The End of R.E.M., and They Feel Fine

R.E.M., the underground band from Athens, Ga., that helped invent the alternative-rock sound of the 1980s, said on Wednesday that its members were splitting up after 31 years of making music together.

“A wise man once said, ‘The skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave,’ ” Michael Stipe, the group’s lead singer and lyricist, said in a statement posted on the band’s Web site. “We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we’re going to walk away from it. I hope our fans realize it wasn’t an easy decision, but all things must end.”

Mike Mills, the bassist, said that he, Mr. Stipe and Peter Buck, the guitarist — the group’s original drummer, Bill Berry, retired in 1997 — had reached the decision while assembling a greatest-hits retrospective to be released in November.

“Working through our music and memories from over three decades was a hell of a journey,” Mr. Mills said in a statement. “We realized that these songs seemed to draw a natural line under the last 31 years of our working together.”

The group formed in Athens, home of the University of Georgia, in 1980 and developed a cult following, becoming a darling of college radio stations with an artsy mix of punk-band energy, folk-rock instrumentation, airy guitar hooks and mumbled, introspective lyrics. It was a potent sound that influenced a generation of alternative rock bands, from Sonic Youth and Nirvana to newer groups like the Decemberists.

R.E.M. also provided a template for bands outside the mainstream, one that would become a road map for later indie-rock groups. The group built a strong identity and a regional following in Georgia through relentless touring and grass-roots promotion years before signing with a major label.

“They invented alternative music and indie rock,” Charles Aaron, the editorial director of Spin magazine, said. “They created the model for it.”

Mark Richardson, editor in chief of Pitchfork, the online indie-rock publication, said R.E.M. provided “an early example of a band making their own scene and building an entire conception of a band around who they were as people and musicians.”

ImageR.E.M. in 1994: from left, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe, Bill Berry and Peter Buck.
Credit...Associated Press Photo.

“They seemed literate,” he added. “They seemed very artsy. But they were also really a rock band, and even then they were notable as a live act.”

There were no outward signs of tension among the band members, who insisted in their statements that the dissolution was amicable. Mr. Buck said that the members “walk away as great friends.” Mr. Mills said, “There’s no disharmony here, no falling outs, no lawyers squaring off.”

All told R.E.M. released 15 major albums, including some regarded as milestones in alternative music: “Murmur,” “Reckoning,” “Document,” “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People.”

After meeting as students at the University of Georgia, the band members first gained attention from critics for their driving single “Radio Free Europe,” which was released in 1981 on an indie label and had an initial run of only 1,000 copies. But the next year their EP “Chronic Town” garnered good reviews and paved the way for their first full-length album, “Murmur,” in 1983.

Over the next five years they built a loyal fan base through constant touring, much of it on the college circuit. Their fifth full-length album, “Document,” went platinum on the strength of the hit single “The One I Love,” a song about betrayal almost universally misinterpreted as a love song. The next year the band signed a $10 million, five-record deal with Warner Brothers.

In the 1990s R.E.M. produced a string of acclaimed albums. Several singles became hits, among them “Losing My Religion,” “Shiny Happy People,” “Drive” and “Man on the Moon.” The band signed a new deal with Warner worth $80 million in 1996, the same year it released “New Adventures in Hi-Fi,” which was regarded as a commercial failure.

The following year Mr. Berry, the drummer, left the band. He had suffered a brain aneurysm onstage during a tour to promote the album “Monster” three years earlier. Around the same time the others branched out into side projects. Mr. Stipe went into filmmaking, formed Single Cell Pictures and enjoyed critical success in 1999 with “Being John Malkovich.” Mr. Buck worked with a free-jazz group, Tuatara.

The band struggled over the last decade to recapture the dominant position on the charts it had enjoyed in the ’90s. It made four more albums and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

R.E.M.’s most recent album, “Collapse Into Now,” was released this year to mixed reviews. Some critics said it seemed to rehash old musical ideas with less passion.

“To call R.E.M. one of the greatest bands in contemporary music is an understatement,” Rob Cavallo, the chairman of Warner Brothers Records, said in a statement. “They leave behind a body of work whose breadth, honesty, creativity and power has not only inspired millions of fans around the world, but also has influenced — and will continue to influence — generations of songwriters and performers for years to come.”