Disapearing Into the Studio

We’ve all heard it: “The band is currently in the studio, working on their next full-length album. It’s slated to be released…”

For those of us who grew up in the era of dominant physical media (CDs, vinyl, cassettes, and all that), this phraseology was common and expected. Your favorite band would go to work on a project, withdrawing into the mysterious confines known as “the studio.” All you’d have to remember them by were the recordings already available to you.

Months, or even years later, the band would emerge again, their new record held aloft like a trophy. “Here it is!” they would proclaim, and then they would start touring to support the release. It was one of the defining “rockstar moves” of that time, and it remains imprinted on musician psychology to this day.

The problem is that I have this nagging feeling about it not being the best idea these days. In my opinion, it wasn’t the best idea back in those days – it’s just that it was necessitated by circumstance.

How I See The History

As far as my experience goes, I feel that recording and releasing music was a much bigger “to do” in the days when physical media was king. That doesn’t mean it was more significant than it is now, just that it was more logistically challenging. Even when recording equipment underwent a precipitous price-drop, and we had “The Triumph Of The Amateurs,” actually releasing a recording involved a lot of logistics.

Even if you were going to self-release, you still had to get a gaggle of copies manufactured, packaged, and shipped somewhere. If you were a major artist, and wanted to reach a huge audience, you had to get a TON of copies made, assembled, and shipped to a lot of different destinations.

Getting a bunch of duplicates made was decidedly non-trivial, and recording time was both expensive and demanding of a lot of coordination. When this is the case, there is a very strong incentive to go through all that hassle as few times as possible. Thus, the tendency is to go and do all the recording at once, record as much material as is practical, and release it all in one package.

Now – this isn’t to say that “concept albums” aren’t an entity in themselves – an entity that can require a certain workflow for certain approaches. It’s also not to say that people didn’t release one-offs and hit singles. Obviously, they did.

Even so, I’m convinced that the phenomenon of disappearing into the studio was heavily driven by essentially non-musical concerns. The problem is that many of us came to believe that this peculiar sort of hibernation was THE way to handle recording. We erroneously correlated the form of the process with the success of the outcome – we got the notion that doing things that way was the right way, because that’s how the big artists did it.

…and just like the mistaken belief that utilizing stadium volume makes you stadium worthy, I think that adhering to this practice isn’t necessarily helpful.

Off The Radar And Repackaged

I don’t want to give the impression that disappearing into the studio to work on a big project is universally harmful. I DO want to say that I think it can be detrimental to bands trying to connect with a modern audience, often unnecessary, and excessively stressful. Again, sometimes its appropriate to carve out a big block of time to work on a single effort “all in one go.” However, I want to challenge the idea that the classic approach is THE way to get a release built.

The way I see it, the world is becoming more and more “real time.” That is to say, the consumption of information and media is very much a process of experiencing smallish “packets” of content in a near-continuous stream, rather than digging into large, monolithic releases.

Obviously, there are exceptions. The whole Netflix-binge thing, where multiple seasons of a show are devoured over a few days, is a counterexample. Still, these exceptions tend to be rare. Listening to an entire, packaged release of songs (an album) is much less common than it used to be. People tend to build their own packages (playlists, that is) out of individual songs from a number of artists. Technology has made this basically trivial.

This phenomenon of “consumer repackaging” means that putting enormous effort into a monolithic release can be a bit of a waste. If you’re not working on a concept album, and you can do most of the recording work yourself, there’s simply no logistical need to structure a project for release as a big batch. People will probably just break up that batch anyway.

Also, the “real time” experience that people have embraced means that disappearing into the studio can cause you to drop out of people’s consciousness – even if only partially. If a lot of your attention comes from live shows, for instance, then taking a hiatus from the stage in order to craft a bunch of studio material is actually counterproductive for you.

A Suggestion

With media consumption going the way it has, I simply don’t see any particular advantage in musicians locking themselves away for an album project, unless the project’s artistic aims specifically demand it. I do, however, see a number of advantages in recording and releasing songs incrementally:

  • The experience is far more “real time.” As you finish a song, you can release it immediately and have it start generating interest immediately. On your end, there’s less of a wait for the “payoffs” associated with having a release “out in the water,” and for your fans, there’s less of a wait for new material.
  • Because the experience is more “real time,” you don’t drop off of people’s radars. Instead, you stay firmly in their consciousness – even more so if you keep to a regular release schedule.
  • The experience as a whole is far less “do or die” for you. Incremental releases mean that, as a band or artist, you don’t have all your eggs in the basket of a single project. The whole thing doesn’t have to be perfected as a complete package, with all the stress that entails. You just have to get each bit to an acceptable place, and then you can see what’s received well and what isn’t.
  • You can progressively build up to an EP release, and then a full-length release. Releasing each song individually doesn’t prevent you from packaging them later. In fact, doing so later on means you may have an opportunity to capitalize on the attention you’ve been getting from the individual releases. Because you’ve stayed visible, you’ve preserved your momentum with your fans, and this momentum can help propel the packaged version of your songs. (Just remember to make the album memorable in itself. For example, you could hold one or two songs back until the album release, which then provides an incentive to buy the whole product.

