The music business— we often look past the last word in that phrase. What’s good for business is not always good for art. If you’re lucky enough to have your band transition from artistic hobby to full-time business, terms like “album cycle,” “Soundscan,” “secondary market,” “support slot,” “endcap,” and “radio edit” become part of your vocabulary. We don’t like to think about our favorite bands’ minds focused on dollars and cents, but the truth is if you want to make a living from music, you have to think about these things. I’m not saying all artists are fixated on money when composing and creating their music, but when it comes to logistical planning and timing, marketing and selling an album, like in the Snoop Dogg song “Gin and Juice,” I gotta have my mind on my money, and my money on my mind.
Did you know that Soulfly has released 10 studio albums? Max Cavalera only released 6 albums as a member Sepultura, the band he is most known for. In fact, if you include Max’s other bands, Cavalera Conspiracy and Killer Be Killed, he has released 14 albums in 17 years. Devin Townsend has released 23 albums in 19 years if you include Strapping Young Lad and all the different versions of solo albums and collaborations. Megadeth is about to release their 10th album since 1991’s Countdown to Extinction. I note these examples not to reflect that any of these bands have created poor work due to the consistent release schedule. These artists have created plenty of great material in that time, but it is often difficult to keep up with a high quantity of output, even if you are a big fan. There are so many albums released in today’s market that it’s very easy to get lost in the shuffle.
The quick pace of album release schedules are mainly due to a term I referenced above called an “album cycle”. An album cycle is a series events surrounding the release of an album starting from the promotion and press leading up to an album’s release date, and the subsequent touring that happens once the album is already out. This touring commonly ranges from a year to 18 months in length. The more successful an album is, and the more hits and singles you have, the more life you can get out of the album cycle, and keep touring to support the same record. Metallica famously toured for four years on their 16 x platinum Black Album album cycle. If a band is not experiencing a lot of success with their album, that can shrink the touring demand, and you might be wrapped up on the road after six months. Hence, the album cycle has ended.
In my mind, the “album cycle” has diluted the quality of metal music. If you aren’t Metallica or Tool, who have the resources to take their time and let the creativity simmer, you really have to think about the economics of your business. If your main income is touring, you can’t take long breaks in between releases to write and record. With shrinking budgets, most metal bands probably can’t even use advance money to supplement their income anymore while working on a new album. So, you have to hope you can survive from previous tour money, publishing royalties, or have other sources of income.
If you’re a smaller (or even mid-level) band, you risk losing momentum by taking an extra six months or year to work on an album. Out of sight is out of mind for many music fans who are always looking for the next cool band. If you wait too long, the scene may pass you by. My old band, God Forbid, made this mistake with our 2009 Earthsblood album. It was three and a half years between albums and many fans moved on, despite the album being creatively fertile and adventurous. Legacy bands can take their time. Many smaller bands can’t afford to take the chance.
One of my heroes in music is Rick Rubin, whose role as a producer is probably closer to something like an executive producer or creative producer. He isn’t on the board twiddling knobs or harrowing over mic-ing technique. He focuses on songs and vibe. If a band isn’t ready to record, he tells them. Velvet Revolver fired him after a year of writing, because he said they weren’t ready. They went on to record 2007’s underwhelming Libertad with Brendan O’Brian. American Head Charge wrote somewhere around 40 songs for their follow-up to the Rubin-produced War Of Art (2001), and the parties severed ties due to a stalemate. They weren’t ready due mainly to inner turmoil and substance abuse. But at the end of the day, it’s the songs.
I am bringing Rick Rubin into this conversation because he believes that getting to a state of artistic flow takes time. This is why we always talk about the sophomore slump. There’s the old rocker cliché, “You have your whole life to make your first album, and six months to make your second.” This is only true because the business of releasing an album: promoting, touring, wash, rinse, repeat, neglects the process of getting to that true place.
Of course, there are exceptions when a band or artist is just on fire creatively. Considered by many musicologists to be the greatest rock band in history, The Beatles entire catalogue was released between 1963-1970. One caveat is that The Beatles didn’t do extensive touring like modern bands. By 1965, the band had altogether stopped touring full-time. Led Zeppelin’s eight studio albums of original material were released between 1969-1979. Even Pantera’s inexorable five album stretch was done in 10 years. When a timeless band is in that groove, they can crank out pure brilliance at a fairly quick pace.
But, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the bands I mentioned had a finite source of output. Would we still be paying attention to Led Zeppelin’s 18th studio album, or would we be cranking on about old dudes that need to give it up? Or even worse, would new material have watered down or besmirched the aura of the older, classic material. Having a band’s career end without any creative missteps is the perfect way to keep a legacy enshrined. I have often asked the question: what if Eddie Vedder had committed suicide after Pearl Jam released their second album, Vs., and Kurt Cobain had lived. Would we all be lamenting Cobain’s tortured genius if he’d evolved into Rivers Cuomo-esque rock-pop on Nirvana’s 11th LP released in 2015? Vedder would be the icon, the genius, “rockin’ and rollin’, living fast, dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse.”
I’m not saying bands should take 17 years between releases like Guns N’ Roses, but Carcass, At The Gates, and now Refused have proved that sometimes time can be the ember that sparks creative fire. I believe this wholeheartedly— you have to have a reason other than a touring cycle to make an album. You need life to happen, and give you something to make an album about. If you have a dedicated fanbase, and you take your time, you give people something to yearn for. They have something to look forward to. The album is an event. We might complain it’s been FOREVER since the last Tool album, but we’ll all be there with shit-eating grins when it’s finally released.