Two hits and you're out: Artists face the sophomore slump

Prognosticators, take note: Alicia Keys's just-released sophomore CD, "The Diary of Alicia Keys," should easily make the Top 5 on next week's Billboard magazine Top 200 Albums chart. It might even knock Britney Spears out of the No. 1 spot.

How long it will stay there is another matter. It remains to be seen whether the 2002 Grammy winner for Best New Artist can repeat the phenomenal success of her debut, "Songs in A Minor," which sold 10 million copies worldwide.

Fellow singer/songwriter/pianist Norah Jones, 2003's Best New Artist, will face the same scrutiny when she unveils her follow-up to "Come Away with Me" next year.

Sales of second releases can make or break a musician's career, particularly if that artist dominated the charts and awards shows, as Keys and Jones did. Big sales and recognition are great ego boosters, but they also create enormous pressure for an equally brilliant - and lucrative - follow-up.

Few performers are up to the task, either because they lack the song backlog they had when they started, or they experience the backlash effect of fast fame and overexposure, or they're simply no longer the new kid on the block.

"We can't discount the fickle nature of the public," says veteran music journalist Gary Graff. "They're quick to jump on something new and not as quick to embrace it a second time around. It's too bad."

Tell that to Hootie & the Blowfish, whose "Cracked Rear View" still ranks among the all-time most popular albums at 16 million sold. Its sequel, "Fairweather Johnson," sold only 3 million.

Most artists would barter their souls (and many have) to move 3 million units of one album, but in comparison to their debut, "Fairweather" was labeled a dismal failure, putting Hootie on a long list of artists such as Alanis Morissette whose careers nose-dived after initially making big splashes.

Jones's album behaved more like slow-acting yeast, taking 45 weeks to rise to the top. Ninety weeks after its release in 2002, it's still in the Top 50 - which means the burden of matching that is huge.

"Listeners are going to be very critical of the follow-up, no matter what it [is]," says Kurt Orzeck, managing editor of Ice magazine, which compiles monthly lists of coming releases. "The basis of pop music," he adds, "is instant appeal."

Mr. Graff observes, "There's a combination of the element of surprise and a fresh new sound that turns a hit album into a phenomenon for a lot of new artists. It's hard to make that kind of lightning strike twice because once they're a known commodity, it raises expectations."

Source material is often a major factor. Notes music publicist Bob Merlis: "Typically, you've waited all your life, however short that was, to make your album. Then you've got to create a lifetime's worth of material in 12 to 15 months [for its successor]. Do you have anything left?"

A few artists do manage to put out stronger albums second time around. Coldplay's "Rush of Blood to the Head" and Radiohead's "The Bends" each outsold their popular predecessors.

But those are rare exceptions. Virtually none of the 10 "Best New Artist" Grammy winners preceding Keys delivered sophomore discs that exceeded the accomplishments of their career-making albums, though Toni Braxton came close, and Mariah Carey doubled sales on subsequent releases. Sheryl Crow hasn't equaled her freshman sales, but she's built a strong fan base and gained industry respect, something Christina Aguilera seems intent on losing.

"[Keys] seems like an artist who's committed to her craft and knows not to pay attention to the fluff," says Bob Johnsen, senior director of marketing at Roadrunner Records, home of rock/metal band Nickelback.

As Mr. Orzeck puts it, she has "sustainability."

Critical fave Nelly Furtado's staying power also will be determined by how her just-released "Folklore" (the follow-up to "Whoa Nelly!") fares in coming weeks.

But Graff says excitement about Keys's and Furtado's work has already waned, even though he believes that both of their follow-up efforts are stronger than their debuts. Ashanti is another popular artist whose sophomore disc, "Chapter II," this year failed to notch sales or buzz in league with her eponymously named first release. Neither have recent second helpings by Dido, John Mayer, or The Strokes, and Train's album lurched right off the track.

"The pressure to repeat or exceed is overwhelming," says Mr. Merlis. "Ideally, you build to a massive release. You don't start with one."

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