Sophomore slump. Sophomore jinx. One-hit wonder. The idea that a band can release one record and with its next attempt either fade into oblivion or fail miserably is so common as to be a cliché.
The story goes something like this: Band writes and rehearses songs for years. Record company signs band. Band records debut album, sells a bunch of copies, tours. Band goes to write and record second album, has only a year or so worth of material to re-create the magic. Songs about life on the road and mimicking original hit single ensue. Record number two tanks. Band breaks up or repeats process without recapturing original glory.
Thankfully, there are many exceptions to this rule. Take R.E.M.'s Reckoning, Radiohead's The Bends, and the Roots' Iladelph Halflife -- and that's just from the "R" section. But whether blame should be placed on pressure from the record company to deliver instant hits, the disposability of pop culture or quick shifts in taste, more and more bands are given up on after album number two doesn't measure up.
Art Alexakis, leader of pop-punkers Everclear -- a band with two successful records, Sparkle and Fade and So Much for the Afterglow -- deadpans an explanation: "No one talks about bands who have two successful records back to back. Do you know why they don't?" Long pause. "It doesn't happen," says Alexakis, laughing.
Point taken. With interest in sales numbers at an all-time high, the music business has begun to mirror the film industry, where opening-weekend box office numbers determine whether a picture is a hit. Similarly, if a record doesn't debut high on the charts, it's usually deemed a failure. Once upon a time, albums used to work their way up the charts.
Take Marcy Playground, the group behind the ubiquitous "Sex & Candy," a song that sat at the top of Billboard's Modern Rock chart for 15 weeks. The band's 1997 self-titled debut album was eventually a respectable hit, taking a year to reach its highest point on the charts. Shapeshifter, the group's release from last month, failed to crack the Top 200, selling around 6,000 copies its first week. Even without a radio hit the magnitude of "Sex & Candy," the expectation was that the band should add to its success, rather than have to start over.
Instead of "Sex & Candy Pt. 2," Shapeshifter gets into the dark places with distorted guitars, having more in common with the non-hit songs on the band's debut. Singer/guitarist John Wozniak uses his imagination to take him to those spots. Over simple grungy guitars on the lead track and first single, "It's Saturday," he sings about a variety of ailments that make him feel like he's going to "join Timothy Leary." But he also engages in a bit of yodeling, so it's not all depression, just like "Sex & Candy."
But how does one continue to write songs after having a big hit single?
"You pay no attention to the fact that you had a hit in the first place and you do your best to write songs that don't suck," explains Wozniak. "People ask if there's pressure from success and I have to say no."
Still, he admits that he expected his record company, Capitol (the same label behind Everclear), to be looking for another quick score -- a factor that's part of the tension between artists and labels. Bands aren't necessarily interested in making the most commercial music, just what they perceive to be their best work. Record companies are businesses, interested in profits and market shares, while realizing that some attention must be paid to "artist development" and growing artists' careers.
"I knew that they were going to have conversations as soon as we delivered this new record about, 'Hey, yeah, where's the "Sex & Candy" on this record?' Because that's a very businesslike thing for them to do," Wozniak says. "The response to that is, 'Uh, well, there isn't one.' Since they're not going to be able to take the easy way out, they're going to have to figure something else out."
Considering that Capitol couldn't get radio stations to stop playing "Sex & Candy" (they asked), the fact that Shapeshifter and "It's Saturday" have stayed under the radar to date means that it sits on the edge of being called a sophomore slump, a charge that Wozniak denies, claiming it's too early to tell.
"My whole philosophy is, criticism right now has gotten so low that bands that come out with one record and have one hit from their first record tend to get lumped into the one-hit-wonder category," Wozniak says. "But that's like a sort of '70s thing where [a band had] a disco hit and they'll come out with another couple records and they won't have a hit after that -- then you can call them a one-hit wonder. I don't expect this record to be huge. I have no corporate expectations."
Wozniak has an ally in Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page, a band with its own ubiquitous single, "One Week." The song came from last year's Stunt LP, the group's breakthrough and fifth record. One of the subplots of the Canadian band's American success was that it highlighted the ongoing artist development problem, a contributing factor to the ever-growing frequency of sophomore slumps. In the rare case when a band has a hit, if its sophomore record doesn't outsell its debut, it might also be sent packing. Page discusses this in context of what might have happened to U2, who didn't start to see large sales until their third record, War.
If they were in their infancy today, Page says, "You'd think, 'Jeez, October [U2's second album] didn't do so hot.' So you dump them after October. Then they get re-signed and put out War on some Internet-only label and that sells 15,000 copies and that's the end of that."
In the Ladies' case, that scenario might have happened to them; their first album, Gordon, sold 900,000 copies in Canada, but their second, Maybe You Should Drive, sold only a third as many. "I think, frankly, we never got dropped because we sold lots of copies of our first record in Canada," Page says, laughing. "We always sold just enough to recoup everything, but it sure looks nice for a label to say, 'We've got five albums with this band before they broke.' And maybe it will set a precedent for other labels to go, 'Maybe it will take five records before they make it big.'"
But as most wary musicians in an ever-hardening, business-first, art-second world warn, "Don't count on it."
"Everything has gotten really oversimplified," says Wozniak. "Everybody wants to oversimplify the whole process of marketing records. The public's not that simple, the bands aren't that simple. You end up getting all these A&R people at record companies signing bands that they think sound like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock because Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock have done well. The fact of the matter is you can't do that without destroying the music business in the process."
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