I’ve been running my band Odin’s Court for 15 years. During that time, I’ve seen a lot and learned even more. There are so many stories I could tell, but I want to talk about a topic that is fascinating and exciting: finances (as they relate to releasing original music). “Yuck,” you say. Well, I find that most people understandably do not know what kind of effort goes into creating, releasing, and performing original music – and the cost of these efforts. In writing about this, I hope to show why many bands (such as mine) have turned to “crowd sourcing” to help offset the costs. I realize people have very mixed feelings on crowd sourcing, and I’m approaching this from the artist’s point of view.
Let’s get this out of the way early – historically, labels have been the conduit to the masses. A&R reps would scout bars, clubs, and other live venues for talent. When they’d discover talent, a lot of stuff would happen that would ultimately end with a “signing.” Labels were machines that would build up a band as a brand by fronting money to create an album (all recoupable against the band before a payout to the band). So although most bands never made any money (for every Pink Floyd, there are thousands that fail), people may still know many bands that never really broke even (e.g., Kix is really well known, but was actually in debt when they departed from their major label).
Around the late 90s this started to change, and within the last 10 years the label method is all but dead. Some well-known artists (e.g., Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and Counting Crows) started preaching about how labels weren’t needed, and artists could be successful on their own. One thing they failed to emphasize is that the old model built up their brand recognition, so they could part from their label and already have a fanbase. For small bands, this doesn’t work the same. Bands have to find a way to break out of the noise at ground zero from the millions of other artists fighting for your attention (with the rise of the Internet and social media it’s really easy to spam the world with your music).
All the above is really interesting (and massive topics within themselves), but is more of a background for why Odin’s Court is where we are. So let’s assume a band (such as Odin’s Court) has a small following, and that the band has some new material we want to release. Without financial backing from a label, how would we pay for this? Before we can answer that, we have to look at what the typical costs actually are. So I’m going to break these down, from my experience, research, and point of view. There are many, many variables that go into this, so someone else may look at this and think I’m off my rocker.
I’m going to go through a real example (the making of our album TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN) with mostly real data, but know that some things are included for completeness that Odin’s Court may not have actually paid (e.g., I have my own studio – I’m not including the cost of setting up that capital, but I AM including an estimated cost of what we would pay a studio to record and mix the album – which I actually do on my own). I also try to barter and trade with friends’ services for merchandise…in other words, I try to keep my costs as low as possible. With all that in mind, most of these costs were actually incurred.
So let’s start at the top. The total cost to create an album like TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN and associated merchandise is just shy of $30,000! Take a minute to catch your breath (I know I need to when I read that!). Here is a pie chart to show the top level breakdown of the expenses:
You’ll notice that most of the cost is in the “Creation” piece, so let’s talk about that first. In my experience, I’d consider the basic categories to get ideas from within my mind to a listening medium as the following: recording, mixing, mastering, art/layout, and production costs.
Recording ($8000): this involves what you’d suspect. You drive to a studio and setup your equipment. The engineer works with the producer to select the right mics, placement, preamps, etc. to capture the desired sound. And although a song may only be 5 minutes long, it takes far longer to record it (even when the band is well rehearsed). If the core of the song (drums, bass, and rhythm guitar) is captured in one pass, it may often take several passes to capture the right performance (with some punch-ins to correct minor flaws). You have to listen back to the recordings as well to determine how “good” they are (which takes time). Overdubs and all vocals will likely be done in separate sessions, so ultimately you have many passes over a song to get all the parts in place. Note that I assumed $100/hour, but this varies greatly based on the studio’s space and gear, as well as the experience and demand of the engineers working there. To the other extreme, when I record most bands in my studio, I do it more to help pass on my experience, and I only charge $35-40/hour.
Mixing ($6000): this involves taking all the various tracks on a song and combining them in a way that presents the song the way it is envisioned (or close to it). The number of tracks per song may vary widely, but in Odin’s Court, we usually have close to 100 per song. Why so many? Here is a short list of the typical tracks: kick 1 and 2; snare; tom 1, 2, 3, and 4; overheads left and right; hi-hat; ride; percussion; bass; rhythm guitars 1, 2, 3, and 4; lead guitars 1 and 2; harmony guitars 1 and 2; piano; other keys (anything from organ and synth to an entire orchestra by individual instruments); lead vocals 1 and 2; backing vocals 1-15; and choir vocals 1-50). So all of these tracks have to have their levels, panning, sends, and inserts set. How effects are used (e.g., delay, reverb, chorus, etc.) must be determined. In other words, this is equal parts art (taste) and science (frequency sharing). Similar to recording, I assumed $100/hour studio time. An interesting side note, I was contacted (they initiated things with me, not me with them) by a big name in the industry a few years ago (they produced, mixed, etc. artists such as Ratt, Europe, Alice Cooper, Warrant, etc.) who wanted to record and/or mix an album with us. When I inquired as to the cost, the cheapest option was $3,000 PER SONG just to mix. Yikes!
