From Axl Rose taking 13 years to write and record Chinese Democracy to Bob Dylan recording Bringing It All Back Home in just three days, the time it takes to write and record an album can vary wildly from one artist to the next.
Many artists feel lost trying to figure out how long everything should take them, when everything seems to take so long.
One of the biggest lessons you’ll learn while pursuing a music career is that things take time.
Everything takes longer than you want it to.
So, how long it should take to write and record an album is very much up for debate, but I do have some insights I can give.
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How Long Is The Average Album Cycle?
You only have to look to some of your favorite artists to see how long it takes them to write and record.
Let’s look at Taylor Swift’s discography.
Her first album, Taylor Swift, came out in 2006.
After some heavy touring, Fearless came out in 2008.
Speak Now came out in 2010, followed by heavy touring, and the release of Speak Now World Tour Live in 2011.
Red came out in 2012, 1989 in 2014, Reputation in 2017 and Lover in 2019.
Now, Taylor Swift is exceptionally prolific, but this is a good example of an album cycle.
Generally, you’ll see artists work for a several months to a couple years on a record, finish it, spend six months settings up the release, and then ride on that album for around two years.
Those two years will include heavy touring, lots of press, album promo, and creative work on a new record.
Does this seem long to you, or short?
Releasing an entire album every two years is a lot of work, but when you’re just starting out, that can seem like an eternity.
Either way, it’s not a hard and fast rule, but for some artists, it may be something to shoot for.
Other artists, like Bon Iver, take a fairly long time to produce and release work.
Between his breakthrough record For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, there was a four-year gap, and between Bon Iver and 22, A Million, there was a five-year gap.
There is nothing wrong with this approach either, so long as you’re finding ways to keep fans engaged and are comfortable with a longer period of time between album cycles.
Note also, that album cycles are the reason many bands and artists experience a sophomore slump.
You can take as long as you want on your first record – it will probably consist of all the best songs you’ve written to that point.
But as they try to keep up with the expectations of fans, industry, and their own, many artists find their second album just doesn't measure up to the first.
This is why you shouldn’t worry too much about cycles or how long things are taking.
Take care of the music first, and then the music will take care of you.
How Long Do Different Stages Of Recording Take?
With regards to the recording process, some parts take more time or less time than you would think.
Let's explore each part and consider how long different stages should take.
How Long Does It Take To Write An Album
You can spend as much time as you want writing your album.
Some artists like to write 50 songs and then narrow it down to the best ones from there.
Others write 12 songs and then make a record.
There is no set path, so you can take as long as you need.
That said, constantly writing and never curating your work will prove exhausting after a while – make sure you’re working towards releasing singles, EPs, albums, videos, whatever!
How Long Does It Take To Record An Album
Again, this part can take a long time or no time at all depending on your situation.
I recently engineered a five-song EP for a local band, so let’s take that timeline as an example of an efficient process.
Bed Tracks: 1.5 Days
We spent maybe 10 to 15 hours laying down drums, bass and guitar.
Vocals, Backing Vocals, Overdubs: 2 Days
We spent two days laying down lead vocal tracks, in addition to editing and comping them.
We also laid down some backing vocals that we knew we wanted.
In between takes, we would sometimes overdub other parts that occurred to us in the moment.
Other Instruments, Extra Overdubs, Percussion: 1.5 Days
It took another day and a half to finish all five songs.
The record was fairly straightforward, but we still took our time and were happy with the result.
Mixing: 2 Days Per Song
You should expect most mixers to take at least a day per song plus revisions.
This means that mixing an entire album of 10 to 12 songs can take several weeks.
Revisions on the mixes can easily push a couple weeks into a couple months.
Allow time for mixing!
Mastering: 2 Days
Mastering engineers usually work fast, which is why their rates are usually around $50 to $250 per song.
Generally, a mastering engineer will be able to master an entire album in a day or less, sometimes more if there are revisions to the master.
Have Loose Timelines, But Keep the Vision Clear
Recordings can end up taking longer than you think.
Directions change and life happens – sometimes people run into financial trouble, family issues, whatever.
Trust the process, let the music take priority.
Don’t get caught up in a cycle of never releasing your work.
So many artists take so long to finish their projects that they never end up releasing them at all.
You’ll get tired of the music, it won’t feel “right” anymore, and you’ll move on.
This turns into a self-defeating cycle.
If you wanted to release an album, keep that vision clear.
The vision is to create work, curate it and then release it to the world.
If need be, you can always re-release material, take down material, change your name, etc.
There are many ways to separate yourself from past work, but if you never release anything you won’t have given your music the opportunity to exist and be heard in the wider world.
Releasing music is a part of the creative process as much as creating it is – you’ll learn a lot, gain fans and feel more accomplished.