AKA ON RECORDING BUDGETS
A friend of mine is standing there the other day and he says this:
‘People don’t give a fuck about sound quality. They just don’t. Musicians think they do, but people either like a song or they don’t and the production might help a little, maybe…but most people don’t hear a good song and imagine how a different type of production would have made it better. It’s just good or it’s bad. And it’s mostly good or bad because of the song itself.’
Is he right? He’s definitely right some of the time. The definitive original version of a song is always what you release. It can be covered and improved (maybe) but you are always first to market with how it is originally going to be heard. You get to decide. And maybe you need your songs to be gleaming diamonds on arrival. That’s the gut instinct option a lot of the time. But maybe the songs are good enough and maybe it won’t make much difference anyhow? Tricky territory.
So let me tell you about two decisions I’ve been privy to in the past.
A TALE OF TWO ALBUMS
I made a record that cost $15,000 dollars once and it was cheap at that price. I put this album on the other day and it’s pretty effective: all the songs sound tightly wound together, all the instrumentation sounds big, fun and accessible.
I don’t remember much about recording it. It took a month.
People liked it. It got a good write up in Rolling Stone magazine. Radio ignored it.
We had distribution, a small label, a limited promo budget. We toured. This all happened back when people still bought CDs so we sold a few, but not that many. Through retail sales, we probably covered the label’s manufacturing costs and the promo budget, if that.
The only money the band made back was a our cut of album sales at the merch desk. We probably made two thousand dollars, absolute maximum, on the record.
And our profile lifted a little so we got some better shows. About three years later, the band put out another EP and split up.
At the end, we were worse than broke. In the red. Owed money to someone’s sister, if memory serves.
I made a record that cost $150 dollars once. I put it on the other day and it’s pretty effective: all the songs sound like someone grinding metal. All the instrumentation sounds big and loud.
I don’t remember much about recording it, not specifically. It took months of weekends. We recorded it in someone’s house and we worked slowly. On the audio gear the engineer owned. The entirety of this recording gear would cost about $6000 to buy outright.
(He did, essentially, work for free. But he’s building a business and he’s in the band. There are other ways to make records that cheaply though.)
People liked the record. Radio ignored it. Rolling Stone magazine ignored it. Forbes magazine thought it was okay, go figure.
We sold the album entirely on Bandcamp and via store consignment. We toured very occasionally but we did pay-what-you-will for the digital MP3 files and these files seemed to travel around on our behalf. This all happened (in 2011) when people preferred vinyl albums so we sold about two hundred physical copies on wax, not that many. We covered our manufacturing costs and there was no promo budget. We probably made two thousand dollars profit, absolute maximum. And our profile lifted a little but the shows stayed about the same.
Two years later, the band continues. We’re working on a new album with a 100% higher recording budget of $300. Thanks to advances in software and the home studio we use, the new stuff sounds significantly better. More than 100% better.
The band has enough money in the bank to fund the manufacturing of the next record.
Even if we paid our engineer the market-rate for someone of his experience, Exhibit B would have come in at less than a fifth of the cost of Exhibit A. Easily.
(The prosecution rests.)
IN THE JURY ROOM:
So, which one of these records is your band going to make next? A or B or something in-between?
The one you want to make or the one you think you should make?
The artistic gamble or the smart product?
The short-term glory or long-term sustainability?
Or is the polished album the long-term one for you? The one you’ll like most, looking back?
You’ve got to know.
I learned a lot from Exhibit A.
But I learned a lot from Exhibit B too. Confusing isn’t it?
IT CAN BE, SO DO THIS:
Whatever you’re planning, work the math beforehand: Assume that 30% of your Facebook followers / mailing list are going to hand over their money.
What budget does that give you?
If your record costs more than that figure, you’re not just making something, you’re buying something and – just like everything else in life – it’s a good idea to know what you’re spending your money on.
Are you getting good value for your money?
Is this batch of songs worth as much to your band as a small car?
I don’t often listen to the albums that I’ve made. Who does?
So, looking back, it’s a pretty simple equation.
While I like the big fancy studio album a lot but I prefer the scenario where I didn’t mug myself.
For me it just didn’t seem like the right play.
I look at the $15,000 one and think, ‘Yep, that happened. Whoops.’
And I look at the $150 album and think, ‘Worth every cent.’
I wish it was more romantic than that but with the benefit of hindsight it isn’t.
I do this blog to collect my thoughts and to gauge everyone’s reaction. Or as Flava Flav would say, I like to know what time it is. So if you read this and have stories to share, please do. I feel like every band who’s been around a while has learnt something about how to deal with the studio and what works and what doesn’t. So I’d love to hear some anecdotes in the comments. Alternatively you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always on the hunt for things to write about and articles to read, so please send suggestions to that address too.