What Does It Mean When One of the World's Biggest Bands Remains Local?

(L-R) R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of  on the steps of the Seny-Stovall Chapel in Athens, where Accelerate was recorded. Photo by Chris Bilheimer

(L-R) R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of on the steps of the Seny-Stovall Chapel in Athens, where Accelerate was recorded. Photo by Chris Bilheimer

Now you’re in Zaragoza, a surprisingly large industrial town halfway between the beaches of San Sebastian and Barcelona, and you’re staying here for the night. You and your friend are headed to Barcelona, to its beaches, and to a music festival there. (Even on vacation, you’ve got to find some bands. You’ve been in Athens long enough—though it doesn’t take long—that it’s in your blood now.)

Now it’s nighttime, and you’re walking through a city not much known outside of Spain. You happen across a bar and stop in for a quick drink. The bartender with seriously intense eyes says his name is Martín. After some pleasant small talk, he gets around to asking where you’re from, and you tell him you’re from a small town in the South, in the United States. You tell him it’s called Athens.                                 

“Athens?” he asks in a heavily accented English. It sounds more like Ahh-tens. He leans a little closer to you. His eyebrows are up, and he ignores everyone else in the bar. “Athens, Georgia? La ciudád de Rem?”

He pronounces it as one odd word—“Rem”—but you know what he means from the reverential tone. You’re on sanctified ground now, you and this Spanish bartender, and you’ve got his complete attention. “Sí, sí … La ciudád de Rem,” you answer.

Athens, Georgia, the city of R.E.M.

Though R.E.M. has been one of the world’s most well-known bands for years, stateside interest in the group waned with the 2004 release of Around the Sun, an album generally received and assessed as a limp going-through of the motions. With the release of the muscular, invigorating album Accelerate earlier this year, though, attention has swung back toward the band and—as the group is so inextricably linked to its hometown—to Athens, where the band’s economic and philanthropic impacts are significant.

“We would never call [Accelerate] our ‘comeback’ album,” says R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills. “We do have a good idea about how we would describe any album we put out, but there’s really no way we can decide what the press is going to say, and there’s no groupthink going on. And we would never refer to anything as a ‘comeback’ because we never went away!”

The album sold 115,000 in its debut week alone. By comparison, in four years, Around the Sun has only sold about a quarter million. At press time, since April 1 release, Accelerate has sold almost 900,000 worldwide, and received enthusiastic reviews due to its return to strident, guitar-heavy rockers. The tracks written by Mills, vocalist Michael Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck (along with input from adjunct members Bill Rieflin and Scott McCaughey) carry an urgency and immediacy the band has been lacking since the 1997 departure of drummer Bill Berry following a health scare.

Accelerate arrived at a pivotal point for the band. With the release of two comprehensive best-of retrospectives over the past several years, a live album and DVD and inductions into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, R.E.M. could have been a band packing up its gear for good.

“I think that staying musically relevant, especially with this new album, has been a great thing for the band and for the town,” says Jeff Montgomery, the co-owner of local resource AthensMusic.net, which works intimately with the band on many Athens-based events, including R.E.M. CD release parties. Montgomery worked with the band for a release party for Accelerate, raising more than $17,000 for local charities like Community Connection of Northeast Georgia and Family Connection. Ever since the 1992 release of Automatic for the People, R.E.M. has used CD release parties in Athens to benefit local charities.

It’s a poorly kept secret around Athens that often, when a large donor for a cultural or community event is listed as “Anonymous,” chances are it’s either the band or one of the individuals associated with the band. The exact amount donated to groups around Athens is hard to pin down.

“You’ve got the whole philanthropic side of things, which has been terrific, but is very hard to get a handle on it due to their privacy,” says Jared Bailey, a longtime fixture in the Athens music scene who currently serves as the chairman of the annual AthFest music and arts festival and as the small-business resource coordinator for Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Foundation. “They have been a very solid backbone for a lot of the causes and a lot of the events that raise awareness and funds for nonprofits … There’s something about Athens that become a part of people’s psyches. It’s home. And I think R.E.M. has embraced that idea, and I think that they firmly believe in the philosophy of ‘think globally, act locally.’ And although they’re globally known, internationally famous and have millions of dollars, they’re making a difference right here. So they’re putting their money where their mouth is.”

In fact, not only is the amount of R.E.M.’s philanthropy hard to discern, with projects as wide-ranging as buying property for historic preservation and donating money to any number of local organizations, charities and events, but its impact on the local music scene and what it has meant for R.E.M. to remain a local band is almost as difficult to divine. Both Bailey and Montgomery have been involved in trying to put together economic impact studies of the music scene on the town, but although the current scene has been thriving for around three decades, there has yet to be a comprehensive economic study specifically of Athens.

Art Jackson, the former director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, used to use loose, back-of-the-napkin calculations to say that the music scene was the second largest economic factor in town behind the University of Georgia; representatives from the Athens Visitor’s Center said that the music scene and its history are the No. 1 topic of discussion with tourists coming through Athens, located in one of Georgia’s poorest counties. “Their impact has been immense,” says Bailey. “Just the raising the awareness of Athens as a music town is priceless.”

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