“Money, It’s a crime
Share it fairly, but don’t take a slice of my pie
Money, So they say
Is the root of all evil today”
Written by Roger Waters and recorded by Pink Floyd
“Money” is a song off Pink Floyd’s record breaking album “Dark Side of the Moon”. Released in 1973 on Harvest Records, it was Pink Floyd’s 8th and most successful record, ultimately selling more than 45 million copies and spending 962 weeks on the Billboard charts. “Money” was written by Roger Waters and sung by David Gilmore on the recording. Its signature riff is unusual because it has a fairly uncommon 7/8 time signature, though the guitar solo and ending are in the most common 4/4 time signature. Ultimately the song is a warning of the evils of money.
One of my past columns was about artists compensation for the use of their music and how little is earned from streaming services. This time we are going to talk about what it actually costs to make music.
One obvious cost to making music is of course time. For every hour spent on stage or in the studio there are untold hours learning music, practicing instruments, writing songs, rehearsing, traveling to perform and many many more hours in other associated tasks. The performance you see or the recorded music you hear is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg of time spent creating those moments.
As It is said that we “spend” time because time is the ultimate currency. Time was actually the original basis to money. It like gold, silver or anything of value is of limited quantity. What we “spend” it on defines our lives. Even as an insignificantly minor player in the music business I have spent years of my time dedicated to its pursuit. Few careers other than those in the arts require so much time investment with absolutely no monetary award.
Bread, currency, scratch, dough are all slang for that thing we cannot live without in our world today; money. Money determines our ability to participate in society. Money also determines our ability to produce recorded music.
Recording music is perhaps cheaper today than it was in the past due to technology and technologies tendency to cost less over time. With said technology anybody can record these days. In some cases folks I know use their phone to record and produce music. If you are talented, have great production chops and most of all are patient enough to master the crazy steep learning curve of recording then you maybe can turn out decent tracks for little money. Though such a recording will require a large, probably much larger than you expected, investment of time.
However self recording is not very often the best solution. Many artists are just that; artists. Many of which are not in tune with technology and nuance necessary to produce complete listenable tracks. Also, it is possible that folks like myself who once recorded others, due to age, heredity or other factors can no longer hear well enough to turn out professional sounding tracks. For those and other reasons most folks require help of others to produce their music.
Unless you happen to have the chops to record yourself, play any additional instruments, sing harmony, arrange and have the vision to fully realize completed recordings, you will no doubt seek out others to assist.
There are many folks capable of helping you create releasable music but they are just like you. They require money to pay their bills and continue to spend their time helping you create finished work. The cost of such work varies based on quality of the finished product, the reputation (past success) of and geographic location. For example a producer with a track record of superior releases located in a major metropolitan area will cost much more that a friend with a spare bedroom who has no reputation. That doesn’t mean your friend will turn out an inferior product but it is certainly more likely than the seasoned pro.
So, what is the money cost of making music? As a general rule you pay for studio time with a recording engineer by the hour ($50 an hour and up), sidemen (bass, guitar, keyboard, drums, background vocals for example) will each cost you $100 a track or more depending on their reputation. If you chose to have a producer (someone to help guide you in the recording process with musical suggestions) they will also expect to be paid. What they cost depends on reputation as well. Mastering each track will cost you $75 or more as well. Mastering is the final step of making your music ready for reproduction. If you release your tracks to streaming services only then that pretty much ends the cost. Unless you choose to promote, publicize or produce physical copies (vinyl or CDs).
Wow that is a lot isn’t it. Let’s say you come into the studio totally prepared with charts, knowing the songs backwards and forwards, arranged and ready to perform. At a minimum it will probably take you 2 hours ($100) to get your parts down for each song. Let’s say you have bass, drums, keyboard and background vocals added. That is an additional $400 a track. Now the track needs to be mixed. There goes another 2 hours of studio time ($100). Get it mastered for $75 and you are spending $675 to record one song (in reality more like $1000). Multiply that by the average of 10 songs on a record that comes to $6750.
