How much does it REALLY cost to make a record?
Do these guys look hard at work recording an album?
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 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’ll 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.
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
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 expense recording studio. Bands should be able to do this anywhere else, for no extra cost.
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.
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.