Amid all of the musically themed conversations I’ve had with my family,creatively inclined acquaintances and friends there is one particular theme that has popped up an uncomfortably large amount of times. The collage of album covers you see above you say it all: I’m taking about musically (and often commercially) renowned artists seeming to take longer and longer to release new music. Sometimes its a mere five to seven years. In some cases its a decade or more of continuous absence. There have been many different points of view of looking at the possible reasons for this. But up until now, I never have bothered to organize any of these viewpoints into anything that expresses a level of clarity to the matter itself. So tonight I would like to try,with a number of possibilities presented,to make sense of this potentially overwhelming creative matter.
The first possible reason might have to do with self criticism. Artists such as Stevie Wonder are renowned for their dissatisfaction with their own work-on a solely creative level. On a complimentary level,that goes with the related reasons of pressure. Especially when an artist is entering middle age and feels that one of the keys to their success is connected to their youth,it’s not outside the realm of possibility that they might begin to second guess creative decisions they make in music production. Even to the point of adding younger and often more commercially popular guests (especially from the hip-hop world) to their songs in an effort to win back their audience. The assumption is that music is a type of game an artist plays with the public: who can throw a song better and who can catch faster. This ethic of self competitive creation could surely delay the release of new music for such an individual.
The second possible reason has a generational back-round: the advent of music video. Many videos released during the MTV/VH1 era of the 1980’s and 90’s had location shoots and financial budgets sometimes equaling that of a full Hollywood film production-complete with scripts and special effects. Organizing such a production would be extremely difficult. This matter also has to do with why younger artists arriving on the scene from the 90’s to today take longer time between albums then their progenitors did in the 60’s,70’s and even 80’s. Often a big budget music video precedes an album release by months. The process of organization a miniature feature film type video production as a necessity to promote ones music will obviously lead to many delays-both expected and unexpected in the matter of new music getting released with the level of consistency it would in a time when an icon such as James Brown was released up to two to four albums per year in his prime years of the mid 60’s to early 70’s.
The third possible reason is the matter of music downloading and piracy. With the advent of the internet,the online world is full of different places to download music for free. Since the high profile incident with Napster at the turn of the millennium,even many artists have followed the party lines of music publishers and organizations such as the RIAA in insisting the illegal music downloading is hurting not only sales,but their ability to make music. This ensuing anxiety has hauled the ability of many of these artists to find innovative new ways of viewing the online downloading/file sharing phenomenon. And the result is probably the biggest media blame game in the history of the music business: is free music stealing or the beginning of a new way of looking at music distribution? Considering people’s all too easily attained fear of change,this reason interrelates with the next possible reason for such delays in music release
And that fourth reason would be a near total dissatisfaction with the music industry itself. One of the factors of the 1970’s is what it did for artists rights in the music world. Many of them began to understand their financial success depended more on their song publishing-almost always once held by record labels,rather than in touring and song/album releases. Looking at the business side of music,especially today it seems to run antithetical to art: even once fringe characters such as Courtney Love openly bemoaned that the “system” of music was set up so that the artists hardly got paid. This emphasis on money,litigation and suspicion has led to the depressing ruin of the careers of Prince,Van Morrison,George Michael and Chaka Khan-all of whom have enjoyed very erratic album releases (and often end up recording for poorly distributed indie labels) and therefore result in possible protracted absences from them releasing new material.
So in the end is the reasoning for such long waits between new material for some artists ego,material,creative entropy or a combination of all of them? I’m sure a number of music admirers,critics and cultural analysts are likely scratching their heads even today trying to break down the same question I just did. In any case much of the reason might have to do with the cynicism of the audience as well. In the case of a legacy artists,an icon whose prime years are considered behind them,people continue to expect to hear them on either film soundtracks,hip-hop samples or guest spots on songs by contemporary artists. It then becomes not just a generational affair but an implied lack of respect of older generations of musicians. As if their musical contributions cannot stand along without the help of their descendants. Human problem or business problem,artists need to be able to be free from the need to accommodate an economically motivated mold and create based on their artistic terms. And that is sure to make everyone involved more happy and fulfilled.