When is it right for an artist to re-invent themself?
Question from a Audio Masterclass reader...
A friend and I were debating about this a little while ago. We both decided to debate about how artists may re-invent themselves from time to time and have great success, as others can't pull it off well, and others may not do it at all but still be successful.
Madonna changes her sound a lot and still remains to have good mainstream success these days. You don't usually hear comments like, "Madonna is totally a thing of the 80s. Even her modern material reeks of the 80s." Sure, she may still sound a bit 80s-ish from time to time, but she's definitely not stuck in that era.
U2 has developed a little bit over the years, but still sound very much like how they always have and still seem to have some good success to this day.
My friend mentioned that Korn tried to re-invent themselves a few times but people didn't like their transformations.
What do you think are some effective ways for an artist to re-invent themselves?
Audio Masterclass's David Mellor responds...
I don't propose to attempt a definitive answer, particularly on the nature of how re-invention should take place, but I do have some thoughts on this subject...
Firstly, you have to bear in mind that the career of the average artist or band is short, maybe just three or four years. Why is this?
There are three main reasons why the average life span of an artist or band is short. The first is if they are not profitable. Many artists and bands may seem to be successful, but this is only because their record label presents them so. In fact, revenue from their recordings may be less than their marketing costs, so they are not profitable, hence they disappear.
Another reason is that an act's first record might sell well, the second much less so. So the record label extrapolates this downward trajectory and sees that the third album just isn't worth making.
The third reason is that the recording industry's stock-in-trade is ephemera. Somehow, the market expects most acts to be here today and gone tomorrow, with new and temporarily exciting acts to replace them.
So it is important to realize that a short career is the norm. If you want to have a long career, then you are going to have to do something positive to achieve this. Periodic re-invention may be one possibility.
But what about the acts that don't reinvent. Yes, U2 is an excellent example. REM is another. The answer here is that both of these acts, and other non-re-inventing acts, achieved iconic status very quickly. U2 for example established themselves as the premier act of the British new wave of the 1980s. Other acts might have done that, but they either fell apart or didn't have quality in depth. (Yes, I know that U2 are Irish! It was the British new wave that was British.)
If you can achieve iconic status as the figurehead of a musical or social revolution, then you do indeed have a career for life. You don't have to change much, or perhaps even not at all (Rolling Stones).
Now, what about the re-inventors? Madonna and David Bowie spring to mind. Neither of these acts was top of their league when they first appeared. Among the front-runners perhaps, but with stiff competition. So longevity through iconic status was never an option.
David Bowie in particular simply had to re-invent. The early 1970s was a period that had to come to an end, and there was absolutely no possibility that Ziggy Stardust nor Aladdin Sane would have survived through to the 1980s.
So Bowie re-invented. But not at the end of Ziggy/Aladdin's natural life span. He changed early, and disappointed many of his fans. But he did the right thing at the right time with his Thin White Duke character.
Ultimately, Bowie was so successful for such a long period that his career in music at a very high level is assured, even though he perhaps doesn't now command as much attention as he once did. A re-invention too few perhaps?
Madonna is still going strong. Her re-inventions tend to be more frequent and more subtle. She extends beyond the musical into lifestyle too, such as her involvement in the Kabala religion. Musically, she is bold in her choice of producers and always stays close to the cutting edge of pop.
So, the advice...
If you can, achieve iconic status as the leading act in a musical or social revolution. (You wish!)
Otherwise, achieve popularity, but recognize that things are going to change and your style will become old-fashioned. Re-invent yourself early and become a leading light in the next new style.
Remember that re-invention involves risks. Your first album after re-invention may bomb and your career is dead. But it was dying anyway. By re-inventing you have given yourself at least a chance of an extended career where otherwise you would have been cast by the wayside.
Conclusion - re-invention is good! But the question I didn't answer was how?