The Rules Of Going Solo: Why some artists succeed and why some fail
“There is no such thing as a democracy in art” – said international superstar Sting in reference to his departure from The Police – the band that propelled him to global stardom. Very rarely does an aspiring pop star have a vision of sharing the spotlight with anyone else. More importantly, most pop/rock stars want their musical output to be a reflection of their own creative vision as opposed to a reflection of a consensus among band members. Not many pop stars make the transition from success within a band to “sustained” solo stardom. Many of them are fooled by their initial success that they have as solo stars – which can be attributed largely to the goodwill that they have inherited from the legacy of that the band within which they rose to prominence. That goodwill rarely ever translates to success for a second solo album and invariably leads to a “sophomore slump”. So what is the recipe for going solo? Is it solely about music quality or is it about a revised positioning for an artist? I strongly believe that rules of going solo have more to do with the latter than the former. After a close examination of stars that got it right, stars that going it wrong, and stars that seemed to know what they were doing but got lost, we have put together a list of rules that every pop star with solo aspirations should think through as he or she decides to carve out a career as a solo star after a successful run within a band setup. The rules of going solo are as follows:
A] Reinvention is key:
As a solo artist, you are not simply your former band minus the rest of the band-members. Listeners should be able to make a clear distinction between the music you made with your former band and the music you make as a solo artist. The reinvention can either be lyrical or stylistic. You do not necessarily need to be a brilliant songwriter on your own but partnering with a good songwriter alone could be a good start. From a stylistic standpoint, partnering with a producer that gives your songs a new treatment would also work very well. The ideal musical transformation would encompass both lyrical AND stylistic components. This is by far the MOST important aspect of going solo.
The best example of an execution of this rule is that of Sting‘s. What is “Sting”? Does Sting’s music qualify as rock, pop or jazz? His sonic template was an eclectic concoction that blended rock,pop, and jazz with occasional elements of fusion from the east (e.g. “Desert Rose” and “Book of my life“). Sting’s versatility became his creative signature and set him apart from his contemporaries while allowing him to transcend generational boundaries through his music.
“I wanted to move away from the idea that parents could buy my records for their kids and I think I did that very well with Faith” – said superstar George Michael in a “VH1″ Behind The Music” episode about his first stint as a solo artist after a highly successful career as one half of the duo Wham – the band that had him plastered on the walls of millions of teenagers all around the world. George Michael’s first solo effort “Faith” was adult and replete with sexual innuendo that was not overt – except on the album’s lead single “I want your sex” – a track that stirred controversy – a defining element of George Michael’s career. More importantly, not only did the music bear no resemblance to that of Wham. It had no similarity to any music that was being made. George Michael had a trademark sound. It was no secret that in addition to writing all his material, George Michael also produced all the material himself as opposed to relying on a producer. He was without a doubt the “full package”. This attribute, his smoldering hot music videos, his stylistic break with Wham, his changing look (always trendy – remember the 7 o’clock shades?) with each album, his ability to stir controversy, and the halo of mystery that he weaved by not being the most “accessible” pop star have together done more than a little to make George Michael one of the most successful pop stars in the history of pop music. He continues to be a potent force in the music business – as proved by his stadium tour in Europe in 2007.
Take That‘s youngest member Robbie Williams had the roguish good looks, cheeky sense of humor, and a penchant for outlandish behavior even before he departed from the band in 1995. While he had the requisite “star factor” needed to go solo, he was not the one that the public thought was poised for solo success. His sound on going solo was so dramatically different from that of Take That that it was hard to imagine he was ever a part of that band. His songs were characterized by an Indie-Alternative sound. In fact, one cannot help but wonder if he ever identified with the music of Take That given how far he had strayed from the conventional pop/soul sound that dominated Take That’s 90s catalog. He also established a highly lucrative songwriting partnership with former World Party member Guy Chambers. This partnership was critical for the momentum Williams created in the first half of his career. During this period, Williams was able to hone his abilities as a songwriter and rely less on songwriting partnerships.
Justin Timberlake is a more recent example of a solo artist that understood the importance of reinvention. Gone was the “bubble gum” sound that dominated most of the catalog of N Sync – the band within which Timberlake created a pop star profile for himself. Instead, he partnered with hit producer Timbaland and nurtured a modern R&B sound that did not seem even remotely derivative of anything else that was being played on the radio.
B] Do not get fooled by your initial success:
When an incredibly successful band folds, its members are offered highly lucrative solo record deals by the major record labels. Sometimes, record labels engage in bidding wars to “steal away” members of a successful band – especially members that were perceived as being the creative core of a successful band. A significant portion of your initial success will be contributed by the goodwill you have generated through the legacy of your former band. The sales of your sophomore album are a better reflection of your prospects for sustained success in the future. The “sophomore slump” from a pop star that goes solo is usually the beginning of the end.