So you have your record recorded but no one knows about it. You need publicity and possibly promotion for streaming. As with anything else you can do it yourself but you need to put in the time and connections required to be effective. If not expect to pay for those services $2000 and up. If you want to produce physical copies you will need artwork. The cost for that once again varies based upon who does the artwork but I would suggest $500 or more for professional level work. Which you want so that your physical product looks as good as it sounds.
So now you want physical product? Creating a single vinyl pressing would take anywhere between $5 to $20 while making an initial run of 100 vinyl records will cost around $450 to $2500 (among less expensive options).
For CDs the cost is cheaper but still count on $1.50 to $2 a unit. So for a run of 100 CDs you are looking at a minimum of $150.
Now let’s add this all up. Remember this is an example and totally depends on how much you do yourself and the quality of the folks you use to assist you. But it is pretty close to my experience and those of others in the Americana/Folk world.
10 song recording $6750
CD or Vinyl Artwork. $500
100 Vinyl records $1500
100 CDs $150
I know, that is a shocking number if you haven’t gone though the process before. To be honest there are many more possible costs such as merch production, housing during recording and many more possible that I have not mentioned. The end result is that making music for release isn’t cheap and unless you get millions of streaming listeners or lots of folks buying your physical product you are not likely to make it back quickly or at all. Oh, it can happen but it isn’t likely in the short run.
I have just finished recording my 5th solo record titled Wind of Change. It is in the can and I am having CDs produced as I write this. By the time it is released in September of 2022 I will have more than $12,000 invested in this project. I am sure I will never recoup that amount unless I tour the record relentlessly for a couple of years and get really lucky.
So, why do we do it? I can’t answer for anyone else but will attempt to answer for myself. Wind of Change will be my 5th solo album and the 8th that I was one of the primary writers as well as a performer and finance source. I can safely say that only one of those projects ever recouped their production cost and for that one the studio time was donated and we did no paid promotion.
In the end I look as these songs I write as my legacy. I know the names of my great great grandparents, where and when they were born, lived and died but almost nothing else. I look at the recordings of my music as a way to pass on to future generations of great grandchildren a sense of my personality and the times I lived in.
To be accurate and honest, making a recording is much simpler and less expensive than it once was. In the past almost all recorded music was controlled by record companies who paid for the recording, mastering and manufacturing of records or CDs. That sounds good but it certainly wasn’t as good as it sounds. Every expense; recording, physical production, marketing and every other thing they could think of was charged against any profit your record might produce. In the end many signed artists wound up in the hole and that debt was charged against any future projects as well. So basically the record company bore the least risk in the whole deal. Not a pretty picture is it?
So what is the point of this whole depressing exercise? My main purpose is to communicate to the folks who listen to music via streaming, buy vinyl or CDs and attend live shows why we ask $45 for vinyl, $20 for CDs and complain about what we get paid for streaming. It isn’t greed or ego but simple finance. We are attempting to make back our investment and maybe even hopefully turn a small profit.
Thanks for reading. This little article is not meant as a complaint about the money cost of making music. All the artists I know do this because they love it and feel in our heart of hearts it is important to get our music out there. We love what we do but it still has price. This is the story of that price in money.
I would love to see your comments, complaints, corrections and suggestions. As they say, hit me with your best shot. I welcome every single one; positive or negative.
Randy Lewis Brown may be a over-the-hill, baby boomer, curmudgeon but he is also an award-winning Northeast Texas-based singer-songwriter and self-proclaimed “performing philosopher”. Despite his years, he remains stedfast in attempting to decipher the intersection of spirit, faith, science and the human condition. Always trying to maintain a sense of wonder and whimsy in his occasionally clever folk-Americana songs and stories. He spends thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours creating, recording and promoting his music. Yet his last quarterly royalty check wouldn’t buy a box of Cheerios.