5003 23

imageDo these guys look hard at work recording an album?

[This article was written by Michael Corcoran. It originally appeared on the MusicSUBMIT Blog.]

In 1972, the Rolling Stones released the album Exile on Main Street. The band began by recording songs in a studio in London, moved to the South of France to continue jamming and recording in a rented chalet, and finally completed the album in a studio in Los Angeles. The entire process, from conception to recording to mixing to release, consumed 3 years’ time and cost north $2M. Most critics consider Exile the Stones’ best record and one of the greatest rock records of all time. The fact that it cost as much as it did, and took 3 years to record it, was at the time completely written away and justified as “Hey, that’s rock-n-roll for ya.”

How times have changed.

Fast forward 40-ish years. Today, top hit artists and producers alike decry the current music industry as “unsustainable” due to declining CD (and now download) sales. They say “with no money in the system, music won’t get made. It costs too much to produce, and no one is earning money from recordings. Soon, top artists will stop making music.” 

What someone forgot to tell these hit-makers is it’s not 1972 anymore. You can’t spend 3 years and millions of dollars constructing your masterpiece recording. Not even the Rolling Stones would make their last record the way they made Exile. Besides, most bands aren’t the Rolling Stones anyway.

So how much DOES a record cost to produce?

When you hear stories on how much a record costs to produce, you get ranges from $600 to record Nirvana’s first album Bleach to $13 Million for Guns N’ Roses’ last album, Chinese Democracy. That’s a pretty big gap. Most industry types would say between $150K and $1Million for an album. But does it really cost 6 or 7 figures to make a 12-song record?

Let’s examine all the costs that typically go into making a record

Hard Costs

image

Hard costs are considered the fixed, actual, real, no-frills-added costs to make a record. The bare minimum it would take, before you include extras that are not absolutely crucial to the process.Technically, there are no hard costs in recording an album. Self-produced songs created in basements everywhere cost nothing to make. Unless you’re figuring in equipment, instruments, and computers that you would jam on anyway, the absolute minimum cost to produce a record is $0. Realistically, you may need to rent a real studio to make your record. Studio rental time to lay down tracks and mix them into songs can get done in 1-2 weeks, if the songs are written, rehearsed and ready to go. You can get the prep work of writing and rehearsing done in your home or band practice space, for no extra cost. This is the extent of the actual “Hard” costs of making a record.

Soft Costs

Here is where expenses for producing a record go through the roof. Soft costs include things like Excessive Producer Fees, Screwing Around Costs and Band Pampering Expenses. One can easily see how these “costs,” once considered fixed and non-negotiable expenses for making a record, can be pretty much eliminated.  Here we break down the sub-sets of Soft costs.

Excessive Producer Fees

cost to record album image

When records were selling like gangbusters, the studio producer could set his fees based on how many units the album would likely sell, using past record sales as the barometer. So basically you anticipate a pile of money, and base your fees on what you think your fair share of that pile is. When the pile of money is a mountain, the producer can feel justified in charging 6-figure fees plus backend points for services, and everyone is still happy when the record is a hit. But when that pile shrinks to an anthill, those fees need to be reassessed according to the anticipated sales. Nothing in the process of producing the record has changed – band members, producers, and engineers still worked just as hard getting the record made. The money has simply disappeared, and so should the producer’s fee for producing the record.

Screwing Around Costs

In the days when a record was king, bands like the Stones would actually write their material in the studio. Bands would literally come into the studio with nothing and tinker around with their instruments as the $800/day meter ran on studio time. This was common practice up until 15 or so years ago. Of course, these costs can be eliminated if the band is prepared to record their music before hitting the studio. The music industry can no longer afford to spend thousands a week “finding inspiration” in an expensive recording studio. Bands should be able to do this anywhere else, for no extra cost.

image

Band Pampering Expenses

There are plenty of totally unnecessary expenses that have nothing to do with actual recording that get lumped in with producing a record, namely partying and excess living expenses. The advance given to a band from the record label, which is meant to allow the band the freedom of concentrating solely on making the record, is expected to spent on each band member’s living expenses while recording the record. But some bands take “living expenses” to the extreme. Korn spent several million dollars just renting houses while recording the album Untouchables. That’s insane, totally unnecessary, and a complete waste of today’s limited resources in producing music.

Bottom Line

By most recent, practical, and prudent estimates, you should probably budget $10,000 and 2 weeks’ time to your record your album. Anything over 10K and you’re getting into Soft costs that aren’t necessary to producing your record and won’t add anything to the quality of the music.

—-

What’s the most (and least) you’ve ever spent on a recording project? What were the results? Was it worth it? Let us know in the comments below.

