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An Artist’s Case for Being Less Productive

The work we don’t create also shapes our legacy

Benjamin McCormick
Sep 3, 2018 · 4 min read
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Billy Joel doesn’t write new music anymore. He hasn’t released a new song since 2007, and his last full album came out 25 years ago. Joel’s reason for slowing down is simple: “I’ve seen artists on that treadmill, putting out albums year after year, and the albums get worse and worse, less and less interesting, and it’s, like, ‘Maybe you should stop.’ ”

Slowing one’s output can be beautiful. And history suggests artists might do well to release less.

I’ve got beef with people who call Nirvana the greatest band of all time. Nevermind and In Utero are excellent records that helped define a generation, but we need to quit pretending their legacy is just about the albums they put out. It’s also about the music they didn’t release.

Kurt Cobain’s tragic death meant that the band would never get a chance to release its own Chinese Democracy. Limited output (three albums) is their legend. The irony is fans’ imaginations of “what might have been” have contributed to Nirvana’s status as a headline in rock history, rather than simply a paragraph.

Janis Joplin, released Billboard #1 album Cheap Thrills in 1969, died at age 27 in 1970. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Many careers were cut short by tragedy, then turned into legend. Bo Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, and Pete Maravich come to mind. They only existed at the peak of their professions, so that’s where they’ll always be. The output they left us with is considered excellent. They never had the chance to churn out a dud or, god forbid, a series of duds. This isn’t to say a memorable career requires injury or death (though this does appear to help), but rather a limited, careful output.

Bo Jackson, the first American to be an all-star in two major sports. Sustained hip injury in 1991. Photos by Jonathan Daniel (L) and Mike Powell (R)/Getty Images Sport

The best living example might be Neutral Milk Hotel, which released the mesmerizing record In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998 and promptly disappeared in 1999. No tours, no recording, no nothing. Aeroplane is a weird, wonderful work whose popularity ballooned once the band fell off the face of the earth. The band’s legend grew, and in 2013 it returned to headline festivals and play to thousands with nothing but the old songs.

Think about the artists who have put out too much work. How many lame Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler movies must we suffer? What about Eminem’s cringeworthy new album? Or the last couple from U2, Coldplay, and Madonna? When was the last time a James Patterson novel was actually good?

Think about the artists who have put out too much work. How many lame Adam Sandler movies must we suffer?

This piece might also be titled, “Why It’s a Bad Idea to Blog Every Week.” I’ll admit I’ve published works in places I now regret. I wish I could have them back, but I can’t. I was so excited to see my name above a piece that I blinded myself to its newfound permanence in the world.

Of course, if artists want to go full Bob Dylan and relentlessly release work because it’s what they feel like doing, then by all means, they should. It’s also nearly impossible for artists to sustain themselves in 2018 without consistent releases. Maybe the real trouble is us, the audience. We tell ourselves, “Wow, what if we could have gotten another Jeff Buckley record? Or another Heath Ledger movie?”

But the reality is that another album or blockbuster release might have tarnished our image of those artists. That Janis Joplin and Tupac’s collected works are masterpieces, or close to it, is what makes us adore them. Our imagination does the rest of the work. We should reassign our reverence for work that never existed to artists who are currently breathing and producing.

I’m going to keep producing art until it turns into a living, but I’ll also take much more care in choosing what gets out there. Revise a few more times. Sit on some pieces if they don’t feel just right. That instinct is what makes artists worthy of statues in our collective memory, permanently the way we like to imagine them. It’s what makes Billy Joel look so good after so much time.

Benjamin McCormick
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