Creating a budget for a new album means figuring out not only how much money you’ll need, but also how much time it will take from your first rehearsal to release day. After releasing a number of my own albums and answering questions from many of my friends doing the same, I’ve been caught off guard enough times to know where the hidden expenses are, how to save money, and where my money is best spent.
Naturally, the DIY environment is changing increasingly fast as technology makes releasing your own album easier than ever before. When I recorded my first CD in 2004, just making it available to sell online seemed like a big deal. Years later, my latest album has been an entirely different experience. From recording (we went analog this time), to setting up a direct to fan CD pre-order, I’ve been able to produce a far better product today for only a little more money than I spent on my first album.
Better technology does have it’s pitfalls, however. Just because it’s possible to record an album on Monday and have it available on iTunes on Tuesday doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for your music. Taking some time to establish your goals, determine what you can realistically afford and how you will afford it, can help you create the best album possible.
In this article, I’ve tried to give you an idea of a realistic cost scenario for every stage of creating a new album, along with some tips from my own experiences, to help you create your budget. It turns out this is a lot of information. Use these quick links to skip around:
Do It Yourself or Hire Some Help?
Before you start, you need to know what you’re trying to accomplish. Do you want to make a stripped down acoustic album? Or maybe were you hearing a gospel choir singing back up when you wrote that one song. One you might be able to do on your own, the other is going to involve at least a gospel choir for help.
It is so easy to make your own album these days that you might feel like you can do it on your own. Let’s face it, your budget will be much smaller if you do it all yourself. This a valid approach if you can truly assess your capabilities. Learning to work within your limitations forces you to flex your creative muscles and face your own strengths and weaknesses. But just as you specialize in writing and playing music, there are people out there that specialize in the rest, and getting the right people on board can help your vision become a reality.
Furthermore, while making music is the most important part of releasing an album, it is really only the first step. Depending on how far and wide you want your music to travel, you’ll need to create some aesthetically pleasing artwork, manufacture CDs and other products, and market and distribute all these materials in an effective manner. Few people know how to do all of this stuff equally well, and almost none can do it alone or for free.
Favors from Friends vs. Paid Professionals
Part of creating a realistic budget is looking for places to cut costs. One way is to ask your friends for help. This is especially attractive when your friends are professionals. Why pay when you can get the same quality for free? But anybody that’s ever gotten married and used a friend or family member to handle the photography, catering, or other service knows where I’m going with this–sometimes it just pays to pay.
In my experience, favors are a very slippery slope. You can easily put a strain on your friendship if you don’t like the results or the job is taking too long. If the issues can’t be resolved, you may end up needing to hire somebody else anyway. You know the saying, There’s no such thing as a free lunch? That absolutely applies to this situation. Nothing is free. What you save in money will cost you in time and control.
Consider this: Whenever I use a friend on a job, and especially when they’re working for free, I allow them as much time as they need (within reason), and give them creative control over their piece of the job. Most creative types work to please their clients, and it’s not often they get a job that allows complete creative freedom. If your friends are really excited about working on your project, they are more likely to invest themselves in it. In other words, you want them to feel like the opportunity itself was worth their efforts.
As much as I (and probably most of you) want to believe people love to work on good art for art’s sake, the truth is, money motiviates. If you want to get something done on a schedule, paying for it usually does the trick. If your friends are trying to help you out while juggling paying clients your project becomes a lower priority. One of the advantages to hiring a pro is being treated in return as a pro. As their client, you are their priority.
Here’s a piece of advice when you do hire somebody. Always send it back at least once. Even if you’re blown away by their work, send it back with at least one piece of constructive feedback (but don’t be one of these guys). No matter what you discussed up front, it’s impossible for them to know what you’ll think of something. Don’t be shy about asking for changes, but don’t be a jerk about it. There’s always something that could be a little better, and a true professional wants you to be happy and get your money’s worth.
From the first rehearsal until you have the production master in your hand, most of your albums expenses will fall under this category, and it should. The music in and of itself is the product your selling.
1) The Other Musicians
If you are a solo artist, or even a solid four piece band, making a record often involves bringing in extra musicians to fill out your arrangements. The cost of hiring other musicians can vary greatly depending on their skill, how much they contribute, or simply how much their time is worth. Name recognition is also a big factor–hiring a more established artist might help you sell more albums, and is therefore worth more. Here are a few examples of how sidemen might be paid:
Example Rates for Session Musicians:
- By the session. ($50 per rehearsal, $200 per day of recording) This could change based on the number of sessions, the length of each session, and how many songs you expect them to learn.
