Singer/Songwriter Longevity

I am not familiar with the careers of professional songwriters. But it seems to me that bands or singer/songwriters tend to have much longer success in their careers as performers than they do as recording acts. To me, this would seem to indicate that they can continue to sing or play but are having a harder time composing at the same level. Question is if this is so, and if so, why? I can think of several explanations.

[li]Everyone has only a certain amount of songwriting potential in their mind, and it’s used up early, then it’s gone. (As a practical matter, this may take the form of writing songs that sound like different versions of their earlier songs.)[/li][li]Aging[/li][li]Zeitgeist. Styles change and different flavors come into favor, and the type of songs that were popular when the singer/band hit it big are no longer so.[/li][li]Burnout or lassitude. As some entertainers become more successful, they lose the drive that they had as younger up and comers, and don’t work as hard.[/li][li]Relating to the prior two points, is entertainers who take a break. Having hit songs has a momentum of its own, and creates excitement for the new releases. Taking a break cools this down, and allows the space to be filled up by the next big thing, and makes it harder to reach the same level next time around.[/li][/ol]
What argues against the first two being the sum of it is that in theory these singers or bands could just begin hiring others to write their material. But it could be that having initially made it by doing it on their own, they tend to be reluctant to switch their methodology. A test of these would be whether professional songwriters tend to similarly decline

Regardless of the reasons, it does appear that singers/bands can sometimes stick around as performers in spite of their inability to crank out new hits. Presumably this would be because to do this they only need to appeal to a smaller group of patrons, and they can be carried to some extent by their die-hard or nostalgia-driven fans, but they will have a hard time making new ones.

Interesting ideas. I’m not sure that a talented songwriter necessarily loses the ability to write songs, so much as the public tends to have put them in a slot based on their earlier work, and damn it, that’s where they want them to stay. My two favorites, Kate Bush and Todd Rundgren, have managed to produce excellent work late into their careers. Todd has not had as much luck getting attention for it as Kate has, but she had had so much success early on that she could disappear for a dozen years, and when she returned with the brilliant Aerial, the critics and the public both were anxious to hear it. *Aerial *wasn’t a change of style, so much as it was a continuation of Kate’s normal habit of exploring a wide range of influences and synthesizing them into her own idiosyncratic style. Nobody expected her to churn out variations of Wuthering Heights.

Todd abandoned the three minute pop songs that gave him his early success, finding it too easy. He claims that he wrote I Saw The Light in 20 minutes. I believe that, if he had the stomach for it, he could have churned out pop songs over and over and had Elton John’s career and castle. Instead, he’d get interested in a style and explore that, make an album or two and move onto a different area when he got bored. His 2004 album Liars was as good as anything in his career.

Also, this really seems to be more of a pop and rock thing. The pop record industry vastly prefers a constant stream of new artists to new work by older ones. Mainly for one simple reasons - an artist producing their fifth record is probably on their second, much better contract, while the next Justin Beber can be signed to a pretty bad one. Country seems to not have as much of a problem with old songwriters, but then Nashville has fewer singer/songwriters in general.

See Tom Waits for an artist who pretty much defines longevity as a singer song writer.
in general people are far more creative earlier in life than later, that isnt the be all end all of the story but it is probably true in the vast majority of cases that simple age has caught up to them.

Also, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen. They’ve all put out albums this year, and they’re all excellent. They’re all still performing as well, in the case of Springsteen and Cohen performing 3 hour plus shows. At the age of 78 in Cohen’s case, amazingly.

There may well be validity to the idea that songwriters only have a limited period of peak creativity… but for the sake of argument, let’s ask: suppose that, say, former Journey vocalist Steve Perry was still writing great new songs. Would you even know it?

I mean, IF Steve Perry had just released a new CD filled with great songs, how many people would even hear them? Pop/top 40 radio wouldn’t play the songs, because he’s too old to appeal to their demographics. And even classic rock stations would probably ignore it, figuring their listeners are older, set in their ways, and just want to hear “Don’t Stop Believing” again.

I’ll throw in Richard Thompson as another good example. With no apology to James Brown, I once heard NPR’s Terry Gross refer to him as the hardest working man in show business, and it’s true. The guy tours constantly, puts out a new album every couple of years, and always seems to be involved in half a dozen side projects as well.

