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Sophomore Flops

Record companies to artists: "What have you done for me lately?"

Sophomore slump. Sophomore jinx. One-hit wonder. The idea that a band can release one record then either fade into oblivion or fail miserably with its next is so common it's cliché.

The story goes something like this: Band writes and rehearses songs for years. Record company signs band. Band records debut album, sells a bunch of copies, tours. Band goes to write and record second album, has only a year or so worth of material to re-create the magic. Songs about life on the road and mimicking original hit single ensue. Record number two tanks. Band breaks up or repeats process without recapturing original glory.

Thankfully, there are many exceptions to this rule. Take R.E.M.'s Reckoning, Radiohead's The Bends and the Roots' Iladelph Halflife; and that's just from the "R" section. But whether blame should be placed on record companies, which pressure bands to deliver instant hits, or on the disposability of pop culture, the fact is that more and more bands are tossed aside like garbage after album number two flops.

Contrary to expectations, sophomore records by Everclear and Radiohead were successful; though it took Barenaked Ladies until its fifth album to obtain any noticeable acclaim.
Contrary to expectations, sophomore records by Everclear and Radiohead were successful; though it took Barenaked Ladies until its fifth album to obtain any noticeable acclaim.

Art Alexakis, leader of pop-punkers Everclear, a band with two commercially successful records, Sparkle and Fade and So Much for the Afterglow, deadpans an explanation: "No one talks about bands who have two successful records back-to-back. Do you know why they don't?" he says, then pauses a long while. "It doesn't happen." He laughs.

With interest in sales figures at an all-time high, the music business has begun to mirror the film industry, in which opening-weekend box office numbers, not artistic content, determine whether a picture is a hit. Similarly, if a record debuts low on the charts, it must be a flop and therefore not worth buying. Once upon a time, albums used to work their way up the charts.

Take Marcy Playground, the group behind the ubiquitous "Sex and Candy," a song that sat atop Billboard's Modern Rock chart for 15 weeks. The band's 1997 self-titled debut was, after a year, a respectable chart hit. Shapeshifter, the group's November release, failed to crack the Top 200, selling around 6,000 copies its first week. Even without a radio hit as big as "Sex and Candy," the band was expected to add to its success, not start over.

Instead of offering "Sex and Candy: The Sequel," Shapeshifter takes listeners to dark places via wildly distorted guitars. The record sounds like a collection of every non-hit track on the band's debut. Over simple, grungy guitar lines on the lead track and first single, "It's Saturday," singer/guitarist John Wozniak sings about a variety of ailments that makes him feel like he'll soon be dead. But then he also yodels a bit, so the song is not all depression, just like "Sex and Candy."

But how does one continue writing songs after a big hit single?

"You pay no attention to the fact that you had a hit in the first place, and you do your best to write songs that don't suck," says Wozniak. "People ask if there's pressure from success, and I have to say no."

Still, Wozniak admits that he expected his record company, Capitol (also the label behind Everclear), to be on the warpath for another quick score. But he knows that's all part of the tension between artists and labels, those odd bedfellows with differing agendas, one artistic, the other commercial.

"I knew that they were going to have conversations as soon as we delivered this new record about, 'Hey, yeah, where's the "Sex and Candy" on this record?' Because that's a very businesslike thing for them to do," Wozniak says. "The response to that is, 'Uh, well, there isn't one.' Since they're not going to be able to take the easy way out, they're going to have to figure something else out."

Capitol even did a strange thing to boost the exposure of Marcy Playground's second album: The corporate suits requested that radio stations stop playing "Sex and Candy," so that Shapeshifter and "It's Saturday" could get a foothold on the airwaves. It didn't work, and the mediocre sales of the album are beginning to add up to sophomore slump. Wozniak, however, says it's too early to tell.

"My whole philosophy is, criticism right now has gotten so low that bands that come out with one record and have one hit from their first record tend to get lumped into the one-hit-wonder category," Wozniak says. "But that's like a sort of '70s thing where [a band had] a disco hit and they'll come out with another couple records and they won't have a hit after that. Then you can call them a one-hit wonder. I don't expect this record to be huge. I have no corporate expectations."

Wozniak has an ally in Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page. The Ladies' first big American hit, "One Week," came last year, on the Canadian band's fifth record, Stunt. That kind of success and creative expression doesn't happen overnight; it takes years of artistic development, a concept seemingly lost at major labels. Page puts it in context: He refers to U2, which began experiencing large success by its third record, War. "If they were in their infancy today," Page says, "you'd think, jeez, [U2's second album] October didn't do so hot. So you dump them after October. Then they get re-signed and put out War on some Internet-only label, and that sells 15,000 copies, and that's the end of that."

In the Ladies' case, that scenario might have been a reality. The band's first album, Gordon, sold 900,000 copies in Canada, but its second, Maybe You Should Drive, sold only a third as many. "I think, frankly, we never got dropped because we sold lots of copies of our first record in Canada," Page says, laughing. "We always sold just enough to recoup everything, but it sure looks nice for a label to say, 'We've got five albums with this band before they broke.' And maybe it will set a precedent for other labels to go, 'Maybe it will take five records before they make it big.' " But as many wary musicians in an ever-hardening business-first, art-second world warn: Don't count on it.

"Everything has gotten really oversimplified," says Wozniak. "Everybody wants to oversimplify the whole process of marketing records. The public's not that simple. The bands aren't that simple. You end up getting all these A&R people at record companies signing bands that they think sound like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock because Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock have done well. The fact of the matter is you can't do that without destroying the music business in the process."

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