The idea of a band breaking up doesn’t really carry the same weight it once did. There was a time when bands parted ways in acrimonious implosions or at least in burnt out collapse; nowadays, groups end with an abundance of (ugh) grown-up maturity, all respectful and amicable, and fan’s dismay is tempered by the fact that, given recent trends, a reunion tour can’t be that far down the road. Scanning the official news of R.E.M.’s recent split, one finds lines like, “There’s no disharmony here, no falling-outs, no lawyers squaring off” and, “A wise man once said, ‘the skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave’”. The adult in me appreciates such reasonable behavior, but the trashy idiot in me (and there’s a lot of him in there) is left a little wanting. Didn’t they scream and hurl whiskey bottles at each other? Isn’t it better to burn out than fade away? Is this the way rock bands are supposed to end?
But then again, R.E.M. never did anything according to the cliché rock timeline, and, looking back, the way they’ve conducted themselves as a band ends up being comparable to the influence of their music. Of course, their jangly guitar-pop and cryptically emotive lyrics can be heard echoing through younger bands. Generations of alt-rockers, from Nirvana to Pavement and beyond, have acknowledged the importance of their recordings, but their transformation from Athens, Georgia unknowns to arena-filling international superstars holds valuable lessons for any band looking to make it big without losing their souls in the process, providing what the New York Times called “a template for bands outside the mainstream, one that would become a road map for later indie-rock groups” .
Lesson number one: hit the road. Taking a cue from Black Flag and other hard-touring SST bands, R.E.M. began working the regional circuit while they were still learning to play their instruments and didn’t stop. Having their first single, “Radio Free Europe” cut by a local indie, Hib-Tone Records, gave the band even more reason to put ever more miles on the van, and the traveling paid off. Thanks to the healthy reputation they had earned on the road, the single sold well, becoming a staple of college radio play lists and generating interest among established labels, including I.R.S., whom they signed with in early 1982. It wouldn’t be until 1989 that the band would confront the serious strain of life on the road, when making the rounds for the album Green became a tense and draining experience. “At the end of the last tour, I felt like somebody dumped my body out at the end of my driveway at home and I couldn’t move”, said lead singer Michael Stipe when they finally toured again 6 years later.
Once you’ve got a bit of renown, a name, the next step is to use that name to elevate the people who inspired you, as well as, in turn, those you’ve inspired. The thriving scene in Athens had already produced a lot of other great bands, chief among them theB-52’s, but more off-the-radar acts like Pylon certainly benefitted from the light R.E.M. shed on them, while up-and-comers were offered opening slot gigs and had their names dropped in interviews. The group’s efforts solidified their reputation as a down-to-earth bunch of guys who didn’t expect to get respect without giving it in return, an attitude that rubbed off on their fan and friend Kurt Cobain, who often used press engagements as an excuse to champion the likes of Flipper and The Melvins
With a sizeable, rain-or-shine fan base and its underground credibility firmly established, the band was primed to take the big time, but like many acts breaking into the mainstream, R.E.M. found themselves presented with a new set of challenges when 1987’s Document spawned the hit single “The One I Love”. Several years later, Charles Aaron of Spin Magazine looked back at this era of their career, noting, “With the college-radio days of the early ’80s a trace memory, and their albums now guaranteed million-sellers, the members of R.E.M. have devoted much of the ’90s to figuring out how to finesse the bigness of success without grossing themselves out, emotionally or musically.” They managed this tightrope walk by retreating somewhat, doing little press and, as noted above, abstaining from touring in support of two of their biggest albums, 1991’sOut of Time and 1992’s Automatic for the People. They instead focused on their personal lives and side projects, which included Stipe’s production company C00 films. Batteries recharged, they came back to touring with a renewed vigor, realizing they could perform without leaving everything on the stage. Their deft navigation of success was aided by the fact that, thanks to their DIY roots, the band’s collective ego never swelled to attention-grabbing rock star proportions. As Aaron puts it, R.E.M. “never pushed our buttons with self-serving feuds or drug-rehab journeys”, eventually settling into comfortable elder-statesman status after signing what was then the biggest record contract in music history, securing a massive $80 million from Warner Bros. for the band’s next five albums. This landmark deal was simply the largest coup in a career marked by savvy business decisions, from doing as much of the management work as possible themselves and reinvesting in the band.
Though sales figures and critical acclaim dwindled as R.E.M. entered its third decade, their audience remained loyal, and even among non-fans you’d probably be hard pressed to find someone who outright hated them or couldn’t be relied on to hum the tune of their biggest hits. Their longevity and contribution to the alt-rock canon demands respect, but what’s more impressive is that they can honestly say they did it their way, with a minimum of compromise and a premium on building a sense of community, becoming, to again quote Aaron, “a dues-paying symbol of how to survive as artists amid the exploitation of the music business. Good-hearted corporate aesthetes who lived the American bohemian dream–buying in without selling out–and wrote the business prospectus for alternative rock.” Now they’ve decided to retire, fittingly on their own terms, and if one things for certain, they’ve earned that gold watch.