Are Earlier Albums the Best for Artists? Why?

I couldn’t help but notice while I was writing my article on my favorite songs, that many of those albums were the band’s second album. Why is that? Is there data supporting my anecdote? What’s a potential cause?

From an anecdotal point of view, my theory is that creativity peaks around my late teens. I was more creative with business ideas, music ideas, and writing ideas when I was younger. As I got older, my creativity has fallen a lot, but I have gotten a wiser and more analytical understanding of the song and writing structures. Somewhere in between is the mid-20s where I would guess many of my favorite bands may have written some of their best albums. Again, this is in theory, so now it’s time to put it to the test.

I will be reviewing the following criteria:

  • Each band must have written their own music (that eliminates basically every pop artist)
  • Each album must be a full-length album (EP, demos, and greatest hits are excluded)
  • The album chosen must have sold the most of their discography
  • What was the age of the primary songwriter(s) of that album?
  • What is the average album number that sold the most? What is the mean album number?
  • What is the average age of the primary songwriter(s) when writing their best album? What is the median age?

I recorded my findings available here using the most-sold rock albums ever. Here’s what surprised me:

  • Both the median age and average age were 27 and 26, respectively
  • Both the median album number and average album number were 5

While my theory that the second (sophomore) album was incorrect, my average age of best-written album was fairly accurate. I dug around into some scientific papers on creativity and found the following regarding the study of individuals involved in feature-length animation films over their careers:

As career age increases, knowledge structures become increasingly rigid. We hypothesized that, because of this increase in rigidity, different characteristics of individuals’ knowledge base will be more conducive to creativity at different stages of the career. Knowledge depth—which increases the complexity and rigidity of knowledge structures—will be more beneficial in the early stages of a career, when knowledge structures are less complex and more flexible; and knowledge breadth—which increases the flexibility of knowledge structures—will be more beneficial in the later phases of a career, when structures become increasingly rigid and need to be “loosened up” in order for idea generation to take place. We found support for both hypotheses. This suggests that individuals who are able to appropriately restructure their knowledge base across their career should be able to maintain high levels of creativity over time, while individuals with a stable or inappropriately configured knowledge base should experience fluctuations in their creativity

Essentially, this study proposes that creativity doesn’t necessarily peak at an early age assuming that the individual increases their knowledge and understanding. A few musicians in that spreadsheet stand out like The Beatles with Paul McCartney and John Lennon having successful careers after the band split.

Another scientific paper confirms this idea that there are peaks of creativity over age. Though, it’s inconclusive as to why there are different peaks of creativity over time. Many artists fade away after writing their opus magnum of music, while others seem to have a hilly career with an occasional exceptional album.

One theory proposed to explain the hills is called the “10-year rule“, where 10 years from starting to learn a subject, one has reached peak creativity in that subject. In this theory, if I started to learn guitar at 15, by 25 I would have peaked my creativity for writing guitar music. Famous composers like Mozart have been known to write their masterpieces at their peak of 10 years. Mozart started learning music at either age 4 or 5, and nearly 12 years later wrote his first successful piece at age 17, Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770). This, if following the above journal, suggests that if musicians continued to learn another genre of music or a new instrument, for example, then theoretically another ten years later they could write another masterpiece.

Interestingly, in another study on scientific creativity, the authors propose that the “frequency of great achievement at young ages is more a function of time than field. The analysis further shows strong, independent associations between age dynamics within fields and both the prevalence of theoretical work and measures of the stock of foundational knowledge.”

Another study in Germany also had similar findings regarding creativity in the workplace. They concluded:

Until today, the role of age has largely been ignored in management research on creativity at work. However, as our workforce grows older it becomes more and more important to identify conditions that enable older workers to bring in their knowledge and expertise and develop creative ideas at work. Our study shows that age is not directly related to idea creativity but that the relationship between age and idea creativity is dependent on job resources.

Based on these studies, I would propose that the reason the average age of the musicians in my research is 27 is that they started writing music within the same timeframe, and if the 10-year-rule is indeed accurate, that would place them all roughly in high school. Therefore, peak creativity is not necessarily based on age as opposed to the distance in time from when they learned to write music and peak creativity. Given how high school is an opportune timeframe to discover new interests and self, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is when many musicians often pick up their first instrument. Furthermore, peak creativity can occur multiple times within a career given that they continually evolve. If true, then stagnation in creativity is due to a lack of progress in learning new instruments or new styles.

While I may save for evaluation of the data on another day and review this hypothesis, I will cherrypick with my knowledge on one of my favorite bands of all time: Enslaved. Their first album that gained recognition was Frost in 1994. 10 years later in 2004, they released Isa, which incorporated different elements with dynamic shifts in the music. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time. However, it was Vertebrae released in 2008 that was widely recognized in many metal magazines while winning the best metal album in Terrorizer magazine (14 years later). In 2015, they released their most-sold album ever with In Times, 7 years after Vertebrae. It included stronger clean vocals and more focus on the keyboards after Herbrand Larsen joined in 2004 (11 years before). Roy Kronheim left in 2003, so nearly 10 years later after new members came in they seemingly mastered a new sound. Herbrand left in 2016 after In Times was released and was replaced by Håkon Vinje. In 2018, their new drummer Iver Sandøy replaced Cato Bekkevold. While in 2020 they released another incredible album named Utgard, I’m most curious about what album they’ll release between 2025-2028, nearly 10 years after a new drummer and new keyboardist had joined.