In the examples of artists that got stylistic reinvention right, the common thread that links them is not just that they reinvented themselves musically, but they also did so with their first solo outings. A noteworthy example of an artist that did this with her second album is former Spice Girl Emma Bunton. While Emma Bunton cannot necessarily be labeled as a person with a long and sustained solo career, her sophomore album “Free Me” helps illustrate the idea that she did not get fooled be her initial solo success – which was largely fueled by her success with the Spice Girls. Her debut solo album “A girl like me” did not do particularly well in terms of sales but the singles off the album were very successful on various European charts. On “Free Me“, Emma Bunton moved away from the MOR sound on her debut album and moved towards a sophisticated sound that heavily borrowed elements from 1960s music and Motown era music. The album outsold its predecessor. It was without a doubt a “sophomore bump”.
C] Do not position yourself as a balladeer:
There is a double-standard in the music today. People seem to be quite accepting of boybands and girl-bands singing slow love songs and making a career out of it. For some reason, this acceptance does not extend to solo artists whose catalog consists primarily of ballads – even if they are very good ballads. Only a handful of solo artists have been able to get away with this. Lionel Richie is a noteworthy example. Have both an upbeat and ballad-centric facet to yourself. It does not matter if your theme (lyrically speaking) is love. Make sure not all the music (at least not most of the the material released as singles) gets the treatment of a MOR ballad. Certainly do not kick off your solo career with a ballad UNLESS it is featured on a movie soundtrack. It should NOT be the lead single of a new album – even if it is featured on the album.
The artist most guilty of violating this rule is the highly gifted and talented Gary Barlow from Take That. As Take That called it quits in 1996, there was absolutely no debate that the band’s songwriter and undisputed frontman Gary Barlow was poised for immense success. The media hailed Barlow as a future “Elton John or George Michael-like” figure. His debut single “Forever Love” went straight to #1 on the UK single charts. Everything that followed from his solo album in terms of singles felt like the soundtrack to a very downbeat affair. One of the UK’s greatest songwriters was starting to be labeled as being boring. Many think that Barlow’s second solo album was what marked the end of his solo career in the 90s. The truth is, Barlow had probably sowed the seeds for his solo demise with his debut album “Open Road” which despite doing very well did not whet the appetite for any more solo material from Barlow.
Darren Hayes – Australian pop star and former lead singer of Aussie pop/rock duo Savage Garden left the band on a high. He had the record deal of his choice and was on his way upwards. Like Gary Barlow, he chose to kick off his solo career with the ballad “Insatiable”. This may have not been a wise move. There were a few ballads that followed. The interesting thing is that ever since he has become an independent artist, his music has become much more eclectic and interesting but his initial ballad-heavy solo career has definitely undermined his ability to scale the heights that he undoubtedly could have. In fact, his newer music is a fairly regular staple on our radio station’s global broadcast.
The third violator of this rule is Irish pop star Ronan Keating. The interesting thing is that he did not do this with his highly successful eponymous album “Ronan“. That album saw him partnering with Gregg Alexander – the immensely talented frontman of New Radicals. In addition to being a songwriting partner, Alexander also gave Ronan’s music the multi-layered production treatment (featuring guitars and the piano) that he gave to his hit single “You get what you give” with the New Radicals. Not only was this approach a big win for Ronan Keating, but it has also allowed those songs from Keating’s debut solo album to stand the test of time. It was with Keating’s second album that the ballad overdose began. Despite his amazing voice, Keating was moving towards the path that Gary Barlow had taken as a solo artist from the very beginning. It was only in 2012, with the album “Fires” (which is without a doubt the best album of 2012) did Ronan Keating go back to the pop format of his debut album. Yet, years of being thought of as a balladeer made repositioning a slightly more difficult task – but from from impossible as was proven by Keating’s successful arena tour in early 2013.
D] Brand yourself independently of the band that launched you into the limelight.
Solo pop stars are victims of double standards on multiple dimensions. Contrary to popular belief, solo stars are more than just their music. A failure to understand this can make the difference between success and failure. Musical reinvention in itself may not be sufficient. There needs to be a signature approach to stardom – unusually creative music videos, unique release strategies, or an image makeover that makes people forget that your career began in a band. The image makeover can be VERY powerful.
The gold medal for branding undoubtedly goes to Justin Timberlake. He morphed from a solo artist to a solo entertainer by dabbling with acting roles in the television show “Saturday Night Live” and the movie “The Social Network“. He also understood the value of strategic collaborations (The Lonely Island, Madonna, Duran Duran) that kept him in the public eye and distracted the masses from the fact that he had a six-year gap between his second and third solo album.
While Robbie Williams‘ branding was not necessarily striking, he succeeded in giving himself an image makeover. In contrast to the clean-cut image he had in Take That, he donned an image fueled by a “larger than life” ego, cheeky (and somewhat odd) sense of humor, drugs, and an unapologetic womanizing streak. Some of the elements of this image made their way into quirky lyrics on many of his songs. In a nutshell, Williams had branded himself independently of Take That.
It is incredibly difficult to pull off a solo career with the framework provided above. What is unfortunate is that many talented artists do not pay attention to these rules and wonder why their solo careers are short-lived. The only exception that we can think of is Phil Collins. He did not play by any of the rules. His solo catalog sounded almost identical to the music released by post-Peter Gabriel Genesis. His success should not be perceived as normal. It is an anomaly. While Collins’ music was great, his approach could have spelled demise. Are we missing examples of people that got it somewhat right or got it wrong despite playing by the rules? Please feel free to comment below.