Arts & Entertainment

Life as a rockstar: R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Bertis Downs on music, fame, business, and more

September 29, 2021

Life as a rockstar: R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Bertis Downs on music, fame, business, and more

Mike Mills & Bertis Downs

R.E.M. Bassist & R.E.M. Manager

R.E.M.'s bassist, Mike Mills, and manager Bertis Downs discuss the creative process and the incredible rise of the iconic band.

R.E.M. went from playing small venues in Athens, Georgia, to playing music festivals with an audience of 200,000+ plus fans, not to mention being named the best rock and roll band by Rolling Stone Magazine in 1987. On the latest Walker Webcast,  R.E.M.'s bassist, Mike Mills, and manager Bertis Downs joined us to discuss the creative process behind some of their hits, the business that goes on behind the scenes, and the incredible rise of the iconic band.

The latest webcast highlights R.E.M.'s manager, Bertis Downs, and founding member, Mike Mills. Listen as they share about the journey of the band getting going. To kick off the episode, they recount the story of Ingrid Schorr and R.E.M.'s "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" lyrics. From opening for The Police at the Fox Theater in Atlanta to the New Music Movement, they chat about their early traction and how Bertis become a non-musical member of R.E.M. instead of teaching at the law school. Bertis walks through his honorary role and the incredibly generous posture of the band. 

Shifting to the band, their run of albums, and emergence, Willy asks when they felt like they moved to a different level of fame from the traction they gained. With a gradual rise to build momentum, they really absorbed the success process as it came; however, the release of "Losing My Religion" proved pivotal. How did they work as a group during this emergence? Mike discusses their strategic decisions to split songwriting, instill a veto power, and not get involved in other businesses. Willy asks both Bertis and Mike about their nerves before a show—from the band and the business side. While they were necessarily thinking about things on different levels, both saw nerves as important to their success. They share about the annual meetings, addressing business, and simply hanging out as friends. Willy asks Mike which comes first —music or lyrics? Listen as he provides a surprising answer! Bertis also shares about the band's gracious responses to his music requests. 

Mike and Bertis shift the script and ask Willy to share how he met them. Learn about R.E.M.'s advertisement as the "#1 Rock Band" on the cover of the Rolling Stone magazine, the Paraguay trip when they realized their global impact—as their music was on the radio in another country— and more. Willy recalls how amazed he was that R.E.M. was at the top of their game, and yet he got to spend some real-time with them.

With the release of "Losing My Religion," their pace accelerated, and they became known as rock stars. How was the world different in the '90s? Signing on with Warner Brothers increased their global outreach and proved to penetrate more global barriers. Mike and Bertis recall how their worlds changed so much during these times as the band was getting busier. In keeping their full creative control over their band, R.E.M. took on great responsibility for the decisions they made, but they also leveraged an immense amount of freedom. They wanted to make the music they were passionate about, and this gave them the opportunity to do so. 

Willy also asks about the similarities and differences between U2 and R.E.M. in how they operated as bands. Bertis shares how they actually looked at U2 as an example and model to follow for operations from a business standpoint. As U2 maintained such a high standard and class, R.E.M. was passionate about also holding to an elevated level of honesty and integrity in an industry where not much existed.

As the episode draws to a close, these professionals share their thoughts on intellectual property rights, streaming, and rewarding artists today. While we have not yet arrived, they believe we are working towards the proper standards and goals. With the world of social media and streaming today, it is easier for a band to get their music out, but the gradual curve of emergence no longer exists. Bertis and Mike leave listeners with their personal favorites from the vast library of R.E.M. hits!

Please like, share, and subscribe! 


Check out R.E.M.'s website
Learn more about Bertis Downs
Learn more about Mike Mills
Check out Walter & Dunlop's website

Read Transcript

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