No, not that Musical Youth, though I’m sure membership therein had its dangers as well — God only knows what the punishment was for passing the dutchie on the right-hand side, for example.
I’m talking about being in young and new bands. Being a group or artist just starting out in the music industry is like being a turtle egg. So many threats can end your existence: predators, malnourishment, carelessness, asshole humans walking on the beach. Only a fraction of a percent will survive to maturity.
Current music culture, though, has accelerated the rate at which artists must mature — essentially forcing them to leap from an embryo to an adult, skipping all the stages in between. And while it’s always been difficult for bands to “make it,” it’s now harder than ever to break through while sticking to a normal artistic growth chart.
More media discussing music, and more formats in which to experience music, means it’s easier for bands to get noticed. However, once they’re on the radar, it’s more difficult to stick around because of the pressures of immediacy inherent to 21st-century success.
One of the most common mistakes by young bands in the current climate is releasing their debut album too soon. Now, when I say mistake, I mean from an artistic — not a commercial or business — standpoint. Often, though not always, artistic success leads to commercial success. More often, artistic failure leads to commercial failure, so it’s not like the two are mutually exclusive.
Too many bands are releasing debut full-lengths before they’re ready in terms of songwriting and playing. They release a single, then a EP, get some buzz in the blogosphere and on Pitchfork, then rush to capitalize and cash in as much as is even possible anymore.
I don’t think it’s important for artists to pay their dues in the classic sense. It’s 2012 — there’s no need to tour the country endlessly in a van and try to duplicate the Minutemen’s career path. But if you’re going to release an album, you need to have enough good songs to fill the album. If you’re going to go on tour, you need to be able to fill the set one way or another.
Let’s look at Alabama Shakes as a case study. The band started generating word of mouth last year on the strength of a four-song EP, containing soulful, deeply felt songs like “Hold On” and “You Ain’t Alone.” They dominated 2011′s CMJ and 2012′s SXSW, building legitimate anticipation for their full-length debut.
By almost all accounts, they’re a powerhouse live band, and TV appearances and online videos seem to confirm this.
But the album itself — Boys and Girls, released in April — is disappointing at best. Other than the four songs that appeared on the 2011 EP, there’s not a song on Boys and Girls that rises above mediocrity. You can hear the seeds of good ideas in tracks like “Hang Loose” and “Rise to the Sun,” but they sound underdeveloped, as if the band didn’t have enough time to flesh out the songs.
This is a group that’s clearly bursting with talent, and no band fronted by Brittany Howard’s voice should ever release a song best described as “bland,” but that’s what’s happened here. I obviously don’t have have any inside knowledge about the band’s recording process; perhaps this is the best they could ever do. Perhaps even if given ten years and an unlimited budget to record their first album, they would have ended up with the same batch of songs. But I doubt it.
These songs too often sound like generic roots rock, like a band who wouldn’t have been distinctive enough to garner a review in No Depression. The production is too glossy for the music, and there’s no sense of pacing. If the Alabama Shakes had taken more time between the EP and the LP, I think they could have written 10-12 songs as good as the initial four, and then we’d really have something. Instead, we’re left with a band that has yet to fulfill its potential — one that’s probably worth seeing live, but not worth taking the time to listen to 40 minutes or so of recorded music.
And it’s hard to blame the artists themselves — they see an opportunity and they chase it. There’s no time to take a step back and consider the long-term advantages and disadvantages of rushing their career paths. It’s just an unfortunate consequence of our culture right now.
The cycle of success, or so-called success, has tightened and shortened. Because there’s a kind of currency in knowing about a band no one else does, of being in on the ground floor, everyone is quick to move on to the next thing — leaving the last next thing behind in the process. So there’s unprecedented pressure as an artist to grab what you can while you can, before you’re abandoned for good.
The side of the highway is littered with the corpses of bands who once shone brightly under Pitchfork’s “Best New Music” spotlight. Even those artists who survive to record another day are forgotten and ignored.
And the dangers don’t end after the first album, either. Look at Sleigh Bells, who released a fantastic first album and then followed it up quickly with a sophomore effort bereft of new ideas. It’s not a bad album, but it felt rushed and piggybacking on the success of the debut.
Even though I know it’s not possible, and that this train is already rolling downhill, I simply wish that more artists would take their time in an effort to perfect their craft and to nourish their best ideas. Craig Finn of the Hold Steady like to say that if you release an album every year, not every record has to be a masterpiece because there’s always a new one around the corner. While some bands are good enough to pull off that kind of release schedule — like the Hold Steady for their first four albums — the vast majority aren’t, and the music suffers.