Why do most musical artists have a few super-productive years, then fall off dramatically?

I’ve noticed that the majority of well-known musical acts, at least those who are together long enough, tend to follow a predictable pattern: A few years (often 5-7 years) of being very productive - usually an artist’s best work is released during this period.

Next, fewer releases for at least the next several years, even decades. These tend to be weaker releases than when the artist/band was putting out work every year or two.

Finally, a critically acclaimed comeback album. Oddly, these are often isolated (or never even happen) and are followed up by a return to the weak, infrequent albums.

Some artists that did this:

Metallica - Perhaps the #1 example. Their critical heyday was their first few albums, from 1983’s Kill 'Em All to 1988’s …And Justice For All. Their commercial breakthrough followed with Metallica in 1991. Their next release was not until 1996, and led to weaker and weaker albums culminating with the mess that was St. Anger in 2003. Finally they had a good comeback in 2008 with Death Magnetic.

The Who - They had a few good albums at first, but started to get ambitious with The Who Sell Out in 1967. Their next three studio albums (1969-1973) were the all-time classics Tommy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia, arguably the best three-album streak of any band in history (save for maybe the Beatles). After that, The Who By Numbers was a step backward, although 1978’s **Who Are You **was pretty great. But after that…

What are the reasons for this recurring pattern? One guess would be that as band members acquire families and kids, their priorities and available time changes. Another would be the booze and drugs that most musicians wind up using - burnout on those substances after a few years must affect songwriting.

Am I on to something here? Which other artists (and I know there are plenty) fit this pattern?

Confirmation bias is my number one guess. I’d guess the vast majority of bands don’t make it past one or two albums. Those that do are bound to run out of steam at some point, right?

Boston, The Beatles, Elton John, Earth Wind, and Fire, Rick James, Michael Jackson (yes, I said it)…

You forgot some of these

The “Self-Absorption” Album. Prince, I’m driving down your street now…

The “I’m Doing WAAAAY too many drugs” album. The Beatles’ White Album comes to mind.

The Introspective Album. The artist visits a foreign land and has an eye-opening/life-changing experience. This is usually followed by the Critically Acclaimed Album

The “You should have gone out on top and stayed out” Album (Chinese Democracy and that latest steaming pile of crap from Van Halen).

The “I need to wheeze someone else’s gig” album. Characterized by performing duets with a newer, hotter, artist.

Seriously, music styles change. If you don’t change, or your fan base dies off or loses interest, it’s 99c bin city for you. The artist is human, and as such either grows or stagnates musically. Add more egos (bandmates/managers/roadies/groupies/family) and the problems increase exponentially.

Just my 2 cents.

I think a lot of what makes a hot band hot early on is their sound – the fact that it’s unique and new. But 3-4 albums down the road, the sound is still pretty much the same, everyone’s heard it, and the new songs that utilize the same sound seem inferior to the original songs. That new car smell just isn’t as powerful.

Think of a bunch of your favorite singers and/or bands. Now think of some of your favorite music from them. I’m going to guess that a large majority of your favorite music was some of the earliest stuff you’ve heard from them – note that this is not necessarily the earliest stuff they released.

There are exceptions, of course. But I think a lot of bands fall into that pattern.

It’s complicated.

There’s a couple of reasons that it happens to musical artists, and particularly to bands, IMO.

First, and most important, the mindset, attitude and day-to-day experiences of a person who is artistic but not successful are vastly different than those of a person who is successful. Starting out, an artist is “hungry”, and this results in the basic style and formula that they eventually develop. Once this style is presented to the public and becomes popular, the artist is no longer living the same way, doing the same things, seeing the same people, etc. Their environment changes, and they can’t help but be influenced by it. Sometimes that results in a subtle change in style and content that is then not well-recieved.

In the case of Metallica, when they started out, they were young, ambitious, and played in tiny clubs. They hung out with other bands and drank a lot of beer. They were still, along with a bunch of other bands, evolving their style of music. At first, thrash was only popular (or successful, or appealing, w/e) to a small number of people, but as they got better at their craft, they also changed in small ways so that the music appealed to more and more people. There’s kind of an upper limit, tho, to that before you reach “pandering” level, and Metallica pretty much reached that upper limit with the black album.

So now they are successful financially, masters of their craft, and wildly popular. They’ve stretched the boundaries of their music so much that they are appealing to people who 4 or 5 years before would never have listened to their music. They’ve also begun to lose some of their luster to their first batch of fans, specifically because they’ve changed so much that they now appeal to so many. And now the band dynamic becomes a factor.

Chemistry in a band is more important than anything else. Even if the band is primarily a business venture, all of the members have to be onboard with what they are trying to accomplish and how they are trying to accomplish it. That’s hard enough, but now they also have to somehow retain the mindset, attitude, etc. that they had that brought them their style and success in the first place. Sometimes that’s hard to do when your living situation is dramatically different than it once was. It’s much harder to be rebellious against a system if that system has showered you with riches and fame, for instance.