Free Updates: 
Get Music Promotion Tips and Exclusive Offers Delivered to Your Inbox

In this article


Join the Conversation

  • bdavis

    The author covers the cost of recording a record, but not everything else that goes into it. In addition to studio time, there are recording engineers and mixing and mastering engineers. If one wants physical products to sell, there is the cost of production, artwork, etc. And then of course, there are marketing costs if the album is to make it to a wider audience than friends of the musicians. And while renting chalets or fancy pampering is certainly extreme; musicians DO need to eat, have a roof over their heads, etc. Time spent writing, rehearsing, and recording is time not spent gigging, teaching, or doing whatever else the musicians do to pay for those necessities. Eating and a place to sleep might be “soft costs” but they aren’t necessarily excessive costs and should be factored in to the budget a dyi musician is making to see if they can afford to front the costs of recording.

    • musicSUBMIT

      Well said. Very true!

  • This article doesn’t really add any new knowledge for the DIY artist. Honestly, some discussion about purchasing and learning to record with either software products or some of the great and inexpensive hardware solutions would have been far more useful meaningful.

  • This one might be helpful, not in terms of specific gear recommendations, but at least with basic setup and recording philosophy.

    http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/2015/01/5-essential-components-home-recording-studio/

    @ChrisRobley

  • This one might be helpful, not in terms of specific gear recommendations, but at least with basic setup and recording philosophy.

    http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/2015/01/5-essential-components-home-recording-studio/

    @ChrisRobley

    • I remember when that article came along, it is a good start for folks. Thanks for putting that link up.

      It would be nice to see what various artists spent to produce successful songs and how they went about doing it. I remember years ago when I learned that two of my favorite artists produced reasonably successful albums using 4 track cassette porta-studios. In fact, that is what caused me to start done the DIY road to begin with. Springsteen did Nebraska and Phil Keaggy did Underground.

      I think the one piece to remember for the DIY musician is that his own time is the one thing he can ‘offer’ himself for free. So if he can manage some reasonably modest purchases, like some still usable Roland VS series multitrack workstations, Zoom, Tascam, etc. and get some of the less costly software solutions for editing, mixing and mastering on, a person can save the monetary resources for other important things.

      For example, once you’ve canned your song, publishing it through CD Baby, paying for internet radio time, etc. I consider all of these part of the ‘cost of making a record’ since without a budget for them you are relegated to a truly gorilla marking campaign.

    • I remember when that article came along, it is a good start for folks. Thanks for putting that link up.

      It would be nice to see what various artists spent to produce successful songs and how they went about doing it. I remember years ago when I learned that two of my favorite artists produced reasonably successful albums using 4 track cassette porta-studios. In fact, that is what caused me to start done the DIY road to begin with. Springsteen did Nebraska and Phil Keaggy did Underground.

      I think the one piece to remember for the DIY musician is that his own time is the one thing he can ‘offer’ himself for free. So if he can manage some reasonably modest purchases, like some still usable Roland VS series multitrack workstations, Zoom, Tascam, etc. and get some of the less costly software solutions for editing, mixing and mastering on, a person can save the monetary resources for other important things.

      For example, once you’ve canned your song, publishing it through CD Baby, paying for internet radio time, etc. I consider all of these part of the ‘cost of making a record’ since without a budget for them you are relegated to a truly gorilla marking campaign.

  • Very unhelpful article. It’s ironic how the whole point of this article seems to be that lots of money spent on recording an expenses are unnecessary/frivolous, and this article seems to be embodying the exact same principle, as far as articles for musicians go.

    The title is “how much does it really cost to make a record” and it seems the author goes out of his/her way to avoid answering that question.

    When making a record, one has a few options: to try to get everybody (including oneself) to work for free. Or to pay a decent/fair wage for all services/products. Or some combination of the two.

    THAT is what this article should be addressing, instead of waxing lyrical over why it’s not necessary to spend millions on renting houses in exotic locations. WAKE UP CALL: if we are reading this article, we are not mulling over whether or not we should cut the “exotic location house rental” budget or not from our recording budget.

  • Jack Ramsey

    A more interesting discussion for a DIY musician would be taking a hard look at how much it costs to promote an album successfully. Just as one can in theory record an album for free in their bedroom or basement, one can in theory promote an album for free using social media. But how effective are those methods at this point? (E.g. Since Facebook now requires dollars to boost posts). At a certain point unless A musician is an insane extrovert who loves to promote every moment of their waking life, they tireof excessive social media promotion. And need either a label or to work with some publicist to get their work noticed in different quarters. What are the realistic cost of that? What are the realistic ins and outs of that? Perhaps subject for another  article.

