In January, singer/songwriter Amos Lee achieved a dubious distinction. While his album, Mission Bell, became the top album in the country, its 40,000 copies sold that week made it the lowest selling No. 1 album since SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991. The same record was broken twice before that month—first by country-pop crossover artist Taylor Swift and then by alt-rock veterans Cake. It’s safe to say that unless you’re Eminem or Katy Perry, your band are probably not selling as many albums as you might have a decade ago—but does that mean you’re paying less to make them?
In order to understand how much it costs to make a record, it’s important to first comprehend how you make a record. Often fans are unclear of what this process entails, mostly because bands finish an album cycle, disappear for a year or two and then reappear with a new record. But what takes so long? The process of writing and recording an album obviously varies from artist to artist. However, there’s a general system that many rock artists follow. Some of the steps are interchangeable, but for the most part, making an album goes like this: songwriting, demoing, pre-production, production and engineering, mixing and mastering. In order to discuss the current cost of making albums and whether those costs are shifting as record sales decline, it’s essential to break down these elements and explain what these steps mean and what exactly a producer does that costs a band such a hefty chunk of their recording budget.
Imagine an average, mid-level rock band. Band X have been on tour for the past nine months, penned a few new song ideas on the road and maybe recorded some demos onto a laptop. When they get off tour, the band (along with their management and label) decide to begin work on a new album. The band go home or to a rehearsal space and write for a few weeks to a year.
THRICE guitarist TEPPEI TERANISHI has assumed the role of both producer and engineer for his band, so he sees the creation of an album from different ends of the spectrum. “When we decide we want to start writing again, we'll sit down and share our ideas and talk about where or how we see the record shaping up or any broad or general ideas for the record as a whole,” he says. “From there, we get together and start jamming and writing together. We approach the parts we've compiled somewhat like puzzle pieces and try to put different ideas together. A lot of times, just jamming on a part will spawn new ideas that may even morph into something completely different once everyone puts their own individual fingerprint on it. Then, it's just a lot of revising and shaping the songs into what we feel the song wants to be.”
Once the band feel these new songs are largely where they want them to be, they compile a list of producers they’d like to record with. A band like Thrice, who produce their own albums, would skip this step, but most groups spend time meeting with various potential producers and sharing their demo ideas. Selecting the producer is a compromise between the band, the record label and the band’s management, and it’s also important that the producer feel inspired by the songs.
MATT RADOSEVICH, who has produced Dredg and engineered for Taking Back Sunday, says the actual duties of a producer vary. “A producer can be a much vaguer role, but traditionally, they are the ones who oversee the whole process creatively and logistically,” he says. “The producer often works with the band on arrangements and song choice, collaborating with them on their creative vision. The producer is also responsible for keeping track of logistics like the studio, other musicians, the budget and the overall schedule. The producer often acts as the communicator between the band and the record label… Most artists will benefit from an outside creative ear to bounce ideas off of. Oftentimes it's hard for a band to get perspective on what they are creating because they've lived with it so much. A producer they trust—who has a lot of experience making records—can really help focus the band's creative vision.”
This is where the recording budget kicks in. Here are the kinds of expenses which might be put on that tab: Producer fees, engineer and assistant engineers, studio runner (someone who gets gear, food or anything else needed), studio rentals, food, equipment and gear rentals, living expenses, travel costs, a mixer (who works on combining the tracks during production), a master engineer (who polishes the final product), photographer, videographer, equipment and rehearsal space rental. The budget is determined by the band’s record label (if they have one) and every cent of money put into the album by the label is ultimately paid back by the band. This is called “recouping,” which basically means that the label is giving the band a loan; money earned from future album sales will go to pay back the loan.
"A record label is basically like a bank you borrow money from to pay for your album."
— Patrick Stump
FALL OUT BOY frontman and current solo artist PATRICK STUMP puts this in perspective. “A record label is basically like a bank you borrow money from to pay for your album,” he says. “You'll have to pay them back eventually, so in that way, the artist always pays for the record. Obviously, if you're unsigned you pay out of pocket. So as it pertains to me or Fall Out Boy collectively, I have paid for every recording I've made one way or the other.”
