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How Technology Has Transformed the Music Industry

Bertis Downs is an artist manager and lawyer dedicated to representing REM - his only client.

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Bertis Downs, manager of REM, discusses the new technologies and distribution streams that he has seen since starting in the music business in the 1980s, and how these changes have affected the entire structure of the industry.

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[Bertis Downs How the Industry Has Changed]

How is the industry different right now than it was our generation, about a generation ago, 20-25 years ago? It’s a completely different world as I alluded to a minute ago. We didn’t even have a fax machine when we started. That was really in the distant horizon, to be able to get this thing over the phone lines that would be in writing. That just seemed really, really technologically advanced when we finally got a fax machine somewhere in the mid to late ‘80s, I guess, whenever that was. I say that only because, obviously, the world has changed so much from a technological standpoint over the last years. And the way that’s affected music and content industries in general or intellectual property has been huge.

Bands, when we were starting out, we used to think of it as sort of there were four possible income sources. There’d be touring. And part of touring would be merchandizing. Maybe people would want to buy t-shirts or something, or posters. And then there’d be records and there’d be publishing. And now, those four things exist, but there’s all these other possibilities, too. And all these things are kind of shifting around in terms of importance and possibilities. I think the goal when a band is just starting out now is exactly what it was when we were starting out: grow. Well, do great music, have a career, have a following, build fans, fan base, spreading popularity. So a lot of that’s the same way. There’s just so many more options now.

I remember a few years ago hearing about ring tones. Oh, right, like that’s gonna be a big deal. Well, it is. It’s a huge deal. When we first got started out, videos pretty much had not been – they were right in the very early stages of making videos. Videos became a really important medium for marketing music kind of in our early ‘90s period with Losing My Religion and Everybody Hurts and some of those. They’re less important now. But they’re still really important overseas. They’re still really important in places that you’re probably not gonna get to on tour than they are here for us.

So it’s just kind of a, again, to use the term balancing act. I think of bands starting out now in a lot of ways have it a lot harder because there’s so many choices to be made. But they have those choices and they can decide how much emphasis are they gonna put on touring? How much emphasis are they gonna put on recording? We had a kind of a conscious decision early on not to do anything involving commercials, endorsements, that kind of stuff. Bands are less concerned about that kind of stuff now. Arguably, fan bases are less concerned about it because people accept it. People compete to get on a particular commercial so that people will – it’s just another avenue for exposure.

I’m not saying that’s wrong at all. That’s sort of the reality of the world now. For REM, that still seems wrong to us. Sort of something about it doesn’t seem right about associating a particular song with a brand or a product. And so it’s something that we still don’t do. But just the world changes and you just try to keep up in a lot of ways.

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