  • Jack Ramsey

    A more interesting discussion for a DIY musician would be taking a hard look at how much it costs to promote an album successfully. Just as one can in theory record an album for free in their bedroom or basement, one can in theory promote an album for free using social media. But how effective are those methods at this point? (E.g. Since Facebook now requires dollars to boost posts). At a certain point unless A musician is an insane extrovert who loves to promote every moment of their waking life, they tireof excessive social media promotion. And need either a label or to work with some publicist to get their work noticed in different quarters. What are the realistic cost of that? What are the realistic ins and outs of that? Perhaps subject for another  article.

    • Very true. Thanks for the suggestion.

      @ChrisRobley

    • Very true. Thanks for the suggestion.

      @ChrisRobley

      • musicSUBMIT

        Agreed!

    • musicSUBMIT

      Hi Jack –

      Great comments. In the article we tried to come up with a realistic “floor” for creating a record. Mostly we pointed out how excessive the costs can get. Posing the same question to promoting your record is another article and probably a better discussion, as you said. Since MusicSUBMIT is a promoter and not a producer, we’ll start writing “Part II – How much does It Really cost to PROMOTE a record”. Great suggestion.

  • Dezparado MGD™

    If You Know How To Do Everything Yourself It Should Cost Around 2.5K Thats With Distribution, Mixing & Mastering, Album Art Work Plus A Few Hard Copy’s For Hand 2 Hands

  • The problem I have is that so much of the article is about how time has a value of $0 unless it’s someone else’s. This perpetuates the idea that, in the music business, everything is worth nothing and therefore songs have no value. My song, Carrion Road used a session musician for the pedal steel costing $75 (best $75 I ever spent). You might hate the song, but it still has value seperate to the cost. I agree with @bdavis here, he makes great points. My time and energy costs something, and that is partly what creates the value. A buck for a song ain’t much, let’s not reduce its value to listeners by acting like it was free, because we all now what happens next…

  • I’m using everything and each possibility in the industry because if you have what it takes they will notice.when I first started music full time two years ago I was trying to make some money off my projects and get some exposure but now I believe it is what I am here for…WWW.reverbnation.com/originalb6

  • Theodore Kloba

    Before throwing out a magic number like $10,000 you should explain what assumptions you have made about the type of music, size of band, etc.

    There are also some other things to consider in the cost accounting:

    For a DIY project I do think it makes sense to include some of the “equipment” costs, or at least to amortize them over a series of projects. While some traditional gear (guitars, microphones) keeps its value over time, a lot of computer-based production equipment and software depreciates rapidly and it can become totally obsolete when it won’t work with current generation computer hardware.

    While the 1972 method is inefficient for having the recording engineers present during songwriting, the time spent songwriting should not be dismissed as valueless. The music industry has spent the last century convincing musicians to discount their own value– don’t listen! If you weren’t perfecting your songs to get them ready to record, you could be making money doing something else, e.g. a day job or freelancing.

    For what it’s worth, applying inflation to the costs in the article, we get (in 2015 dollars): about $1,100 for “Bleach”, $11,000,000 for “Exile” and $14,000,000 for “Chinese Democracy”.

  • Gil Lee

    $3000 incl. Harry Fox-13-track straight-ahead jazz album, paid all musicians except 2, discmasters print, lite mastering, no splices or punch-ins, three-session days at 5 to 8 hrs, one or two rehearsals, 1997, 1999…

  • Dude Love

    Just like filmmaking, record making….rather….GOOD record making, just like GOOD film making is also not cheap. You will always find exceptions but reality is at LEAST 10K but 20-40K is a better number. You can record cheaply these days, but just gigging around your home town is not going to do anything. You’re going to need to spend some cheese or have a label spend for you to get noticed AND have the talent to back it up. Just being a rich kid will not make you a successful musician long term if you have no talent(See. Ashlee Simpson)

  • Dude Love

    Just like filmmaking, record making….rather….GOOD record making, just like GOOD film making is also not cheap. You will always find exceptions but reality is at LEAST 10K but 20-40K is a better number. You can record cheaply these days, but just gigging around your home town is not going to do anything. You’re going to need to spend some cheese or have a label spend for you to get noticed AND have the talent to back it up. Just being a rich kid will not make you a successful musician long term if you have no talent(See. Ashlee Simpson)

  • Alec Larson

    Check us out at StudioMalibu.com
    $50/Hr rate for our Beautiful SkyLounge Recording Studio

  • Zezu Zaza

    not helpful. it is not up-to-date article. i know how it deal since i am in recoding label.