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How Much Will Your Album Cost?
Studio Costs and Talent:
I once got a call from a guy who wanted to do an album of 12 songs. He said that the songs were all about 3 minutes each, so, doing the math (12 x 3 = 48 minutes), he booked two hours (just to be on the safe side) to record his album. Thinking he was delusional, I chuckled and said that we might need a tad more time. As it turned out, the man made his living singing standards in a piano bar, so he came into the studio and accompanied himself singing songs he’d done a gazillion times. He banged all twelve out--no overdubs, mostly first takes, direct to 2-track—in two hours! I hadn’t seen that before and haven’t seen it since.
But if you’re like most people, you’ll want other players backing you up on your CD. And you don’t need the added pressure of getting everything down in one take. In my experience, if I’m your producer, $400-$500 per song will cover enough studio time to do things properly and provide for hiring professional musicians to give you the sound you’re looking for.
That estimate would be too high if your goal is to have a sparse sound with minimal players. Likewise, the estimate might be low if you feel the need for a gospel choir or other elaborate additions to the arrangements. Besides the complexity of the arrangements, other variables that affect studio costs are the number of songs and the preparedness level and pickiness of the artist.
No two projects are alike, but let’s say you want a dozen fully-produced songs on which you’ll sing the lead vocals. About $5,000 is a realistic estimate of what your studio costs will look like. This might sound low—certainly people can and do spend that amount on completing one song. Or a producer may charge that amount as their fee over and above recording studio and musicians’ costs. But I’ve delivered enough completed projects to satisfied clients to know that $5k is a realistic figure.
That’s the part of the process that I’m hands-on with, but there are additional expenses to consider, such as:
Here again, there are many variables. On the least expensive end of the spectrum, you can download specs and design templates from the CD manufacturer and come up with your own artwork. Cost: $0. On the other end of the spectrum… one recent client of mine spent a four-figure sum hiring a professional graphics person to design not only the CD cover, but a 12-page booklet, promotional postcards, poster…an entire unified look.
I have two friends here in Nashville who are both talented experienced graphic designers with many CDs under their belts. One of them, Jeff Thorneycroft, is also a photographer---one-stop shopping! Check out what he did for my friend Whit Hill’s most recent CD.
Some of the cost variables in this area you’ll encounter include: type of packaging (jewel case? Digi-pak?), amount of printed material (12-page booklet? No booklet?), and number of units. As you would expect, the unit cost goes down the more you order. Some companies have minimum orders. As of this writing, you can find complete packages of 1,000 CDs for about $1,000.
I’ve used Rainbo Records in California for years--they’re great to work with and won’t break the bank. Other popular manufacturers include Oasis and Discmakers.
It’s worth noting a couple of things here. One viable option is to just forego CDs altogether. In a world where music is increasingly just streamed on demand, you may decide that having physical CDs is an unnecessary expense. Another option is an area that is apparently on the upswing (but will still remain a relatively small niche market), and that is vinyl.
Here are three other areas where you might end up spending money:
In the studio with pricey players is not the time to get experimental or to be asking each other “What do you think?” regarding the songwriting or the arrangements. That should already have been discussed and decided upon ahead of time. This can be very simple (Artist says, “I’ve picked the songs I want to do, I’m pleased with all the writing, and I want a bluesy sound.”) …cost: $0. Or not so simple (Artist says, “I have fifty songs but I’m not sure which ones to put on the album, and I’m not sure if I’m going for a jazz thing or maybe death-polka.”)…we’ll need to pow-wow a bit. Cost: TBA.
The mastering house is a final step before manufacturing. It assures the proper EQ, consistent volume levels, proper sequencing & spacing—the last bit of sheen before making copies. Mastering suites aren’t cheap--$500 to $800 is a normal amount to spend for the service. But you can save money on this step, too. I mastered one of my own albums a few years back, then took it to the best mastering guy in Nashville. He said “Wow, this sounds great!” Since then I’ve mastered most of my clients projects, saving them time and money.
Travel & Lodging:
If you live outside Nashville you’ll have lodging costs. Some clients stay with us while recording for an additional $50 a day. We also have several friends who have Airbnb rentals nearby. Or, Opryland and a multitude of more affordable motels are minutes away. If you’re driving or flying here you’ll have travel costs as well.
Let’s say you’re a singer-songwriter who plans on singing and playing acoustic guitar on your CD. You have twelve songs that are well rehearsed, and you want basic band production: bass, drums, lead guitar, keyboards, a few color instruments (like sax, harmonica, or dobro), plus backing vocals. You’re driving here from Atlanta and staying with friends in Nashville while recording. Here’s a sample budget:
$5,000: Studio time and Musician fees
$1,000: 1000 CDs, with jewel cases & 2-page color inserts
$200: Mastering here at Studio X
$300: Gas & food
This gives you an idea of how the budget for your CD might look. One thing that won’t cost a dime is a discussion with me about your project. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have, and make any suggestions that might help you wade through the many options available to you.