No, the concept album isn’t dead – but technology is at a point where the necessity of approaching every recording project as being similar to a concept album is pretty much gone. You may as well find a way to leverage the advantages of this.

  • When the cost barriers to competent music production were so high that only superstars could afford the best, I think there was a kind of mysticism involved, like the high priest going behind the curtain in the tabernacle. The public had no idea what was going on in the studio. Making albums was like making sausages – did the public REALLY need to know? It was better to promote the mythology that the superstar groups were “a cut above” the rest of us. Magic was happening. And coming out of the studio with the next “Sergeant Pepper” was tantamount to Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai with the stone tablets – just a couple days after his followers had despaired of ever seeing him again.

    Not only did disappearing into the studio build suspense among the superfans, the radio promoters were also cued up (and paid up) to give the next lp a big sendup, starting the night before the official release (like some of today’s blockbuster movie releases). And if “Who’s Next” didn’t live up to expectations, Yes had a project coming out in a few weeks, and who knows WHAT the Stones are up to behind THEIR locked doors with their $140,000 album budget ($1 million in today’s dollars)

    Certainly the movie “Let it Be,” which accidentally documented the Beatles’ breakup, showed the “man behind the curtain.” Of course that didn’t even begin to destroy the mythology, but it was a start.

    Today when anyone with $50 worth of recording software can produce SOMETHING, the mystic element is gone, and the product tends to be judged on its merits alone, no matter how much fanfare is involved in the release.

    It’s also more critical to turn out only good stuff. In the old days, for most non-supergroup bands, an album with 2 good songs, five that didn’t suck, and three that sucked but filled out the track list was the standard . For one thing, the good songs would also be released as singles, so the lp tended to be bought by people who were already predisposed to like the band’s music. The crap tracks would be buried as #4 on the first side and #s 3 and 4 on the second side – by then most purchasers were no longer actively listening, and wouldn’t notice how bad they were. Today, people will listen in ANY order, and if they go to YouTube or most other places to search out your music, you have no control over which song they’ll hear first.

    So recording 2 good songs, five that don’t suck, and three that suck doesn’t work any more. People are just as likely to hear the songs that suck first.

    Why NOT record 2 good songs, then wait until you have two more to record?

    Of course if you’re gigging live, having product to sell is a must, so I understand the need for CDs, but . . . .

  • jfreake

    As a musician that works on writing/recording for a few hours per week, My band-mates and I have struggled deciding on the correct approach – Whole release vs piecemeal. I like the points you have outlined here and agree that it is probably a more progressive method of release…Especially for a little known band such as ours. Let’s not kid ourselves, if you are a local band and known to less than 1000 fans, staying in people’s faces with regular song releases can be far more beneficial than a grand full release once every 1-2 years that only a handful of people are going to get excited about. To build on your last suggestion, giving the fans something extra if you are going to package a group of previously released songs is a great idea but still not enough. I personally get a by miffed when a band releases a greatest hits album and throw 1 or 2 new songs on it just to get people to buy it. Again…I am only stating this from a small local band perspective but any of our fans are buying a physical release purely to support us so a song or 2 is not really enough of a thank you to those who pulled 10 bucks out of their pocket in my opinion. Other ideas might be to have more than a couple new unreleased remixed versions of songs, sign the physical copies of the discs, bundle the disc with a t-shirt…in essence, give them something that they can’t get anywhere else.

    Thanks for the discussion points!
    Jason Freake
    Singer/Guitarist for the Muted Pitch
    http://theMutedPitch.com

    • Daniel Maland

      Hi Jason,

      You’re right – I didn’t go far enough in my suggestion for added value. I think just adding one or two new songs might be a worthwhile starting point if that’s all the artist can afford to do. However, I very much agree that the more you can turn the full
      release into “a noteworthy thing,” the better.

      Also, you’re spot on with “something they can’t get anywhere else.” We humans assign great value to scarcity, and anything that can be converted into data won’t be scarce for long. As such, making something available that’s inherently physical is a very nice sweetener.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Larry

    agreed, well stated- been trying this new strategy doing 3 song “ep” releases on saklad.bandcamp dot com, and a special annual Christmas song helped this week, reverbnation status for alternative in Phila #2 yesterday! thanks schwilly fam, best!

    • Daniel Maland

      That’s very cool to hear.