- By the song. ($50 – $100) Highly skilled session musicians can knock out a song in just a few takes. Because they are more productive than your average player, they might want to be paid per song.
- By the album. ($200 – $500) If you’re a solo artist, using the same musicians for your entire will not only make your album sound more consistent, but can also save you money.
- Supply and demand. Many first-call musicians are in such high demand that to book their time, you have to pay them accordingly. Remember, musicians don’t get paid vacation. If they have to sub out of other gigs or cancel lessons to make your recording sessions, they’ll probably ask to be paid at least as much money as they would have otherwise made that day.
Generally, when it comes to making an independent musician’s album, sidemen or session musicians are paid based the rehearsal and recording time. Royalties for subsequent sales or use of the music (such as being licensed for a commercial) only become an issue if the sideman had a creative contribution to your song.
For example, if you hire me to record lead guitar for one of your songs, a lick, melody, or solo that I wrote or improvised could become a central component of that song. Or say you hire a horn section and need them to come up with their own background parts. In both cases it’s fair to say the sidemen made a creative contribution. This is not necessarily a co-write, but arranging music can sometimes be equally as valuable to the end result. If you believe this could be an issue, discuss royalty rates ahead of time and make an agreement in writing. That will avoid future disputes should you be lucky enough to make a significant amount of money from that song.
2) Rehearsals and Rehearsal Spaces
One of the best ways to save money on your album’s budget is to be prepared before hitting the studio. Rehearsals are cheap compared to recording time, and typically a more relaxed environment for working out the things that matter most on a recording, like dynamics and arrangements. Depending on where you live, rehearsal space could cost about $25 an hour (typical for New York City), or it could be in your basement for free. If you need to pay musicians to rehearse, see the section above.
3) Producer / Recording Engineer
While a producer and recording engineers are two separate roles, it’s not uncommon for producers to be engineers. A producer traditionally oversees the creative direction of a project, while an engineer’s role is to control the entire recording environment. Finding a producer that can also act as the engineer might help you save some money.
If you choose not to use a producer, produce the album yourself, or just look for another person to engineer your album, I’ve found that most freelance engineers work regularly at one or more recording studios. In these cases, their fee is usually bundled into the cost of renting the room. More on this in the next section.
Understanding what you need here is incredibly important, and I recommend reading two other articles that cover this topic:
- “Preparing for the Recording Studio” has a more in depth discussion about the roles of producers and engineers, and can help you understand what to look for depending on your projects needs. As the title suggests, I also give a few more tips to help you get the most out of your studio time.
- “DIY Musician & Working with a Producer” by Gary Melvin has a very well written section on producers fees. If you’re unfamiliar with terms like up-front money, back-end money, credits, and points, then this article will really help prepare you to discuss contracts with a producer.
Both producers and engineers may charge you one of three rates, as discussed in Gary’s article. The monetary amounts I have listed here are based on discussions I’ve had with producers, engineers, and other musicians that work with independent, self-funded artists.
Example Rates for Producers and Recording Engineers:
- By the hour ($25 – $60)
- By the song ($100 – $500)
- By the album ($500 – $3,000)
In my experience these are rates are accurate, but they can vary greatly depending on your project, how prepared you are, and how you want to record. Jazz albums can be recorded in two days if the band is well rehearsed, everybody plays together, and you just hit take after take after take. Other types of albums can require at least two days per song if you need to record many parts individually. Ultimately, you just need to interview producers and engineers, allow them to quote your project, and decide if their rates will work for your budget.
In addition to the up-front fees, a producer may also be interested in royalties for his or her creative contributions (similar to the sideman contributions discussed above). This is called back-end money and is discussed in depth in Gary’s article. If there is potential for the producer to make some back-end money, it is reasonable to expect them to lower their up-front rates.
4) Recording Space and Studio Time
My approach to recording in a studio has always been to find the producer or engineer first, and then discuss the recording location. Many producers have their own studios that could work for much of your project. Other times it might be important to find a studio with good acoustics for group vocals or drums. Chances are your producer or engineer will know where to go to get your desired results.
The space in which you record could be one of the most important factors when making your album. Recording studios like Abbey Road in London or Gold Star in Los Angeles are renowned for the acoustic spaces that produce rich, signature sounds. Now, if we could all afford to record in studios like these, there would be no point to this article. My point is simply that the space can make a difference.