So if a label gives a band $200,000 to create an album, that’s not free money. When you consider all the expenses involved, $200,000 isn’t actually all that much. CIRCA SURVIVE guitarist COLIN FRANGICETTO, who is currently self-producing a side project called PSYCHIC BABBLE, breaks down what goes into a typical Circa Survive recording. “In Circa's case, there are a lot of expenses,” he says. “First there is travel to wherever you’re going to make the album. There are expenses for various rentals. We had to rent a Torontohouse to live in while making Blue Sky Noise. When we made the first two records, [producer] Brian McTernan's studios had accommodations. We lived at the studio. With Blue Sky Noise, there were three locations where we worked. We were in a practice lockout for the first three weeks, so that’s a rental expense. Then we recorded the drums at a ridiculously nice studio outside of Torontofor about 10 days, so that’s another rental. While working at that studio, there were two extra assistants that engineered, so they got paid. Then we did most of the tracking at [producer] David Bottrill's studio, so you have another rental—although that was prorated (divided evenly) because it’s his studio, built into the deal probably—then two other assistants engineering who get paid, too.”
Once the producer is selected, the band go into pre-production, which is rehearing songs with the producer to fine tune them and determine what is strong enough or appropriate for the album. Sometimes this also involves writing new tracks or co-writing with the producer.
“This would be when the band meets with a producer and discusses what they intend to achieve with the album,” explains Stump. “Maybe the artists already have songs, maybe the producer has songs, maybe the artists intend to just walk in drunk, roll tape and wing it. But in all cases, the album isn't yet fully recorded. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few years. Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy took, what, 13 years? I personally consider this the most important part of the record making process. [Recording with] no pre-production is like trying to build a skyscraper without blueprints.”
When those blueprints are finished, you record. But why do bands like Circa Survive need three studios? Usually parts of an album are recorded separately and each element of a musical track requires something different to achieve an optimal sound. Drums, for the most part, are done first because everyone else recording will need to play to the drum tracks. Sometimes the whole band play the songs together while drums are recorded. When this happens, the drum parts are the “keeper” tracks and the other instruments and vocals are “scratch” tracks. Drums are usually done in a large studio space with more expensive gear, and producers recommend splurging on drum tracks even if you record the rest of the album in a garage.
As drums are recorded—which typically takes about one to two weeks—they are also edited. That means the recording is tightened to a grid of beats to ensure they’re uniform and follow a click track. Nearly all drum recordings are edited, whether bands want to admit it or not. This tacks a few more days onto the process and then guitars and bass are tracked. It doesn’t necessarily matter which instrument is done first; it’s often by producer preference. Bass takes a few days while guitars—because they’re overdubbed and usually have more parts—can take two to three weeks. This might be done in a different studio than the drums. If a band have synthesizer parts or other instruments, those are added along the way. But, again, every album is different.
But, again, every album is different. “There’s not any one blueprinted way that I do records,” says producer JOHN FELDMANN, who has made albums with Panic! At the Disco, the Used and Good Charlotte. “I like to make it a work in progress until we’re at the mixing stage. It’s not like we do the all the drums then the bass then the guitars and then the vocals all in a row. Sometimes we do a full song and finish it completely, then mix it. Sometimes we’ll do a bunch of drums one day and a bunch of guitars the next day, so there really isn’t a process or a blueprint like that.”
Still, the last tracks typically laid to tape are lead and backing vocals. Lead vocals are done first and can be time-consuming because it’s important for the singer not to overextend him or herself and blow a vocal cord. According to engineer JOSH NEWELL (Black Veil Brides, Intronaut), the rule of thumb about vocals is that they take “as long as everything else did put together.” Vocals can be done in a different studio as well, particularly since all you need is a small room and high quality microphone. Generally, the vocals are recorded without a live band. Backing vocals are sometimes done by the lead singer or a vocal coach, other times by other band members. Remember, the backing vocals you hear on an album may or may not be done by who you see perform them live. The vocals are then tuned. Yes, perhaps with AutoTune in Pro Tools or a similar program like Melodyne. It’s a common fallacy that only pop music is tuned. With a few rare exceptions, all vocals on all albums are tuned in some way. The trick is usually to make it as unnoticeable as possible.