD player right now.

Well,that's where it came from; it came from the "Live at the Olympia" stuff.

Were you there for the entire week?

Yes

How did you balance that being a family man?

Well, it was in the summertime so my family was over there. There are times on tours that I have to be gone longer than I want to be but it's a job and it's only every couple of years and now we're not touring anymore but in summers we figure out a way for family to be around for some of it. They're not going to make every move night after night after night like the tour does, but with plenty of planning we figure out places where we will have days off, figure out places that are particularly fun for kids and have a pool in the hotel so over the years they've gotten to be in some pretty fun places as they've grown up. Again, we only toured every few years so it's not like it was every year. It would be kind of nuts to try and do so on a continual basis like some people do. Our guys have just never toured all that often. We toured 2005, 2008 and again in 2011 so that was every three years until we stopped.

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 cliche, 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.

How so?

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 anymore. 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.

It sounds like it was not your intent coming out of law school to end up being this band's full time lawyer.It sounds like it just blossomed over time as you grew as a lawyer and as they grew as a group.

Yeah, it kind of evolved.

To a law school student right now thinking this is what they may like to do, how would that best be approached? Like you did, helping a band or other talent while doing something else on the side, or presumptively going into a large, medium, or small boutique that does that work for and fosters several different bands or talents?

There are a lot of different ways to try doing it. It is a hard area to break into. It's just because a lot of people want to be doing it and a lot of people have experienced counsel. It's definitely ... it's not easy to pull it off.

Are you musical in any way?

I have always liked music and been around music, my daughters both play piano, which we bought in Gwinnett County from Piano Works up there in Duluth. So I took piano lessons as a kid, I played in the band at Shamrock. I was in the concert band and marching band. I was interested in and a fan of the Allman Brothers and Neal Young. I was always kind of a fan and interested in the way things worked. I thought I might like doing that kind of thing someday but didn't know what it was, maybe a promoter or working in radio. Then I decided to go to law school so that is more compatible with management skills ... that's kind of the way it worked out.

Respect the music enough not to try it yourself?

Yeah! I've never taken guitar lessons or anything.

I took up the highland bagpipe in law school.

Oh really ...

Yeah I figured there would be nothing more obnoxious than a lawyer who is also a bagpiper and that's pretty much been true. I went to the College of Piping in Glasgow when I got out of law school...I did sort of the opposite of what you did; I went into the Navy before I went to college. And I had such an eye opening experience in the Navy, having joined to see the world; I got stationed in Kings Bay, Georgia inside a submarine and never saw anything else.

For three years!

Yeah 1992-1995, so I got out and said take two, and I got a German degree, that's how I saw the world, through UGA.So where did you go to undergrad and law school? Both at Georgia?

I did my undergrad at Georgia for my German degree and then I went to Georgia State College of Law for my law degree. I think I went in at 28 and got out at 31. I was a little older.

I'd say that's the standard now most people don't go straight through. They get out of undergrad and then come back in their late twenties (20s).

Yeah, it seemed like the crazier your story was the more law school admissions wanted you.

With a career spanning thirty one years I wonder that if one were to listen with a really keen ear to the entire R.E.M. catalog, is there anywhere that your voice can be heard?

Yes. In the early days there was a song called "Windout."The version I am on was done in Reflections Studio up in Charlotte for their first albums. It was done as sort of a fun thing ... sort of a riff. It's on the B-side that has me on it.

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.

It's always been very collaborative hasn't it?

Oh yeah, the band have always been a true band. First they were a four-piece and then when Billleft in 1997 they became a three-piece, but it has always been a democracy. And of course as a group artist there are always more variables and complexities than as a solo artist. You have three equals that are calling the shots and making decisions and then somebody like me who helps figure things out and look at decision points ... that ends up being my role.

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.

I'd like to thank you guys for providing the soundtrack to my teens, twenties (20s) and thirties (30s). It's been a real pleasure getting to talk with you.

Thank you very much Shawn, I appreciate your getting in touch with us.

Shawn Fitzpatrick Bratton is a Gwinnett County part-time Magistrate Judge and an Associate at the law firm of Mahaffey Pickens Tucker, LLP.