For example, I have recorded acoustic guitars in two different apartments on many occasions using the same equipment and virtually the same mic placement and levels on the pre-amp. My apartment has an average ceiling height and bookshelves all over the place, and the sound is very dry and unforgiving. You can hear every fret noise, string buzz, and sometimes even my breathing. In comparison, my friends’ apartment is a loft with high ceilings, concrete walls, and an area with a raised wood floor much like a stage. In their apartment, the sound is open, spacious, and extraneous noises are much less noticeable.
Most recording studios will also have much more, and perhaps better, equipment than your average home studio. I believe you should leave the equipment choices to the engineer, but you’re allowed to have a preference. For example, I wanted to record my last album to tape, so I first had to find an engineer that could operate the tape machine, and then find a studio with the right equipment.
I’ve priced out plenty of studios for my own projects, but did a little extra research to get some averages here. In most cases, a recording engineer is included in the price. Again, you’ll notice rates based on different blocks of time:
Example Rates for Recording Studios:
- By the hour ($25 – $100) Hourly rates are best for vocals, overdubs, or whenever tracking does not involve much set up.
- By the day ($400 – $1,000) Many studios only book by the day because it is unrealistic to schedule two clients in the same room on the same day.
- By the album ($500 – $3,000) On some occasions, private studio owners will quote you for your entire project. It usually means they’re willing to block out a week or more to give you exclusive access to the studio.
Other studio expenses might include:
- Piano Tuning ($100)
- Tape Rental ($25 per reel)
One of the most time consuming aspects of recording in a studio is simply getting everything set up, putting microphones in the right places, and getting the levels right. Drums alone can take a couple hours! Therefore the best way to save money is to book consecutive days so you can leave your gear set up over night and get straight to recording on day two.
5) Mixing & Mastering
Despite the fact you’ve finished recording your album, it is still far from finished. This is where many musicians make the mistake of rushing through mixing and mastering because they already booked their CD Release show. Before we discuss the cost of these steps, I can’t stress enough:
Budget plenty of time to mix and master your album.
A properly mixed album can be the difference between a professional sounding project and a beginner’s first home recording. Mixing is a skill that takes practice, experience, and patience. You’ll learn a lot just by listening to somebody else mix your album.
In an ideal world, I prefer at least 4 weeks to mix an album. The actual time spent mixing might just be two or three days, but it’s a good idea to give yourself time to NOT listen to your album. When tracking is done, give yourself a week to not listen to the album so you go into mixing with a fresh set of ears. After the first round of mixing, listen, take notes, sleep on it for a couple nights, take more notes, and then go back for another mix session. In my experience, more time between mix sessions means you’ll need fewer sessions to get things right, which will save you money.
The cost of mixing usually involves hiring both an engineer and a mixing studio. But like sections above, these rates are often combined. Rates for a mixing engineer are similar to booking studio time.
Examples Rates for Mixing:
- By the song ($100 – $500)
- By the hour ($25 – $60)
- By the day ($250 – $700)
A professionally mixed 10 track album could very easily cost $1,000 – $1,500 or more!
Mastering is the last step in completing the music on your album. During the mastering process, adjustments to the EQ, compression, and levels of the final mixes will make your music sound bigger, more exciting, and equally balanced from track to track.
Greg Calbi, one of the senior mastering engineers at Sterling Sound in NYC, explains the mastering process in a series of videos on YouTube. If you’re unfamiliar with the process I recommend you start by watching this video. To summarize, he explains that the job of the mastering engineer is to “[take] something which is essentially already finished, and actually [finish] it even more.” In a nutshell, it’s an enhancement process.
The cost of mastering can vary greatly based on the equipment at the mastering house and the experience of the engineer.
Examples Rates for Mastering:
- By the song ($50 – $100)
- By the hour ($75 – $250)
- By the album ($500 – $1,500)
A professionally mastered 10 track album could likely cost $1,000 or more.
Be wary of mastering “deals” bundled with CD manufacturing or distribution services which might seem very inexpensive, but you’ll get what you pay for. I’m not saying you can’t get good results, but the only time I’ve ever heard anybody tell me they were unhappy with their mastering experience was when they used a bundled deal. It’s always better to know the work of the person who will master your album and discuss the job with them beforehand.
A better way to save money is to look at the people who mastered some of your favorite albums, find out where they work, and see if you can book a “junior” engineer at the same studio. Most mastering houses have staff engineers with less experience than the senior engineers whose names you might see on many albums, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the result is of lower quality. They use the same equipment and many of the same techniques as the expensive guys, but just don’t have the clout to charge as much.
