(If you haven’t read Part One, you might want to scroll down to the next post and read it first)
I recently taught a couple of Personal Finance classes at the local high school. The teacher wanted me to talk to her students about how the music business works, so I choose one of my songs (“Heaven”) and explained how it was recorded, how much it cost to record it, and all the ways a single 4-minute piece of music can generate income.
Midway through the second class one of the students asked why making a Jennifer Lopez CD costs so much more than making one of mine? I’d used her career as an example of how it looks when a record company is behind a project VS how it looks for an independent artist. A related question might have been, can you make a CD for less? If I use Journey’s budget I can give you a pretty good answer.
Let’s take the first category: Musicians. In the case of Journey, there were five musicians involved: Lou Pappas (bass), Manuel Quintana (drums and percussion), Gary Burke (drums on two songs), me (I played piano, guitar, and sang all the vocals), and Peter Tomlinson (who played additional guitars, accordion, and some percussion). Musicians have different ways of charging for recording sessions. Some charge per song; some, per hour or per day. The rate a musician charges varies a lot. For someone like me, since there’s no major record label underwriting the project, a musician might charge $100 to $300/song, or, $25-$100/hour depending on how much they like the music, or, how confident they are about their fee. A major label artist would get paid considerably more than that.
Why, you might ask, do they get paid that much when it’s only a 4-minute song? Surely it can’t take that long. But it does. Each part of a 4-minute song can take 2 – 3 hours or more to record. That’s because often the musician has never heard the song before. They get to the studio, they have to set up (it may take an hour to set the mics, get the sound right, settle in, etc), then they hear the song for the first time, they listen to the producer’s ideas about what s/he’d like the musician to play, then rehearsals begin, re-evaluations, different approaches, until the final melody or groove is decided. Then the musician records until they get a final take. A rule of thumb is that better players take less time to record, so they’re more inclined to charge per song. They know they’ll work fast and make more than if they charged an hourly fee.
Usually a recording project begins with the rhythm section, which includes the drummer, bass player, and often a guitarist or pianist. The players in the rhythm section are recorded simultaneously and establish the feel of the song. Every musician who’s recorded afterwards (which we call over-dubbing, or multi-tracking) plays along with the rhythm section’s tracks. They do this by listening to those tracks through headphones and playing along. Unless a CD is recorded live (few are) over-dubbing is the way records are made – one part at a time after the basic tracks are laid down. For each part that’s played, time is consumed. And when time is consumed, costs go up. Jennifer Lopez’s CDs generally involve more musicians. More players means more time which makes it more expensive.
In Journey’s budget you may have noticed that Peter Tomlinson and I have not gotten paid even though we did 80% of the work. That’s just the way it is with independent artists. Someone like Jennifer Lopez is always paid. Her record company supports her, and her costs are part of the overall budget. Peter and I have our own studios so we’re able to do a lot of the recording for “free.” (Ignoring the fact that both of us have about $10,000 worth of recording equipment, which we’ve paid for over the years). The cost of equipment is another reason why my record is cheaper than Jennifer’s. The studios she’s recording in charge $150 – $250/hour, whereas I’ve done the bulk of my recording in my home studio with no hourly fee attached. In addition, the studios she uses have multiple engineers, catering, accommodations, and considerably more recording gear in them. For example, the microphone I use to record my vocals (A Neumann T108) costs about $1,000. Her microphone, whatever it is, might cost $5k, and that’s just one microphone. If you’ve never seen a professional recording studio, I can assure you it’s thrilling. There are racks and racks of gizmos and toys that an engineer can send a musical signal through to get the sound you hear on a final recording. All that gear costs money, (lots) which means the hourly cost of a studio goes up accordingly.
For Journey, I needed to pay for studio time on 6 days. The total bill for those days was $4250. That included re-recording the rhythm tracks for two songs, final mixing, and mastering. In the music business, this is a low budget recording. There aren’t a lot of ways to make it cheaper except to call in all the favors you can, record faster, (which would change the outcome considerably) and resist printing hard copies (which a lot of independent artists are doing). If you don’t manufacture CDs, you don’t have the expense of artwork, duplication, postage or shipping, but for me, not having a CD feels unfinished. So I spend the money so that 350 people have something to hold in their hands. And I have no doubt that it’s worth it to me despite the unit cost for each.
Finally, the primary difference between an artist on a major record label and me is that they have a large marketing budget, plus a team of people whose job it is to make sure that record is sold and sold big. That’s the main reason Jennifer’s record costs more than mine. The difference for me is that I get to make records when I want to and how I want to and that’s worth every thing to me.
I hope this has been helpful. I love your questions, so if I haven’t answered them, please be in touch. I’ll do my best.
PS Earlier today I had lunch with a friend who’d read the first part of this blog. When we sat down, she asked the question any sane person would ask after seeing a budget like Journey’s: why bother? We laughed because I’ve thought about that a million times. Yet here I am, doing it because I love it, and because it’s what I do, and because people write to tell me what my music has done for them, and that’s the point.