December 10, 2018

The Economist: A rocker’s guide to management

Ian Leslie describes four ways for the inner workings of a band in his article A rocker’s guide to management for 1843, The Economist’s magazine of ideas, culture and lifestyle: friends (Beatlks, autocracies (Tom Petty, Bruce Springteen), democracies (R.E.EM.) and frenemies (The Stones).

In 1979, Michael Stipe, a college student in Athens, Georgia, was browsing in a downtown record store called Wuxtry when he got talking to the clerk, a college dropout and amateur guitarist called Peter Buck. The two men bonded over a love of underground rock and soon decided to form a band, recruiting two fellow students, Bill Berry and Mike Mills. Thirty-two years later, their band, R.E.M., broke up amicably, ending one of the happiest collaborations in rock history.

Another regular at Wuxtry Records was Bertis Downs, a law student. An early fan of the band, Downs became R.E.M.’s legal adviser and manager. He told me that R.E.M. operated as an Athenian democracy. “They all had equal say. There was no pecking order.” This was not majority rule: “Everyone had a veto, which meant everyone had to buy into every decision, business or art. They hashed things out until they reached a consensus. And they said ‘No’ a lot.”

Underpinning R.E.M.’s flat governance structure was an egalitarian economic one. As Tony Fletcher explains in “Perfect Circle”, his biography of the band, each member received an equal share of publishing royalties, regardless of who contributed what to each song. The same was true of their recording and performing royalties – although here equal splits are normal. One notable exception to this rule was The Smiths. When Morrissey and Johnny Marr founded the band in 1982, they insisted on taking a bigger cut of income, from all sources, than the bassist, Andy Rourke, and the drummer, Mike Joyce. This introduced an instability into the group, hastening its demise after five years.

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