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What is "second album syndrome" and can it be defeated?

The dreaded “second album syndrome”, also often referred to as the sophomore slump, is a common trend whereby an artist launches to fame and fortune with a stellar debut album and then suffers a nosedive either commercially or critically upon the release of their second record. What’s interesting to note, is that the phenomenon appears rifer in the modern-day than it was in say the 1960s and ‘70s.

As you’ve started reading, you have probably begun wracking your brains for some examples. I will give you a few to consider. The artist that first comes to mind for me is The Stone Roses, who followed their seminal 1989 debut album with The Second Coming. The album was deemed by critics and many fans as a failure relative to their first LP despite some admittedly great moments. Another example is Franz Ferdinand: the Scottish indie group came out of the traps triumphantly with their eponymous debut album which was laden with high energy rock classics like ‘Take Me Out’ and ‘Dark Of The Matinée’. The group followed it up swiftly with 2005’s You Could Have It So Much Better and this, incidentally, appeared to be the sentiment of critics and consumers at the time. 

Franz Ferdinand’s second album wasn’t a bad follow up, but the issue here lay with the timing of release and the lack of progression. Some bands manage to find their niche in their first album and plug away at it for a few records with no significant dip in commercial and critical engagement. However, this is rare, and Franz Ferdinand hit us with another dose of something very similar to the first album just a year later, not allowing their audience the time to fully digest and excrete the first triumphant dose. 

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This is just one of a few reasons why a second album can perform badly following its release. Often it’s a mix of several factors. Take The Strokes’ 2001 landmark debut album, Is This It, as an example. The album was followed up with 2003’s Room On Fire which showed very little creative or technical growth from the debut. But The Strokes were following an album that was widely deemed one of the most successful modern rock LPs, an instant classic. How on earth were they supposed to top it?

When following a successful album, artists have a choice. Do they hedge their bets and release a little more of the same? Refraining from pushing too many boundaries in a bid to keep their loyal audience on side. This is a good option, but you risk the critics writing scathing reviews about not being daring or creatively original as on the first album. 

The other option would be to create something that covers new ground. Often bands will have a higher budget following a successful debut and so second albums can come as a more refined and textured work. Unfortunately, this too can spell disaster. Loyal fans who enjoyed watching an artist in their formative gigs in grassroots venues in a small hometown will now say that the artist in question “sold out”.

So, does the problem lie with us, the consumer? Quite possibly. There does appear to be a sense of tribalism in music that can help bring a band to prominence but can also damage their reputation when they become world-renowned. In the formative years, a band might garner a loyal local fanbase who will be the first to disown them when they conquer the world. For example, the Arctic Monkeys appear to have lost connection with their Sheffield fans more and more with each new album since 2006; their ever-evolving sound now bears very little resemblance to the raw local energy that brought them fame in the first place. Arctic Monkeys didn’t fall victim to second album syndrome, but their path proves that it’s impossible to keep everyone happy following a rise to fame.

If we now cast our minds back to the 1960s and consider bands of the British invasion era, such as The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. These bands seemingly avoided album syndrome because of the way they were introduced to the charts and the time they were lucky enough to exist in. They were around at a time when labels tended to develop and nurture promising up and coming sounds with a great deal more patience and supervision than is often seen in the modern age. The bands were allowed to dip a toe before full submersion and so for their first albums, they could stick mainly to rhythm and blues covers before growing into their creativity over subsequent records. 

The sobering truth of the matter is that second album syndrome is incurable and near-impossible to anticipate. The reason we see this trend is because we rarely hear of the artists who flop on their first album. To explain the obvious, the album never launched them into wider consciousness and therefore they slip under the radar. Unfortunately, especially in the modern-day, artists don’t get two bites of the cherry. Labels aren’t in the business of nurturing failing artists like they may have been in the past and so it’s rare that those with a failed first album will come back with a second, and if they do, the marketing budget would be minimal. 

To analogise my point, imagine the first album as the first flip of a coin, heads is unbridled success, tails is failure and a return to day jobs. If you flip heads on the first, everybody can see your success. You flip again for your second album and you stand a 50% chance of “second album syndrome”. Of course, I understand that these aren’t the odds in the analogous scenario. As an outsider, all you can see is a large group of people who flipped heads the first time and what appears to be a “trend” of many of these bowing out with tails on the second album. 

So, to avoid second album syndrome, I suggest you get a time machine, travel back to the 1960s and start off slow with a blues cover group. Failing that, which you will, you will need to manage your expectations and understand that it’s out of your hands. All you can do is give yourself the best chance by releasing the music that you’re truly passionate about. If your local following is dear to you, then it’s probably wise not to sell out to fame and fortune. If your goal is commercial acclaim, then follow the advice of your label. Finally, if your goal is critical acclaim, don’t be afraid to push the boundaries into the avant-garde; it may not reap the same financial rewards as your first album, but you might just be heralded as one of the most important artists of your time in years to come.

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