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

The proportion of bands able to successfully reinvent themselves is pretty low. The aforementioned King Crimson, for example. Most of the time when artists try to shift styles they lose the magic that once made them great, and then can’t get it back. Some of course will just keep churning out the same thing over and over, and stagnate. But I’ve seen quite a few bands who are so very obviously and self-consciously trying to avoid what they’ve done before that what they then come up with sounds very stilted and artificial as compared to what they did during their heydays.

Since I used that last word, I’ll just mention the band which has been my favorite for most of my life, The Church-I simply can’t listen to their last 5 or so albums anymore because it is painfully obvious that they are assiduously trying to do things differently than they did 20-30 years ago, but they no longer play to their strengths anymore by doing so.

  1. Creative work is hard.

  2. People run out of ideas.

In my little taste of local celebrity, I discovered that the pressure to come up with new (commercially viable) material from the people who are making (or hope to make) money off you is a real creativity killer. I lost my ability to write, the band broke up, I didn’t get to be a rock star.

That’s what happens to most creatively talented people who make it that far.

life in the fast lane.

This example probably won’t be recognized by anyone here.

The debut album from the band Magazine is one of my favorites, their second is very different but still amazing, their third more commercial but good, their fourth is mediocre. The singer Howard Devoto had a few solo efforts which were horrible IMHO, then recently Magazine reformed after decades and put out another album which I listened to once and found almost a cartoonish aping of his earlier style.

So yea.

They should take a break and stay at the Hotel California.

I think that musical creativity is a variable resource that varies from person. Some people have a deep well of it, others not so much. Like an athlete, maybe it depends on what one does with they’ve got. (And, like athletes, doping does boost some people’s performance :D)

I always wondered why brilliant artists just wither away after a couple albums.

Christopher Cross had an amazing debut album. 5 Grammy’s in 1980. It went 5x Platinum. I love every track on that debut album. His second album was good but not brilliant. After that… bargain bin specials

He kept recording (last release was in 2011) and never got back the magic.

The Doors and Jimi Hendrix are two others. They seemed to burst out of the gate full-formed, and speaking just for myself, I think their debut LPs were at least the equal of anything they did after. (It may have had something to do with the times.)

This struck me as odd, since the White Album was actually their (more or less) post-drugs, TM album.

It seems that a lot of my favorite artists fit this pattern. I would cite Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, and the Strawbs as bands that had a run of three or four stunning albums before sinking into (relative) mediocrity. (Citing Genesis may not be fair, though. In my book, their decline was the direct result of the original leader, Peter Gabriel, leaving the group; he went on to have a number of excellent solo LPs.)

I was going to cite Peter Gabriel as my third example in the OP if I got that far. He hasn’t dropped off much in quality, but he went from releasing 4 studio albums from 1976-1982, to So in 1986, to Us in 1992, to Up in 2002, to some recent stuff which is just remakes of older tunes, or cover songs. I know he’s busy with WOMAD, but 1 album of new material in 20 years? (I know he did the Passion of the Christ soundtrack somewhere in there, as well as the Birdy and Rabbit-Proof Fence soundtracks)

I know some artists do NOT fit this pattern, too.

Green Day’s 7th album was American Idiot.
Weird Al’s recent stuff is FAR more polished than his old stuff.

Another vote for “confirmation bias”, especially since one of the two examples in the OP doesn’t even fit the pattern described.

The Who averaged a new studio album every two years during the 17 years (1965-1982) they were active as a major label group. During this period they never went more than three years without a new studio album, and their last two albums during this period were only about a year and a half apart. Their output dropped to nothing after 1982 because they broke up. The Who’s two surviving members, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, did reunite in 2006 for the Endless Wire album, but I’d say that’s a Who album in name only – it’s more a Townshend solo album with Daltrey on vocals.

IMHO The Who By Numbers is also a much better album than Who Are You.

I am the entertainer
and I know just where I stand
another serenader
and another long haired band
today I am the champion
I may have won your hearts
but I know the game
you forget my name
and I won’t be here in another year
if I don’t stay on the charts


This is a bit of a tautology I suppose, but it seems like artists fade away unless they constantly stay on the charts. The music industry is cruel if you can’t continue to produce hit after hit. Some get lucky and have a comeback album that is a success, but that’s probably pretty rare.

But if I go cold
I won’t get sold
I’ll get put in the back
in the discount rack
like another can of beans!

Boredom that leads to musical experimentation is my best guess. The subsequent course correction isn’t always successful.
Decreasing testosterone levels over time is my second best. Musicians are people who age (obligatory Keith Richards exclusion notwithstanding). RAWK turns to Rock turns to rock quite naturally.

There are many factors to consider:

  1. creative burnout

  2. potential fickleness on behalf of the consumers

  3. departure of key personnel

  4. sudden and/or extreme change in style

Gary Numan’s a perfect example–right after his Living Ornaments tour, which was about 2 years, he went jazzy with “Dance” and it was massive bomb. Creatively, he might have enjoyed it, but it was too extreme too quickly. It also didn’t suit him.

Not many bands get to revisit their peaks. Queen got pretty close to the top again with “Innuendo”, which was excellent, but still no “Night At The Opera”.

Unless you get massive creative input from ALL MEMBERS, burnout happens really quickly. Even the greatest singer/songwriters can’t churn out great stuff all the time. And even if they do, they’re under so much pressure to make everything a hit that they even subconsciously alter their style to follow a trend–people smell the desperation and they stop buying.

“Video killed the radio star”.

Billy stayed on the charts for 20 years. :smiley:

The Darkness.

Brought out some incredible music and then just disappeared from sight.

Maybe, but from my view the problem with The Darkness was that they were supposed to be an ironic take on 70s arena rock and that gimmick couldn’t last for more than one album. It’s like telling the same joke twice.

As for other artists, Bob Dylan’s career has had some interesting peaks and valleys over the last 50 years.