Originally published in Forbes.
In May 1974, music critic Jon Landau wrote a performance review in Boston’s Real Paper of a show he attended at the Harvard Square Theater. “I saw rock and roll future,” he wrote, “and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Thrilled at the endorsement, Springsteen’s label Columbia Records spent thousands of dollars quoting Landau in an ad in Rolling Stone magazine, where Landau was the reviews editor. Springsteen was grateful (he ultimately made Landau his manager), but he wasn’t prepared for the weight of expectations that came with it. “The whole episode was a big drag for me,” he later said. “I mean, who wants to come out onstage and be the future every night? Not me.”
What was Springsteen complaining about? Landau’s review was a dream come true. It was, that is, until Springsteen had to make it a reality.
When this year’ Grammy nominations were announced, many people pointed out that newcomer Lorde, whose song “Royals” has swept the charts, was overlooked for Best New Artist of 2013. On the surface this is an absurdity – surely a new artist good enough to be nominated for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Pop Solo Performance and Best Pop Vocal Album is one of the best new artists to hit the scene. The “snub,” as it has been dubbed, could be seen as an insult, casting Lorde as a one-hit-wonder before she’s even had a chance to prove herself.
But Lorde doesn’t need the Best New Artist nod. She’s getting plenty of traction on the charts and in the marketplace. Piling on even more praise might push her over the edge to that place Springsteen was talking about, where the dream becomes a nightmare. The fact is that many artists are wary of the Best New Artist Grammy, and for good reason. Winning does not translate into long-term success.
Take the Grammy’s Best New Artist winners from the 1980s: Rickie Lee Jones, Christopher Cross, Sheena Easton, Men at Work, Culture Club, Cindy Lauper, Sade, Bruce Hornsby and the Range, Jody Watley, Tracy Chapman and Milli Vanilli. And the 1990s: Mariah Carey, Marc Cohn, Arrested Development, Toni Braxton, Sheryl Crow, Hootie & the Blowfish, LeAnn Rimes, Paula Cole and Lauryn Hill. Most of these artists’ careers petered out.
Is this because longevity is generally difficult to attain in popular music? Or is it because something about winning Best New Artist actually hurts a career? This is the question that Boston College professor Spencer Harrison has been trying to answer. He has been researching why it is that an early success such as winning the Best New Artist Grammy can harm a career by comparing the careers of the award’s winners and losers over time.
One reason Harrison identifies for the “Grammy Best New Artist Curse” is that it pigeonholes artists into a specific niche. “The difficulty,” he told me, “is that people’s career narratives become sticky very quickly and by winning you become associated with a particular sound and a particular era. It becomes really hard for people to dislodge that narrative.” Once people come to see an artist in a particular way, they expect more consistency than the artist is perhaps willing to provide. “A lot of artists, they want to be involved in the growth and discovery and exploration and curiosity that comes along with being creative,” said Harrison. “And when that begins to feel limited by the expectations of your audience or your producers or your label, that becomes really difficult. It’s really hard for young artists to negotiate all the intricacies of that.”
Part of the problem with an early success is that new artists don’t gradually learn the tacit know-how of their industry like they would if their career had ascended slowly. Many of rock n’ roll’s most longstanding acts, like U2 or Metallica, enjoyed a gradual trajectory of success and were able to develop coping skills and strategies for managing the interplay between audience expectations and artistic growth.
Another problem with early success is that it can make artists overly focused on the product rather than the artistic process. Lorde has created a song that people really resonated with. “The question is,” said Harrison, “is she married to the process that led to that result or is she becoming caught up in the outcome?” Creative longevity, he argues, comes from elevating the creative process above anything else. When you’re relatively new in the field, it’s hard to know what it is that led to your success, which makes it hard to recreate it.
When Bruce Springsteen went into the studio after Landau’s review and subsequent advertising campaign, he was a mess. He labored for months and almost shelved the resulting album because he thought it wasn’t good enough. The album, Born to Run, ended up being the first to receive the industry’s newly-minted “platinum” certification. Springsteen had risen to the occasion. And luckily, he was snubbed for the Grammy’s Best New Artist award.