Mastering ($750): this is something that many people don’t understand. This is taking the mixed track and polishing it off through things like compression, overall EQ, level, etc. The purpose here is a professional sounding track, typically that sounds competitive within the target genre. One way to explain this with an example may be with a car – if you build a car that functions 100% as it should, but only used primer and basic upholstery, it may function 100% (the mixing) but not be as ascetically pleasing as it otherwise could. So that proper paint job, wax, etc. polishes the overall appearance off (which would be mastering). Mastering is something I have done myself in the past, but I fully admit I am not a master of mastering. I rely on professionals to do masters of Odin’s Court’s proper releases (vs. demos or special albums I have done myself). How a mastering engineer charges varies greatly, but the costs I included are based on experience through our last 3 albums. This can easily be 10 times what we pay if using a big name or studio.
Art/Layout ($1250): this is self-explanatory, but it includes paying an artist to paint or digitally create an original album cover (front and back). It also includes the cost of a basic booklet layout for the physical (CD) release. Some bands choose to have original art throughout their booklet, plus additional art for promotional purposes. This is well beyond our means, so we typically opt for an original cover and basic layout of the booklet. For someone doing a full original set of art, you could easily increase this cost 10 fold.
Production ($1000): this is the cost to manufacture the CDs (jewel cases with 12 page booklet). This assumes the minimum amount needed to do injection molded (replicated and not burned CDs) which is 300 units. Sales of physical CDs are not what they used to be (between digital purchases and torrents/stealing of music). This also includes costs to use a service such as TuneCore for 2 years to get the digital album in most of the online stores (e.g., iTunes, Amazon, etc. – there are dozens available around the world). For bands that have large demands for physical units (CDs or even vinyl, which is a fad these days) the cost could go up quite a bit. Also, going with larger booklets or fancier formats will raise the cost a bit.
Shirts ($1700): having shirts made involves taking art (whether existing or new) and having it prepared (many may know this, but the type of image format for web, paper printing, t-shirts, etc. varies). Generally, to do full color silk-screened shirts will involve color separation and creation of the screens. Then there is the cost of the shirts, plus the cost of the service doing all the work to get that art on the shirt. Usually, a minimum order of 100 shirts is required for full color, professional looking shirts. So this costs assumes ordering more than 100 full color (art on front only) shirts.
Video ($3000): making a music video has always been something that costs money but isn’t a product that is sold (it is given away – think back to MTV, and in modern times YouTube). However, this is something that helps spread the word about the product and may get people excited about the music. The cost to hire a professional crew to film and set lighting varies greatly, but using high def cameras with people who know how to actually work them would bottom out around $1000-2000. Then there is post production, which involves reviewing the material, selecting the right shots, cutting the shots in a creative way that serves the song, performing color correction and using other effects, etc. This could also be around $1000-2000 for a knowledgeable person who is affordable. The cost of making videos can easily be $20-100K without batting an eye if you are a “big time” band.
Advertising ($3600): So this is something that has many aspects to it, and it could be sliced and approached hundreds of ways. In our case, we hired a PR agency to push reviews, interviews, and handle press relations. While a band *could* do this on their own, contacts go stale quickly – plus many reputable magazines, zines, etc. won’t give a “no name band” the time of day, whereas agencies represent many bands and build relationships with the press. Plus, it takes a lot of time to follow up and monitor hundreds of submissions to the press. A PR agency takes care of this for you. Then there are professional, promotional photos of the band needed for most everything (for which you need to hire a photographer). And there is the cost of doing ads on social media, websites, newspapers, etc. The desired outcome of all of this is more sales, but in reality advertising is more about building brand awareness and getting the word out.
Miscellaneous ($3900): this is my catch all. The major expense here is postage! Many people forget this expense when planning their budgets. When you are sending hundreds of press kits, promo packs, album sales, etc. out, this can add up quickly! I even do it myself through PayPal or the USPS website which saves some (over going to a physical post office to purchase postage). Another area people often forget is the cost of packing materials (e.g., envelopes, boxes, tape, etc.) and other material needed to run the band (e.g., paper, print cartridges, business cards, etc.). Finally, we often try to play a few shows to support an album release. While we would love to do a “proper” tour, we aren’t well known enough and have day jobs to pay our bills, so we usually do a “mini-tour” for an album (which consists of 5-6 shows in a week or spread over a month). There are expenses with this (rentals, hotels, gas…this doesn’t include food) as well.
Okay, so that breaks down all the expenses. What about sales and gig pay? While I won’t disclose all our statistics for sales/gigs, I can say that we are still several thousand in debt from the last album! 🙁 Surprisingly, many of our sales are still CDs, but we do okay with digital too. However, there are thousands of cases of theft (torrents) of our album. Plus, streaming services (e.g., Spotify) pay out fractions of a penny on numerous plays. So obviously our return on investment isn’t why we do this (we love making music and sharing it with the public). Circling back around to the beginning…
This is where crowd sourcing helps. People who believe in art may help offset some of these enormous costs. While the pledge levels vary (in our case, the lower tier pledges are what you would expect to buy these products normally), it’s some of the mid to upper level selections that really help, as they are more “creative” and allow people to be a part of what we do by making a substantial impact. (Note that Kickstarter takes a 5% cut, and there are usually 3% in banking fees). Regardless of what people pledge, bands like Odin’s Court couldn’t continue without crowd sourcing. I realize many people feel crowd sourcing is “cheap” or some form of “scheme,” but in reality it helps bands continue to function (even if still at a loss like Odin’s Court!). So here is our most recent one (please check it out). 🙂
Even though this was long, all of the above could be expanded upon many times over. So I *tried* to keep it short. I doubt most people made it to the end of this, so if you did, thanks!
– Matt Brookins