Words by Ben Madden | @benmaddentweets
The old saying goes it takes a lifetime to write your first album, and a year to write your second. In music, the ‘sophomore slump’ refers to the trend in which an artist’s second album fails to live up to its predecessor. But is it real or just imagined?
Unfortunately, the nature of the music industry today demands fast and repeated output. Gone are the days of pre-internet music, where bands could spend years finding their sound, releasing multiple albums before creating their magnum opus (see, The Cure with Disintegration). Now you have to hit the ground running, lest you be left behind. But what happens after you release that killer first album?
A study from concerthotels.com, based off data from Albumoftheyear.org and Rolling Stone’s ‘100 Best Debut Albums of All Time’ showed that 66% of the time, listener numbers dropped from the debut album to the sophomore album. Not only is the phenomenon real, but it seems to be damaging bands across all genres. Acts such as Missy Elliot, Metallica and even The Beatles were adjudged to have fallen victim to the sophomore slump.
But why is this the case? Having to play the same songs over and over again, night after night, can get boring for anyone, especially when you’ve only got one album to choose from. Bands get bored of their own music, and try and change up their sound. Look at American rock band MGMT, they tried to change up their sound drastically after the smash success of their album Oracular Spectacular, but they never captured their debut magic again. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence. The life cycle of a band can often be measured, with the EPs and first album having a similar sound, before the sound drastically changes on album number two. Matching their previous success can be what determines a band’s career.
However, some artists struggle to overcome the sophomore slump before they’ve even made a second album. After Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett found unbelievable success from her debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, she publicly stated how hard it has been for her to release a second album, and how much pressure there is after coming from relative obscurity. While not everyone gets the chance to make a second album, often those with the biggest fanbases face the most pressure.
But how can bands avoid the slump? At the end of the day, people have to make money, and fans can be fickle. If you change your sound too much, you get criticised. If you don’t change your sound at all, you get accused of not evolving. The best artists are able to walk this fine line and come out the other side with their reputation not only intact, but enhanced. This is exemplified by Kendrick Lamar, who released his debut album Section.80 to critical acclaim. However, this was nothing compared to what was to follow. In 2012, Lamar released what some consider to be the best hip-hop album of all time with good kid, m.A.A.d city. Showing that sometimes, artists can thrive under the pressures of expectation.
For music artists of today, the sophomore slump is a reality. Bands feel pressure to change their style and keep up with the times; fans, labels and even the bands themselves can get antsy if they’re not evolving. However, evolution comes with risk, and changing your sound might not always be for the better. Take the time to consider your second album, and don’t rush it. Often, those who have avoided the sophomore slump are those with the strongest artistic vision. Don’t try to cash in on your newfound success, or you might just burn out.