Fame is unpredictable so an absolute answer is impossible. But we can indicate what the norm is. We all want our heroes to go on forever and as a fanatic the idea of Nirvana ‘falling off’ is hard to imagine. But, in reality, popular taste moves on, fans are fickle, commercial and creative peaks are short; the zeitgeist doesn’t walk, it runs.
Just as an indication I’ve used the stats from EveryHit.com to examine the top ten best selling albums each year from 1960 to 2009 in the U.K. This gives a sample of 500 albums. What I’m looking for is the span of time over which artists had album sales in the top ten; how long does dominance tend to last? 75 artists had more than one unique album featured but 15 of those only managed one hit album then their greatest hits.
Of the 60 remaining artists only 17 had hit albums over a period of more than 10 years. So from our starting number we’re down to a fifth. The spans were as follows:
These are the most popular artists in the U.K., bands and artists with a cushion of support that should have sustained them, to some extent, through any fall off in quality and/or popularity. Yet, even with the support each commanded, only 17 managed to stay at the peak for long than ten years. Remember also that the last album for Elvis, Cliff Richard, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Elton John, R.E.M., Oasis and The Beach Boys was a greatest hits or singles collection — not a brand new album. Without those collections their creative careers fall as follows:
The result is just ten artists still operating at a peak of popularity over a period longer than ten years and in most cases the career trajectory involved taking a hiatus to allow scarcity to restore interest. That’s essentially the benefit that was reaped by the sizeable gap between The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah and then Nirvana’s greatest hits followed by With the Lights Out; time enough that saturation didn’t set in.
I’m not saying Nirvana wouldn’t have had a career. In fact I dare say it might have been a career that was more comfortable to their troubled front man. What I am saying is that even the biggest artists rarely retain world-beater status for more than a short spell and that level of persistent fame and success tends to be retained (by definition) only by artists firmly in the field of pop. Lots of bands break up, move onto new groups or solo performance — not many end up with a Sonic Youth-esque thirty year career at a comfortable mid-level of support.
Pearl Jam are a fair indication of the fate of the alternative rock demi-Gods. Despite staying together, despite continuing to create music of interest, and despite clearly enjoying themselves, they’re not the multi-million mega-stars anymore. Maybe Nirvana, as the figurehead of an entire spell of music, would have bucked the trend but it’s unlikely.
I’d like to run this same thought experiment using American album sales but I need to find appropriate data first.