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Why Success Makes Us Risk Averse

Musicians aim to succeed and then fear to fail

When musicians start out, they usually share a common goal: to make it. BIG. This orientation toward success can be seen in terms of what psychologist E. Tory Higgins coined “promotion focus,” the focus on accomplishing desired goals. When people are promotion focused, they zero in on what they are trying to achieve. They take actions toward attaining these achievements. They practice countless hours, perform hundreds of shows a year, write song after song, tour in the most dismal conditions. They put in all the hard work so that they can reach a wider audience. The aspiring musician sees his goal every time he sneaks into a sold out arena show or catches a glimpse of his favorite rock hero driving off in a limo surrounded by beautiful adoring fans. That’s going to be me. I’m going to be a star. And then they go back to their two mind-numbing jobs and practice all night until their fingers bleed.

For some artists, the dream comes true. They make it. And then something strange happens. They become “prevention focused”. Whereas promotion focus is all about attaining their desired goals, prevention focus is all about avoiding their biggest fear. Now that they’ve tasted success, the adoration of the fans and critics, the attention on the magazine covers and MTV airplay, they become afraid of losing it. What if the next album flops? What if they say we’re losing it? Their reputation is at stake, their newly ballooned lifestyle is at stake, and the own identity as stars is at stake. Most artists don’t respond to their success with a blasé, “I can’t wait to work my way down to playing state fairs.” Usually, they want to keep reaching higher and higher.

But when you’ve reached as high as it gets, the only way to go is down. Take Prince’s response to the news that he had, at the age of twenty-six, a single (“Let’s Go Crazy”), an album (Purple Rain), and a movie (Purple Rain) all at Number 1 on the Billboard and box-office charts: “We looked around and I knew we were lost. There was no place to go but down. You can never satisfy the need after that.” And so the worries begin. How to avoid the worst fate: oblivion.

Being promotion versus prevention focus has big implications for how you act and how you feel about what happens to you. Instead of doing their best, bands worry about not messing up. When they’re worried about messing up, they take fewer risks. They’re more conservative, maybe repeating the template that had led to the success they are now so eager to maintain. And when success happens, the feeling is no longer euphoria. There is no “Ohmygod, our song is on the radio!” Rather, the predominant feeling is relief. Phew. We managed to ward off failure. This time.

Whereas bands starting out fantasize about success and anticipate its various pleasures and riches, bands that become prevention focused anticipate and worry about the pain of failure.

Beastie Boys. Whatcha Want May Not Be Whatcha Get

Some bands, however, stay promotion focused even after success. Take the Beastie Boys, a band that has suffered a great loss with the recent death of Adam Yauch. The Beastie Boys’ debut album, License to Ill, was the first hip-hop record to top the Billboard charts and was, at the time, the fastest selling debut record of all time. It eventually sold over 9 million copies in the United States. When a first album performs this well, many bands would have become prevention-focused.

But the Beasties accepted that it would be downhill from there, commercially speaking, and proceeded to make one innovative album after another. Their next album, Paul’s Boutique, was the first of its kind, built on hundreds of samples used to an extent never tried before. The album became a standard setter in terms of the musicality and complexity that hip-hop can achieve. For the following album, Check Your Head, they added funk to their hard-core and hip-hop repertoires. By the time they made their next album, Ill Communication, they turned to metal rap, pioneering the genre later exemplified by bands such as Limp Bizkit and Korn. Next came Hello Nasty, which was the first time and last time a single group won a Grammy in both Rap category (for the song “Intergalactic”) and the Alternative category (for the album). The next album? 2007’s The Mix Up won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album.

Clearly the Beastie Boys stayed promotion focused. They kept innovating, not seeming to care about commercial success. For example, when their record company complained that Paul’s Boutique did not have any commercial singles, they shrugged it off and kept the album as it is. Their goals were artistic, not commercial, and they did not seem phased at never recreating the commercial success of their first album.

Other bands have tried to change directions, but were not so resilient when their attempt flopped. The example that most immediately comes to mind is Metallica’s dalliance with the avante garde, Lulu, in collaboration with Lou Reed, which spawned some of the most cruel reviews I have ever read. One reviewer noted the album is such a failure it doesn’t even deserve the title of the Worst Album of All Time.

Metallica’s response? The new album, according to guitarist Kirk Hammett, will sound similar to their 1991 eponymous album, better known as The Black Album. The Black Album is the band’s best selling album, selling more than 25 million copies worldwide. He told Rolling Stone magazine, “The stuff we're coming up with is more groove-oriented, a heavier version of what we were doing in the early 90s.” And just to be on the safe side, Metallica spent last summer playing The Black Album in its entirety.

David Bowie. Nothing Shocking

Is fear of failure why David Bowie’s new album, The Next Day, which came out this week, sounds so familiar? Bowie has an illustrious history of taking risks. But this time around, he’s playing it safe. And it’s paying off. As Rolling Stone critic Rob Sheffield gushed, “It's like Bowie decided to fuse "Heroes" and "Space Oddity" into the same song, a feat he's never attempted before. Holy sh-t, David Bowie.” Perhaps at this point in his career, he is happy to provide die-hard fans with exactly what they want to hear.