If even one person in a band is no longer the same person they once were, it can screw up the songwriting, performances, etc. That can lead to problems with how the band members relate to one another, which then sparks a downward spiral internally. If someone leaves or is kicked out, a replacement has to be found, and invariably the chemistry will be different. Sometimes good, sometimes better, most times worse, but always different.

And then you have the fact that sometimes, people don’t really have all that much to say as artists. Most artists, in fact, don’t have much to say, just like most people don’t have much to say.

They don’t. The vast majority of musical artists have zero significantly-productive years. A lucky few manage to have a few productive years, and you don’t hear of them until those productive years start, so they’re always at the beginning of the “career” (meaning the known career).

Thank Og you wrote that. I had cut a bunch of my previous post because I thought it was too esoteric for the OP; I was gonna save it for expansion and post it on my blog. But now I can use it here and I don’t have to come up with another couple of thousand words. :slight_smile:

One of my favorite contrasts is between Metallica and Slayer.

Both bands have replaced 1 position multiple times (bassist for Metallica, drummer for Slayer). Both bands started at about the same time. Both were also involved in the creation of thrash music as a style and genre. But Metallica is today a much bigger name, with a much broader fan base. Slayer, however, is generally seen as a better band. Hwhaaaaa?

Metallica’s biggest hit song is a musical version of a really depressing movie. Their lyrical subject matter reached a point of banality. They veered toward pop music style and had great financial success as they broadened their appeal to include millions of people. Slayer’s biggest hit song is about a horrific monster of a man. Their lyrical content has continued to largely be about the evils that people can and do commit because an organization enabled it (religions, governments, etc.). They never wavered in their approach to their music, and have not attracted the favorable attention of untold millions.

But, Slayer’s body of work is more consistent and more consistently appealing to their base of fans. There are many people who listened to Metallica in the early days who at some point stopped caring about them because their music no appealed (like me). And there are even more people who started listening to them near their peak who never listened to their earlier work (because it didn’t appeal to them) and who no longer listen to the band (because something else grabbed their attention). Slayer’s fan base has never had to move on to something else or be disappointed with the band.

You could argue that Metallica has grown musically, and that it brought them critical acclaim and popularity. And you could argue that Slayer has never grown musically, and their appeal is still only with the same people they appealed to 25 years ago.

Or you could argue that Metallica has grown soft and complacent, content to churn out commercially viable music that has little integrity. And you could argue that Slayer has merely been perfecting the style they helped to create, becoming ever more focused on their craft.

I think **Snowboarder Bo **covered it pretty well. I just don’t see this sort of pattern with bands that never hit mainstream. However, it seems almost inevitably that bands that are underground and eventually breakthrough, their earliest work is considered their best, or bands that hit the big time pretty quickly, it’s whatever broke them through.

A lot of that is the mindset, unknown bands are making the music because they’re all passionate about it, but once you add complications of money, fame, popularity, world tours, band dynamics, you add a whole bunch of variables and things can easily, and often do, go awry. I also think that’s why the whole comeback album idea tends to be a common trope, because they’re typically getting back together for the music, not so much for the money or whatever.

I also think that, with a few rare exceptions, there’s an upper limit to the creativity of an artist. Eventually they’ve run through all their best ideas and they’re stuck rehashing things or working with mediocre concepts. But when an artist is in the zone, so to speak, the ideas just flow and they’ll tend to put out quality music very quickly. This especially becomes true when a band gets big, and they’ve exhausted their ideas but have the pressure to continue to put out an album every couple years or so, they have to scrape together whatever they have. That’s actually one of the things I think is really cool about the underground stuff, if they run out of ideas, I’ve seen bands go a number of years until they’re inspired again, because it’s not about the money so they don’t have the pressure to put albums, even if they’re garbage.

In a lot of cases it’s more that they have a few years of acceptance that falls off dramatically. Years ago I heard Bill Cosby say in an interview that people love to build things up and them knock them down, and I agree. Ricky Nelson made a similar observation in “Garden Party”.

We root for the underdog, but when the underdog succeeds, he’s no longer the underdog, so now we root against him.

This is just a theory:

Before bands hit it big they have to pay a lot of dues. They may perform for years before they get a big break. So they have time to write a lot of material, improve it, polish it, etc… Plus, years of performing the music on the road gives them a feel for what people really like. When they get a record deal, they put all their best stuff, that they spent years perfecting, on their first album. It hits big. The record company rushes out a second album to capitalize on the success; the band might have some decent stuff that didn’t make the first album so they use that. Anything new they write for the second album is necessarily a rush job to get it out while the iron is still hot. By the third album, all their good stuff is used and they have to write new stuff. They don’t have time to polish it anymore, and they don’t have years to play it in front of people to see what kind of reaction it gets. Add in the band dynamics mentioned upthread and the fact that they are now probably fighting with each other or strung out on drugs, and you get shit.

