Home Music The perfect swan song: when should musicians retire?

The perfect swan song: when should musicians retire?

by Wesley McLean September 23, 2020
The perfect swan song: when should musicians retire?

 In such a creative field, can there really be a right time for musicians to call it a day?

Music is a unique business in that there isn’t really a retirement plan. We’ve seen acts like The Band take their last waltz, only to return a decade later with some of their original lineup missing. We’ve also seen instances of artists like the Rolling Stones slowing down their musical output to a halt but continuing to perform their classic hits. There are even a few who’ve retired completely, like the legendary Bill Withers, who released his final album in 1985 and never released another original recording.

 The thing with music is that, on top of the lack of a retirement plan, there’s no set age or album limit on creating quality music. Some artists peak higher than others, some peak later in life, some burn out quickly and some just never really get it going.

With that in mind, when is the right time for an artist to throw in the towel? And how much does missing that window of time impact an artist’s legacy?

In July of this year, Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum rapper Logic announced that he was retiring and stepping away from music at the age of 30, after dropping his final album, No Pressure. The Maryland-born artist has his personal reasons for retirement (fatherhood and a new deal with livestreaming behemoth, Twitch), but has also made it clear that there is another major factor involved in him quitting music.

Logic’s last few albums, prior to No Pressure, had been receiving increasing amounts of criticism from critics and fans alike. He went from the up-and-coming sensation to being one of the most consistently bashed rappers of his generation within the span of a decade.

This wasn’t just fans being petty or making a joke at the expense of the rapper because they felt like it, this was a direct reflection of the direction Logic was going musically. His early mixtapes showed a young rapper with immense talent and potential, and as he grew in popularity, that potential was squandered. After such a tumultuous decade in the music business, he finally called it quits, delivering his best album in about five years.

While he may not have gone out on the top of his game, No Pressure did serve as his redemption after years of lacklustre output and criticism. He may not have gone out with a bang, but he certainly didn’t go out with a whimper either.

The interesting thing about his retirement is that, while his track record isn’t expunged of the subpar releases that plague the latter half of his catalogue, Logic still retired on a fairly high note. On top of that, he himself noticed the downward trend of his music’s reception, even if he was proud of the music itself, and corrected his course for one last release. While No Pressure isn’t a ground-breaking album sonically, it showed that he is still a capable rapper, and left fans content with his final farewell.

The foresight it took to recognize that his window was closing is impressive, but it’s also something that music fans don’t see often — if ever. In fact, it’s more common for listeners to watch their favourite artists sell out or fall off while attempting to maintain their relevance or refusing to evolve at all and running their sound into the ground.

Louis Armstrong once said that “musicians don’t retire; they stop when there’s no more music in them,” but what if that wasn’t the case? What if musicians did retire, and they did so because they had no more quality music in them? As subjective of a concept as that is, what if artists recognized themselves being passed their prime and prevented any legacy-damaging musical output?

When you look at a band like Maroon 5, who have been a chart-dominating group since the early-to-mid 2000s, you can see that they’re a shell of what they once were. The group has essentially morphed from a solid pop-rock band to Adam Levine latching onto popular sounds, genre-hopping and churning out trendy singles with little-to-no substance. They’re so far removed from what they once were that if you played the biggest single from their first and last album back to back, you wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s the same group.

As the times have changed, people’s musical tastes have too, and in order to survive in the mainstream/pop landscape, artists like Maroon 5 must adapt to these changes, or fade away. In adapting to these changes, they started pandering to different demographics, sacrificing the integrity and quality of their music for increased popularity and longevity.

This degradation of quality in an artist’s music isn’t always the result of selling out, pandering or changing too much. Sometimes artists refuse to grow or evolve musically and that lack of growth leads to repetitive, boring music. 

Eminem is nearing 50 years old, and he’s still hurling around homophobic slurs and dissing artists for shock value in his music, and it feels like no matter how negatively his music is received he just doubles down on it. He raps like an old man, sitting in a room and yelling at the walls about how great things were in his heyday, and it’s because he’s run out of things to say.

He hasn’t really had a potent idea for a record since Recovery, which isn’t very good itself, but at least it had clear intentions and something to say. Now the music is just hollow syllables laid over more contemporary production.

Along with both Eminem and Maroon 5’s respective music decreasing in quality, they share another massive commonality, and that’s their stature in the industry. Both of these acts, and even Logic to a lesser extent, are massively popular major label artists. They’re not the same extremely passionate artists that worked on their earlier albums, they’re part of the machine that is the music business, and that plays a huge part in their decline.

At a certain point, after such lengthy and successful careers, these acts have become less focused on the art and more focused on maintaining their relevance. Maroon 5 through their blatant trend-chasing, and Eminem by having albums with a few poppy singles and a bunch of songs that attempt to re-hash elements of his classics. They’re not creating for the purpose of creation or passion, they’re pandering to maintain popularity, but these are the pressures of the industry.

In both of these cases, these artists reached a crossroads: do they stop with their legacies and reputations intact, or do they continue and risk damaging their names? They chose the latter, for whatever purpose, and are taken less and less seriously with each release. Maroon 5 are now regarded as nothing more than an obnoxious group of sellouts, and people are now questioning Eminem’s status as an all-time great rapper.

That being said, just because a popular artist is in a decline doesn’t mean they’ve got nothing left in them, just that they may need to step away — at least for a while. We’ve seen artists like Jay-Z, Judas Priest and Bob Dylan all hit late-career home runs, even after a few middling-to-poor releases have piled up in their catalogue. They were all able to step away for a while and come back with some of their later works being some of their best. They are rare cases but they prove that the late-career return to form is possible.

So, when is it the right time for an artist to step away from recording for good? It’s possible that there is no right answer to the question, as a lot of knowing when to call it a day comes with hindsight. But in an ideal situation, an artist would either recognize their decline as it begins, or soon after and fade away, either temporarily or for good.

In such an artistic and individual profession, it’s easy to overlook the signs, but acknowledging them could save an artist’s legacy. Not everyone can go out on top, but with that self-awareness, they can come close.

 

Graphic by @the.beta.lab

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