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2nd Album Syndrome: 3 Steps to Ensure Success


You always serve the good wine first and then once everyone is feeling inebriated, you bring out the cheap stuff. It’s a timeless axiom, but unfortunately, it is as true of how we treat initial success as it is of our sommeliers and their choices of wine. In the music industry, they call it the “2nd Album syndrome”. In academia, it is often referred to as “2nd-year blues”. More than one sports star has suffered from “2nd season syndrome”.

For now we will stick to the music analogy.

Most bands spend years at the start of their career writing countless songs, playing in every dodgy establishment from Cornwall to Kentucky. When they are finally signed to a record label, they get to pick their best dozen or so songs and release their first album. If they are any good, then their first album breaks the Top 40 and they get to open up for a bigger band at Glastonbury. That is usually followed by a tour and within a year their label expects them to record another album of equal quality and greater success.

Since they were teenagers and practising in their parents’ garage on a Friday night, they dreamed of getting that first record contract. But that was good not enough. It was just a good start. Buoyed by their initial success and the pressure from their record label they then bring out their 2nd album. By using the same formula and by being rushed, they produce a mediocre album. Following poor sales, they then disappear into the glory of one-hit wonderland. This is where 99% of most bands, students, sportspeople, startups fail.

People see that first sign of success and believe that they have arrived, but their 1st album is only the beginning. Not only is the 2nd album important, but it is also the key indicator of whether a band will be a one-hit-wonder or inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.

Nirvana’s first album was good and gave them a fan-base but their 2nd album (Nevermind) changed music forever. It is iconic in that it took alternative music and introduced it to the mainstream. Music fans at the time were getting high off spandex trousered, lipstick and hairspray covered glam rockers. It created a genre where none existed.

Second Album Success

Great bands are made by how good their 2nd albums are. Think of the 2nd albums by Madonna, Lady Gaga, Black Sabbath, Bruce Springsteen, the Pixies. This is true universally and transcends the music industry. Consider Godfather 2, Superman 2, Empire Strikes Back, the list goes on. In the business world, Steve Jobs invented the iPod and the iPhone in his 2nd term with Apple after previously getting fired from the same company!

Perhaps there is no better example of a band defying 2nd album syndrome, than Led Zeppelin. In fact, their debut album is really good. It’s actually spectacular. It included as “You shook me” and “Dazed and confused”. But then their follow up album gave us the anthemic “Whole Lotta Love”. Their 3rd album gave us “Stairway to Heaven”, which is arguably the best rock song of all time. Their iconic song “Kashmir”, which has featured on soundtracks ranging from Godzilla to Batman, was only written for their 6th album six years later. That’s six iconic albums in 6 years!

The difference between being good and great is the 2nd album, the 2nd season, the 2nd round of funding. The ability to continue delivering is vital and is the difference between good and great. Unfortunately 99% of us plateau after experiencing a little bit of success.

Psychologists have tried to explain this. They call it the “Regression to the mean”. They argue that the 1st album is an outlier. After all, you have had years to write the best songs and rehearse them in thousands of gigs. It was a freak album or a freak season, but now your performance is back to normal. Back to your mediocre self.

Why is this important? Because the 2nd album doesn’t have to be mediocre. People who do achieve greatness, see their initial success not as the final goal, but just the beginning of a journey.

We dream and work for years to have a door opened for us, but the door itself was never the goal. We now have to walk through it. Now the real work starts. Now you have to deliver. That initial round of funding, that first election, that first year at a new company was just there for you to find your feet so you can achieve greater things.

Mostly, people are just happy that after years of slogging that a door is opened. They then rest on their laurels and they replicate the same formula that gave them success in the first place. That old “if it ain’t broke” trope instead of taking new risks. They just bring out more of the same and their audiences soon figure out that there is no wizard behind the curtain.

Three Steps to Success

However, we have all fallen into these two traps of complacency and fear of taking risks at some stage. So how do you get out of this trap or prevent it from happening in the first place? Here are a few steps that have helped us at Humanosity:

  1. Vision. When you start a venture, set your sights silly high. Don’t aim to just get signed to a record label, a sports team, or attract an angel investor. That’s just your ticket to play the game. You have to lift your head above the madding crowd and aim silly high. The old cliche “Aim for the sky and hit the moon” is a cliche for a reason. Most aim for the moon and never leave our atmosphere. You owe it to your destiny to demand better!
  2. Ideas. Introduce new blood. Nirvana, for the 2nd album, fired their drummer and hired a young firebrand by the name of Dave Grohl. He was actually their 5th drummer and later founded the Foo Fighters. Introducing new ideas from new people into your business can be uncomfortable as it “rocks the boat” but the boat needs to be rocked. You will never change unless you introduce yourself to different people, taste different food, hear different music, take a different route home. This is true of personal development as much as it is of business strategy. After Steve Jobs got fired from Apple, which he started, he said that it was doing LSD under a tree in India that made him the visionary that gave us the iPhone and made Apple the richest company in the world.
  3. Tenacity. Bill Hicks the late iconic comedian said, “It’s just a ride”. If you have fallen victim to 2nd album syndrome, maybe it’s time that you forgive yourself and just get back on the ride. Richard Branson has had over 300 failed businesses. Sometimes we get stuck in that 2nd season and we never leave it. We need to have the tenacity to get up, learn, get back on the horse and ride again.

Sporting Success

Finally, there is a great example, which should inspire us all. Bryan Habana was a South African rugby player who grew up playing barefoot rugby on hard dusty school fields in Johannesburg. He dreamed of becoming a Springbok and he dreamed of becoming a great player. in 2005, Bryan burst onto the scene as an explosive runner, scoring fearless tries against rugby’s giants, including France and Australia. Habana finished his debut international season as a joint top international try scorer and a finalist for player of the year. His 2nd season was abysmal. He scored one try. Many thought he was a one-hit-wonder. The press called him a “flash in the pan”.

Image from Flickr by Daniel Stockill

Jake White the South African coach at the time, then hired Dr Sherylle Calder to work with Bryan. She has been referred to by CNN as “the most successful person in sport, a visionary, a pioneer”. Her speciality is hand-eye coordination and she has worked with every big sports team on the planet. In 2007 Bryan Habana scored the most tries at the Rugby World Cup, his team won the World Cup and today he is a living legend!

Great vision, new ideas and tenacity!

Like Freddie Mercury once sang: “Get on your bikes and ride!”

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