Does the sophomore slump exist in music?
This article originally appeared on Medium, but we wanted to get some content up here.
Imagine being in Mumford & Sons. You formed a band, successfully co-opted another country’s musical history, and managed to produce a Grammy-winning record. You got to play with Bob Dylan and everybody and their college roommate is coming to your shows. Life is pretty great.
Then you realize that you can’t ride on that first record forever – you need to come up with some new music. Between the touring, the appearances on late-night talk shows and train trips across the U.S., it’s hard to find time to come up with ideas for new material. So what do you do? You take the same formula from your first album and record ten new tracks along the same lines. It’s enough to keep people interested and showing up at concerts, but you haven’t broken any new ground.
Oh well, maybe you’ll find some time next time you need to put out a record.
This is a story that has repeated itself since the beginning of pop music – the sophomore slump. But is the slump a figment of the collective imagination of music critics, or is there really a trend of bands putting out weaker follow-up records?
“I guess the temptation to capitalize on past success can lead artists to make safer, less exciting choices,” Caroline Harrison, a music photographer for Brooklyn Vegan and Invisible Oranges, said.
I tried to see if there was any reality behind the sophomore slump using some data. If you take the ratings from enough musicians’ first records and compare them to their follow-ups, does a trend emerge?
Music criticism, regardless of how empirical a reviewer might think they’re being, is still an inherently subjective thing. But I tried to apply the same bias to all my findings. I used the most comprehensive review database I could find – allmusic.com – for my ratings. If an album has come out at some point in the last hundred years, they have given it a rating out of five stars.
Regarding the albums I surveyed – I started with lists from multiple sources that have complied the opinions of multiple music critics to get a consensus of the ‘greatest’ debut records of all time. I included lists by Rolling Stone, NME, Amazon, and SFGate.
There were a lot fewer “greatest debut” lists out there than I was expecting, and there was a fair amount of overlap between the lists. So I looked for more data points. I asked the Internet to chip in with their favorite debut records. It’s worth noting that there’s a fair few famous musicians whose debuts are not on the final list – David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Prince, to name a few – because their debuts were not well received. You can’t really have a sophomore slump if you’re already slumping.
After all the lists and feedback, I had about 200 debut records. I then found the rating for each record and the bands’ follow-ups, and compared the two. I averaged the ratings for all the bands’ first records, and then did the same for the second records.
I got some interesting results.
With the data I have, it seems that I can say that the sophomore slump actually does seem to exist.
Of the 189 artists surveyed, only 32 follow-ups received better ratings than their debuts. The majority, 98, of follow-ups did worse, and 59 bands received the same rating for their follow-up records.
It turns out, there’s an 83 percent chance that a band will only do as well or worse on their follow-up as they did on their debut when their debut receives critical acclaim.
The average rating on allmusic for the debut records surveyed was 4.486 out of 5, while the follow-ups averaged a 4.134 rating. That’s roughly an 8 percent drop.
If you look just at the bands that did worse on their follow-up, the drop is more severe – bands did received on average a 20 percent worse rating.
This means that on their follow-ups bands either do a bit better, the same, or a lot worse. It’s most likely these records – the real flops – that have created the perception of the sophomore slump. Morrissey’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut Viva Hate (which received 4.5/5) was Kill Uncle – that only got 2/5.
This slump could be down to the pressure new artists feel to quickly to repeat their success when they break onto the scene with an acclaimed record, said Invisible Oranges editor and Pyrrhon lead singer, Doug Moore.
“They’re suddenly in the spotlight, which most of them aren’t used to,” Moore said.
“There’s the psych-out factor of knowing you struck gold once and that the stakes are basically double-or-nothing now,” Moore added.
Tom Carbone, an associate producer for the Tribune Media Company and former music editor at Vox Magazine, agreed that the possibility for a slump is increased by the media spotlight.
“I think the sophomore slump occurs most when a heavily-hyped album does exceptionally well,” Carbone said.
“This sets a precedent that can often times be very hard to live up to.”
The sophomore slump doesn’t seem to come into play as often in genres on the periphery of popular music. Moore argued that in “genres where commercial success is comparatively rare, like underground metal, noise music, contemporary classical, jazz,” the stress that can produce a slump is less prevalent.
“If a band or artist produces a decent first album that finds a modicum of an audience, they’re usually afforded more resources to work with the second time around, and the majority of acts don’t hit their stride until later in their career,” he added, meaning they are more likely to be able to grow into their sound, without the hype of commercial or critical success.
Moore also argued, both as a critic and a musician working on a follow-up album, that the process for producing songs is vastly different.
When recording a debut, “you’re not facing any public expectations,” Moore said. The second time around, you may be “working on a deadline,” where a record company is “demanding both extensive touring and a follow-up effort in short order,” he said.
“They can certainly fuck things up.”
While this data is far from conclusive, it does seem to suggest the trend that musicians, critics and fans alike have noticed might really be there. Whether bands feel the pressure to deliver again, the stress of working around a touring schedule, or just don’t have much left in the tank, there seems to be a case for the existence of the sophomore slump.
“I would honestly think it’s weird for any artist not to be intimidated when making art or music,” Harrison said.
“A new work always has whatever came before it hanging over it,” she added.
If you’re interested in how your favorite band did, you can check out my data here. I’m planning on expanding my research to see if the slump is more or less prevalent in any genre, country or time period, but that will take some time.
So stay tuned.