Lean Media in the music world: From Led Zeppelin to Deftones

Led Zeppelin I and II. Husker Du’s Zen Arcade. Slayer’s Show No Mercy. What do these three hard rock albums have in common? Besides being “classics” in their time, all were recorded in a very short period — weeks or a few months, compared to a year or more for established artists.

Led Zeppelin I took just three weeks to record. Led Zeppelin II was recorded in 1969 a string of studios in various cities on Led Zeppelin’s tour route, using songs they had written along the way or had prepared for the tour. In the case of Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, the double album cost just over $3,000 to make in 1983. All but two of the songs were recorded “live” in just one take, with a total recording time of 85 hours. The Slayer album was recorded in November 1983, and released just three weeks later, with the band promoting it using the singer’s Camaro and a rented U-haul trailer.

I’m fascinated by these examples, because it shows that great music can be made with limited resources. When I say “limited resources,” I am not just talking about money, but also time and even technology (according to Rolling Stone, Led Zeppelin’s drummer “played the percussion part to ‘Ramble On’ on a guitar case, a drum stool or a garbage can”). They proved that you don’t need huge budgets, lots of process, or the most expensive gear to produce something that fans like. In that sense, it fits the Lean Media philosophy.

When the music industry abandons Lean Media

However, lean processes can fall by the wayside as bands get big. Led Zeppelin, for instance, was famous for extravagant and sometimes unhinged recording sessions later in their career. When I was employed in the British music industry many years ago, I worked with an engineer who had some connection to Led Zeppelin in the 1970s, and said drummer John Bonham was often rip-roaring drunk, and once crashed his car at the estate they were using for recording. Their 1975 double album Physical Graffiti reportedly took 18 months to record.

Music industry and Lean Media example: Deftones performing in Brazil. Photo by tatu43/flickr, licensed under creative commons.
Lean Media in the music industry.

Singer Chino Moreno of Deftones offers an interesting perspective. Like many bands, Deftones started out lean, and moved to “fat” later as they became famous and had the financial resources to spend lots of time — sometimes even years — recording a new album. But they moved back to lean methods. Last year, he told Spin:

We recorded our last record, Diamond Eyes, pretty fast. I think we spent six months from writing it to recording it. Our whole work ethic changed at that point. Not dragging things out and really capturing a moment in time is a great way to make a record. We did a couple of records before that — Saturday Night Wrist and the self-titled record — both of those took a couple of years. Taking that long just is not a good work ethic. We’d have an idea, a riff, and it would be tweaked and mangled and months and years later, after enough things are added to it, you kind of lose the sense of what it was you were trying to do. Capturing the essence of what the idea was in the first place is very important.

The importance of the artistic purpose, and the creative elements that go into the writing of music and the production of an album cannot be overlooked. The creativity of the musicians, and the dynamics between them and the producer can lead to great music — or artistic and commercial failure — regardless of the budget or time spent in the studio.

There are other examples of albums that were lean. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. Nirvana’s Bleach. What other albums do you think fit the Lean Media mode?

Update: I am expanding the Lean Media concept into a book. Read sample chapters of the Lean Media book here, or sign up for the lean media newsletter.