That’s my theory anyway.

This makes sense to me. And, a band/musical act (even solo artists) are made up of many moving parts - it is not surprising that they only stay aligned in a way that delivers “great” music for a short period.

Keeping things fresh is a bitch, whether you are a band, a company (MySpace?), a political movement (Tea Party?). Seeing a few players hit it big and surge for a few years is a norm in the human condition…

I used to think that it should go just like you describe: the first album of a band is kind of a Best Of of everything the band has made so far, underground. It should be superb. But first albums by bands are mostly not all that great.

To illustrate, I present Queen. Their first album, released after years of the guys making music and touring, is still just a weak inkling of what would come. Queen’s greatest work came not until their third and fourth albums, spaced close together. Guys like David Bowie or Elton John would release amazing strings of classic albums in a timespan of a couple of years, well into their recording careers. I can’t think of any favorite artist or band of mine (mostly 60’s & 70’s rock, pop and prog rock) whose first album would be more than passable compared to the classic second, third, fourth etc. albums, made with little time between massive touring and promotion work. This is what amazes me, the way the creative flame burns extremely brightly for a brief, busy while, and how it fizzles out in later years despite ample time and money and the best producers and session guys helping out.

Apart from Guns and Roses, are there any huge bands whose first album is generally regarded as their best work?

To answer the OP, I feel musical artists have a finite amount of truly innovative, original, quality creativity that simply gets used up sooner or later. Brian May said somewhere, how people expect an artist to keep putting out better and better albums, when there’s a high point in everyone’s creative work that cannot be surpassed. Reinventing oneself helps a bit, but still.

Boston is a band that only went downhill after their debut.

From that era, off the top of my head, I would cite King Crimson, Procol Harum, the Band, Leonard Cohen, and, although I expect a lot of disagreement, Led Zeppelin. Many folks would cite Pink Floyd’s debut album as their best, but that’s a bit of a special case.

Yeah, it was sloppy hyperbole to say that first albums that are more than passable are a rarity. My point was, commenting on Don’t Call Me Shirley’s post, that first albums are very rarely the best album a band or an artist puts out.

I’m a huge fan of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and King Crimson, and their first albums are great, but no f-ing way their best, IMHO.

I forgot where I heard it said but it holds a lot of truth.

You have a lifetime to write your first album, you have six months to write your second.


I always thought this was true of Van Halen.

I won’t claim to have exhaustively evaluated their later material (I quit listening to them because my music tastes changed), but I thought there was a clear contrast between the consistency of their first album and the amount of obvious filler on their second and third albums. After being disappointed by the second album, I read an interview where they basically bragged that they’d written and recorded the (upcoming) third album in three weeks.

Which I guess touches on another phenomenon: depending on their personality, a meteoric success can become convinced that anything they create is great, forgetting the hard work and scrutiny that produced their better work. Managers, fans and publicity can feed this.

Lots of good ideas in the thread, but I think the simplest–and most plausible–explanation for the phenomenon in general is (the above mentioned) confirmation bias. The various specific explanations fit various bands/performers, but aren’t necessary overall. Some bands are one-hit wonders; some bands are one album wonders; some bands put out three or four and that’s it. Each has its own category.

It’s also important to distinguish between commercial success and album quality. I can’t tell you the last time the Dead or PFunk hit the charts, but they’re as strong as ever. I haven’t listened to either Chinese Democracy or later works by Metallica so can’t say whether this applies–anyone?

Also, anyone know if other artistic fields have a similar question? Authors that put out a few good books but then faded into mediocrity? Painters or sculptors? Composers?

Some academic – musicologist? Historian? Psychologist? – did a partly quantitative analysis of this phenomenon, about five years ago. He fed in lots of data (jazz musicians and maybe classical, too), and found a real, consistent (though of course not universal) dropoff in output and, more tellingly, in *creativity *, around a predictable age-- I think the mean was like 31 or something.
I can’t recall the cause that the author of the study found most plausible, but I think it pretty much came down to simply “running out of new ideas”, with a dose of “priorities shifting to spouse and kids,” plus a bit of neurophysical ossification.

How long did Metallica play together before they released their first album?
How much had they really toured/played concerts? I always feel they only praticed a bit in the garage and the local clubs.
They weren’t that good but it was real & pure.

To me, it seems that often when a band becomes big (be it after the 1st, 2nd or 5th album) and they are required to tour for longer times, two things change:
1-they are constantly on the road, so time to sit down in that comfortable garage is gone.
2-they experience the world, changing the way they feel about things and thus their songwriting changes.

In the case of Metallica, I can see how after having toured with the big bands of the 80s, suddenly they wanted something else than just re-ride the lightning.
It also happened with Soundgarden, once they became famous the music changed with more variation but not really better.

It also happened to Pearl Jam, but personally I feel that they only got better as writers & musicians (despite never having the success of the Ten album and songs like Alive, Jeremy again)