Radiohead's Thom Yorke recently announced that they have no plans to release another long-playing album. Instead, they would release instantly available singles and quick EPs.
With the exception of artists with an expansive vision to record a cohesive concept album, there are several reasons why this approach might make sense. Not all bands are like Radiohead, with an established name and track record that can afford to make an album by themselves and sell the completed product to the highest bidding record label. Many bands are unsigned, and even if they are signed, production budgets are shrinking by the minute. By reducing the number of tracks to record at any moment down to one (single) or just a few (EP), the up front production costs due at any given time do not have to be large. Some of the production cost can be recouped right away by making the tracks available for download. The cycle would thus be shortened from the time the recording investment is made to when the recordings can start being monetized.
Another benefit is that bands are not forced to come up with more than ten tracks or 50 minutes of music for an album. Instead, they can focus their efforts on their strongest tracks and maybe take a little bit more time and care in polishing the production (including recording), arrangement and performance. Buyers probably would not mind paying for quality tracks and the complaint of paying for "fillers" would become a non-issue.
As for the timing of when to record and when to release the completed recordings, there is no longer a set rule. Instead of a band touring to support their record, a band puts out a record to support their tour. Of course, a band wants to have a record to sell, preferably one that contains some of the songs that were performed, when they tour. The concertgoers' need for obtaining mementos of the performance and to get instant gratification means selling records (CD, EP or vinyl) at the venue. At a very minimum, you want to make sure the tracks are available for download and the fans know where to get them.
It is not uncommon for bands to "test" out a new song during live shows. In fact, the more times a song is performed, the band has the opportunity to work out all the kinks with that song. A different key / tempo may be tried, a different arrangement applied and instrumental solos can be perfected. Better to work out the bugs this way than in the studio. Re-recording for these reasons is wasteful.
It is interesting to watch a well-rehearsed band come in to record. We have seen many such examples during the sessions that we host for World Cafe and Lillywhite Sessions. Wilco recently came in during a hole in their tour schedule and performed five songs live in four hours from their new album. The performances were great and the recording came out fantastic. Goldfrapp performed their atmospheric songs live and did them well in one or two takes. A well-rehearsed band could save a ton of time in the studio, especially one that is in the midst of their tour or towards the end of their tour.
If a band is well rehearsed, it is not inconceivable that an entire album worth of music can be recorded in a day. It only took Ron Carter and his Quartet five hours to track 7 songs, recording over 50 minutes of music. By the end of the day, the entire album was mixed and in the can. They rehearsed the day before they came in, but the band also had performed some or most of the songs many times during their tour. I know what you're thinking - you can do that because it was Ron Carter, that it was jazz. Admittedly, it is a somewhat different process for rock or pop, but the point is that preparation and rehearsal can shorten the time in the studio significantly.
That begs the question, when is the best time to record? That answer might be before a tour and after a tour. As stated earlier, a band wants to have a recording to sell during their tour. A single, an EP or a few downloads could do the trick. Then, after many live shows, the band might be ready to record tracks for posterity, perhaps document the polished, definitive version of a particular song. Another answer might be frequently and often in order to have a constant stream of material to keep your fan base engaged.
Doing shorter, maybe more frequent sessions may be the way of the future. How many tracks should be recorded per visit? If you are going into a recording session, there is probably a sweet spot in terms of number of tracks to record to take advantage of economies of scale. You might as well spread the cost of the session over a few tracks since you will be going through the time and trouble to set up a session. From our experience that number is somewhere between three and six depending on how well rehearsed you are, how different the set up is for each track and how much overdubbing you need to do.
Investing less in album creation is not altogether a bad idea. It is financially a healthy strategy for bands. For studios, it would mean shorter and hopefully more frequent recording sessions. Our hope is that whatever investment is made for production, more consideration be given to the quality of recording and not just the quantity.