Agreed about Leonard Cohen, but the catch is that in a career spanning over 45 years, he’s only put out about a dozen studio albums, most of them containing only eight to ten songs. No wonder he never burned out! Now Elvis Costello, whom I’d put alongside Cohen as one of the greatest songwriters of our era, has been hugely prolific over the years, and is as good or better now as he was in his youth.

And then there is Neil Diamond. I’m not a great fan but his catalog is pretty impressive. And at 71 years old and after 50 years of song writing he is still going strong.

A lot of his songs have been covered and made famous by other artists. “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees was his, they also covered 3 or 4 others. Deep Purple’s cover of “Kentucky Woman” is one of my favorite '70’s hard rock songs. Also covering his songs were Elvis, Mark Lindsay, UB40’s “Red Red Wine” was his. Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, Smash Mouth, Urge Overkill covered “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon” for the movie Pulp Fiction, and others.

115 million record sales world wide and still writing and performing. While his new stuff might never get airplay now, somebody will probably be covering it. And he still sells out venues.

An important factor: record companies are always more interested in promoting new acts. You usually make more money that way. Thus, the record companies are always willing to drop older artists for newer ones, no matter how talented they are.

In addition, popular music changes and what was successful 20 years ago is not going to be successful today. Thus the recording companies drop older acts.

Once you’re dropped from a company, it become difficult to record. You don’t usually have access to a professional studio unless you pay for it, making it hard to break even, especially since you don’t have access to a marketing staff. You can record CDs and sell them at concerts and on your web page, but no one is taking out ads to promote your work. Recording is a huge investment (less expensive nowadays, but still a good chunk of money up front), so it’s hard for acts to record what they want.

Consider someone like the Roches. They were successful enough in their heyday, and still put out CDs, but none of them can approach the sales of when they were with a record company.

It isn’t that surprising to me that most S/S can only put out a handful of really good albums.
I have a theory. EVERY artist has at least one good song. Some even have a good album in them. Several albums is a rare feat. That is why Bob Dylan is the Gold Standard. No one in pop can remotely touch his level of Quality and Quantity.

Another thought- SUPPOSE that, say, REO Speedwagon came out with a new CD filled with solid new songs. At their next concert on the corny dog circuit, they try playing a bunch of their new songs.

What happens? Most likely, the crowd gets antsy and restless, and starts booing or calling for “Can’t Fight This Feeling” or old songs from Hi Infidelity.

The crowd may not WANT to hear anything new, meaning a band may be FORCED to become a mere nostalgia act, to make a living.

I think longevity is limited both by the aging of the artists, and by the aging of their fans. It’s a double-whammy.

Old farts today who made up the audiences in the 70’s and 80’s have either drifted on to other artists and styles, or their playlists have lithified around the old classics. As mentioned above, most of the audience that turns out for the older bands are not much interested in hearing their newer stuff, even in cases where the older bands are still turning out similar music.

Aerosmith is a semi-exception that I think proves the rule. They managed to stick around for decades and still turn out hits. If I went to an Aerosmith concert today, though, I would hope to hear material from their early albums. Even though I am familiar with their later hits, and their sound didn’t change much, I just don’t like the later stuff as much. Of course, I have pretty much moved out of classic rock altogether in my listening.

So, yes, audiences age. But I think it more important that artists just wear out their creative spark. To again use Aerosmith as an example, I seriously doubt that if they released something on the level of “Sweet Emotion” or “Walk this Way” on their next album that the song wouldn’t be huge. Based on their creative arc, I have no expectation that they could manage such a song today. I don’t know what their last album was even called, but I doubt anybody would say it is every bit as fresh as their first album and that their audience has just left them.

If you look at other acts with popular longevity, like Springsteen, Elton John, the Who, etc., there is almost always a downward trend in quality over time. Now there may be diehard fans who insist the new stuff is just as good, but there is a reason the showstopping last song of the concert is almost always off the artist’s first breakout album.

On a related note, most acts never have that kind of longevity to begin with because they only ever had enough creativity to create a couple good albums. I think a lot of new acts fizzle fast because their breakout album is the accumulated result of 5-10 years of working on their sound and songlist, then they are asked to produce another album-load of fresh material in just one or two years.