Commonly held notion: “The longer I work on this, the better it will be.” Maybe up to a point. But after a while — and it might be just a short while — you’re being overly fussy.
There’s an optimal release point for anything you make. That’s when you should get it out there. After that, you’re just fiddling for the sake of fiddling. And you might even make it worse. Sometimes what you make will be just fine if it’s released after three months — but add another six months (or longer) and it turns into a jumbled, complex mess.
Case in point: “Chinese Democracy,” the Guns N’ Roses album that Axl Rose worked on for over a decade, going through at least three recording studios and four producers. Everyone knew that it wasn’t getting better with more time. In fact, it became a running joke in the music industry. It was just a sandbox for a control freak who couldn’t let go.
Frank Sinatra, on the other hand, was known as “one take Frank.” He’d walk into the studio, sing a song live with a full band, turn around, and walk out. Quincy Jones produced Sinatra and described recording an album with him:
He came in at 2 p.m., and in less than two hours we had rehearsed, had keys and routines on ten songs…Frank is one take, that’s it. If the band’s not in shape, he leaves them behind…he came in at 7, and at 8:20, baby, we went home. None of that three month stuff.
U2 singer Bono always respected Sinatra for that approach too:
It’s all about the moment, a fresh canvas and never overworking the paint. I wonder what [Sinatra] would have thought of the time it’s taken me and my bandmates to finish albums, he with his famous impatience for directors, producers — anyone, really — fussing about. I’m sure he’s right. Fully inhabiting the moment during that tiny dot of time after you’ve pressed “record” is what makes it eternal.
Sinatra’s one take style produced classics. Axl’s dithering produced a pile of mush. We can all learn something from that. It’s easy to fall into a trap of nitpicking over things that don’t really matter. Instead, focus on the essence of what you’re doing. Press record, get it done, and get it out there. (And that’s even more true if what you’re creating is something you’ll get to improve upon after it’s released.)