Recording budgets

I have often seen a lot of debate about the merits of downloading music for promotion of a band and how downloads are changing the music landscape.

Generally I agree that the opportunities for bands are much greater in this day an age than they were previously. In fact, our first EP is released under a Creative Commons license because of this belief – anyone can share our music with their friends, remix it (as our friend Karoshi just has – can’t wait to share that with you!), and the like.

What I haven’t seen is a lot of discussion of how much it actually costs to record and produce music of a standard suitable for “releasing” (radio play etc.). I get a sense that there’s a bit of a misconception that, with the advent of cheaper computers and audio recording hardware and software, that artists are able to produce their music really cheaply, which isn’t actually the case.

The other suggestion I see a lot is that bands can release music for free and make money through other means (performance fees etc.). This I think is in some way related to the first misconception, but also is problematic in its own way.

What I want to do in this post is share my experience of producing music with my band, Fuzu, and having a look at what it costs to release an independent EP.

Cost of recording

Our last EP cost us around $7000 to complete. This can be roughly broken down into:

  • $2000 Recording (4 days)
  • $2000 Mixing (4 days)
  • $750 Mastering (4 hours)
  • $2200 Pressing (for 500 CDs)

Given the cost of pressing, we did consider doing a “digital only” release (i.e. releasing only through iTunes). However, most of our sales come from CDs sold at our shows, so a “physical” release was something we thought was important to have.

So, as you can see, even if we sold all of the CDs we have stocked (500) at $10 per EP we still wouldn’t break even. And in all honesty, we never expected to sell all 500 CDs anyway.

A more established act, who’s been playing for a number of years and built up a solid base of supporters, selling more than 500 CDs might be realistic.

But for a “start up” band like ourselves, short of getting a single on rotation at JJJ or another well known radio station, in my experience it’s actually quite hard to sell more than a couple of hundred CDs.

I should add, we did that EP pretty cheaply – so whilst we could have saved some money (as I’ll explain later), it might cost other bands a lot more even to produce 5 songs.

Merchandising and gig fees

So perhaps we could make our money back through other means? If we’re lucky we’ll make a couple of hundred dollars from a show in the venues we play around Sydney (I think $350 is the most we’ve got from one show so far).

Once we take into consideration the costs of doing the show (rehearsal fees, transport etc.) we could probably get about $200 between the four of us from a show. Given that we’re not a well known band (yet…) we can realistically play 1 or 2 shows a month. So at best, it would take us 35 shows (say 2-3 years) to pay back the cost of the release.

Touring adds a lot of extra cost – in terms of transport, accommodation, potentially gear hire, as well as time off work (if you have a “day job”).

With merchandise, t-shirts for example, the cost of tees to the band is between $15 and $25 per shirt. So let’s say we buy at $15 and sell at $25 we’re making $10 per shirt. But of course, selling shirts requires us to buy stock as well (a further outlay) unless we use a service like Redbubble, where our margins are quite low.

Let’s assume, then, that without significant volume sales, merchandise isn’t going to help pay off the EP.

Reducing our costs

Given all this, we’ve been looking at how we might reduce our costs this time around. Firstly, we are planning a digital only release, which saves us a good chunk of change.

Typically you record vocals at the same time as the rest of the band (for Between your lines we split vocal tracking across the 4 days – recording one song’s instrumentation, then tracking the vocals immediately afterwards).

However, this time we’re trying something a bit different. We’ve set ourselves a goal of recording for $1000. To do this we tracked all instrumentation in 2 days (as it takes about half a day to setup your basic sounds for drums, bass and guitar – that leaves about 1.5 days to track all the other parts). Keyboard parts will be tracked prior to going into the studio to a click track to reduce time – so we’re just recording drums, bass and guitars.

We then recorded the vocals separately in our engineer’s home studio setup, as we don’t need a full live room and studio to get a good result with vocals – just a good booth, mic and preamp into the computer. (We also finished overdubbing some guitar parts outside of the studio.)

With this reduction, and a cheaper mixing option this time around (Sean Carey, our engineer, is mixing using his home studio also) we can reduce our recording and mixing costs to ~$2000.

We then have mastering on top of that – which we expect will be about the same as last time (around $750), bringing our total to $2750. As iTunes collects around 50% of the sale, that would require us to sell 550 EP downloads to break even. Factoring in gig fees might reduce that by about half – so a years worth of local gigs – before we break even.

This, of course, is a much more realistic goal. All this, of course, doesn’t take into consideration the cost of our instruments, the time we invest in promoting, running and rehearsing the band (including accountant fees, management fees) etc. But in hard dollar terms is much more feasible and there’s a reasonable potential of breaking even on a release – especially if a single gets picked up by the radio (which is a whole other story).

It’s for the love

Although we run the band like a business (we have an accountant, we invoice venues etc.) it’s a very tough game, and takes a lot of hard work for limited financial reward. Some well-meaning friends have asked “well isn’t this just a hobby?” – but it really isn’t.

We earn income collectively (through a partnership business structure) and we have to maintain accounts, a joint bank account, and we report GST, have an ABN etc.

Which means that, whilst we do do it for the love of it, we work hard to build a following of enough people that like what we do to make it financially viable.

Please don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a “complaint” – I love playing music and I feel privileged to be in a position to be able to do what I do. It’s more a “reality check” about the rosy picture that I think sometimes gets painted around these “new opportunities” – in part to justify downloading music while not paying for it.

Many musicians can’t afford to even do as much as we do in terms of releasing their music, and I wanted to at least put some facts behind the argument that bands can make it whilst not charging for their music. Whilst the model might work for a small group of better known acts, for most musicians the idea of making a living this way is unrealistic.

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