“We would never be this good again”: Lessons from a failed reunion

“We would never be this good again”: Lessons from a failed reunion

“Here's what we did”: the verb in the past tense, in the words of Michael Stipe before the surprise performance of “Losing my religion”, was not accidental. REM's reunion for the Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony was only impromptu, and it had to be clear: the band has always clearly explained its philosophy, that of quitting “when the party is still going on”, as it said in 2011 the singer announcing the choice. Without second thoughts: in an interview, broadcast on CBS the day before, REM reiterated this same concept. All the reasons why the band decided to end a glorious career are still valid.

The interview was actually filmed last February and was then published in full on YouTube: 41 minutes of conversation between journalist Anthony Mason and all 4 members of REM (including Bill Berry, who left the band at the end of 90s), in the offices and studio of the band in Athens, where they still keep the instruments and objects from their history.

As a long-time fan of the band I must say that I was much more impressed by this interview than by their performance, which was also totally unexpected (the last time with the original lineup happened in 2007, for the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame , while the band toured one last time as a 3-piece in 2008, performing for the final time in public in March 2009 at Carnegie Hall for a tribute night).
Dei R.

EM I loved their music as much as their approach: this interview shows 4 serene people, at peace with themselves and with their past, who clearly explain their choices. But beyond fan reasoning, I believe that this interview should be memorized by artists and those who work in the music business: precisely for the lesson, or rather the lessons, that it gives, on how to manage a career and a reputation.

A band/artist is their reputation

The reputation of an artist is something that is built over years, but which can be destroyed in a second. Think back and think about how many artists who have made the history of music have become controversial over time: weak or repetitive albums, controversies, tours and publications that seem to exploit their audience rather than gratify them. There's no one-size-fits-all choice, but stopping at the right time meant REM was “a chance to crystallize our legacy,” as Michael Stipe explains. Keep your reputation intact, before ruining it with choices and artistic productions that are no longer up to par.

Bands and artists don't always improve with time, on the contrary…

“It would never be on that level again,” Peter Buck replies dryly when asked why REM is ruling out a reunion. “You never have… I've been going to see the band on tour for a million years too, but…”, he concludes.
The history of music is full of artists and bands who have created masterpieces in an advanced stage of their career, perhaps even taking them on tour – however the list of artists who go on stage to remake themselves, but less well than in the past, is still longer.

Stopping before risking becoming a parody is a very respectable choice. The performance of “Losing my religion” the other day is exciting, but would we rather remember a band as it was at the height of its glory or see it aged and tired on a stage?.

An artist/band is not just their music, but the choices they make in the music business

Another great interview came out these days: Mike Mills with Rick Beato, one of the best YouTubers and music communicators around. Beato asks Mills what REM would like to be remembered for and the bassist explains that the group's true legacy is not just the songs, but having shown that an “ethical” approach to the music business is possible: you can make choices in total autonomy. For example, fighting to have total creative control of the music, not asking for advances that are too high and then not being in debt to the record company, always treating interlocutors with respect and so on. During the ceremony at the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Stipe recalled that from the beginning REM always wanted ownership of the masters of their albums: a lesson that Taylor Swift learned the hard way… In short, a third way among the apocalyptic (“the music industry is absolute evil!”) and the integrated (those who live within the system as if it were perfect) is possible.

Musicians are people

The most emotional moment of the interview is when Bill Berry gets emotional, thinking about the regret of having left the band early, after the health problems of '95 (a brain hemorrhage on stage, from which he was miraculously saved). Today we rightly talk about mental health and vulnerability even in music, but REM have always put first their being people before being stars, for example by choosing not to go on tour at the moment of their greatest success: their condition for doing great music was putting yourself in a position to make it.
“Music is often ruined by egos and lawyers,” quips Bill Berry in the interview. The best thing about this failed reunion is that you see not a band, but four friends.

The songs are at the center of everything

Everything we have summarized so far is true, but the interview begins with Peter Buck saying: “We lived and died on the strength of our songs”.

Translated (freely): songs, for a band or an artist, are a matter of life or death. They remain at the center of everything: you can build stories (sorry, storytelling) and characters, performances, a strong media presence, marketing, etc. But if there are no songs, if there is no repertoire, there is nothing. If the castle does not have solid foundations, it collapses: this is why we still remember REM and we still remember great artists from the past, even if they are no longer alive: because of the strength of their songs.