Another tip for saving money during both the mixing and mastering stages is to deliver great sounding tracks to the engineers. This usually starts with taking adequate time for getting sounds at the beginning of your recording session. If the unmixed tracks sound as good as possible, the mixing engineer can focus on bringing out the best in your mix and not waste his or her time (and your money) correcting poorly recorded material. Likewise, if the final mixes are consistently balanced within a dynamic range, the mastering engineer’s enhancements will be more effective.
Artwork & Packaging
Now that you’ve spent so much money recording your music, it’s time to blow through the rest of the process so you can release your album! Whoa, not so fast. Reward your efforts so far with an equally stunning visual presentation. This doesn’t have to be much, but an eye catching cover image and a few updated professional photographs of you will tempt more people to sample your music and hopefully like what they hear.
Far too many musicians try to save money here by doing everything themselves. If you can do it, then by all means go for it. But just because you have a pirated copy of Photoshop doesn’t mean you’re a designer. Plan your time and budget accordingly, do some research to find the right people to work with, and you can have a very professional looking album for less money than you might think.
For more thoughts on album design, see Before Designing Your Next Album…
Not every album design needs photographs, but every professionally released album includes a photoshoot. By updating photos on your website, press materials, and social networking sites, you’re sending the message that something is going on, like a new release. Because a few photos can go a long way, investing in a professional photoshoot should be a no-brainer.
Rates for a professional photographer range from $200 to $1500.
Prices will vary based on how many shots are needed, how long the shoot takes, and how much post-production (ie. retouching) is done.
To get the most of your photoshoot, discuss your needs with your photographer and plan accordingly. Album covers are square, website headers are wide, headshots are usually 8″ x 10″, and the list goes on. Set up your shots to fit these various crops to save yourself a headache in post-production.
In my experience, a good designer is as vital to your new album as a good mastering engineer. People tend to notice when something looks wrong more than they notice when something looks right. If you want your album to look like it belongs next to your favorite artists’ albums, you need a great looking cover design.
In addition to the aesthetic considerations, there’s the technical aspect of design and print production most musicians don’t fully understand. If you don’t have the skills to create a print ready design in your manufacturer’s templates, then you’ll probably end up paying one of their in house designers to bring your files up to spec. At the very least, I’d recommend hiring a designer to help get your design into the proper templates and ready to print.
Examples Rates for Album Design:
- By the hour ($25 – $75) Hourly rates are ideal for smaller packages, or placing a design into templates.
- By the album package ($200 – $1,000) Prices will vary depending on how many panels you are in your package, including any inserts or booklets.
- By the project ($500 – $1,500) Along with your album, you may need promo materials and merch designed as well.
Get the most out of your designer and consider all the items you need using their design. The continuity between your album, promo materials, and merch designs will help you sell more in the long run.
3) Should I make CDs?
Many musicians are saving money by simply not making any physical product at all. It’s understandable, given that digital distribution is affordable and digital sales can easily outpace CD sales for independent artists. Yet fans still buy CDs at shows, and CDs are still the preferred format for radio and promotions. Perhaps most importantly, a great looking CD still helps legitimize you and your album in the eyes of potential fans.
The cost breakdown of CDs can vary greatly depending on your package options. Jewel cases with a two side insert will always cost less than a 6-panel digipak with a 16 page booklet. Luckily, it’s very easy to get exact quotes for yourself online. The prices below assume you are choosing from the most standard packaging options.
Example Costs for CD Packaging
- Large Runs, minimum 1000 Units ($800 – $2,000) For higher quantities, CDs are created using a process called replication, which essentially means the actual CDs are created specifically for your music. Because of the manufacturing parts required for replication, this method is only cost effective at high quantities.
- Short Runs, 100-500 Units ($200 – $1,000) Options for smaller quantities are typically more limited. For starters, the discs themselves are duplicated onto CDRs, which is essentially the same process as burning a CD at home (with a really nice CD burner).
- On Demand Manufacturing ($1 – $8 per CD) Some companies offer this option for very small quantities. Depending on how simple your packaging is and how much shipping costs, this is a nice option if you only need a few copies for promotions or to quickly replenish your inventory while on tour.
One other option is to get creative and make CDs yourself. I’ve seen this done very successfully first hand. Lauren Zettler designed a handmade package for her On Your Back Porch EP we recorded last year. Check out this video to see The Making of On Your Back Porch. Making her own CDs adds a personal touch to the album, and it makes it easier to maintain inventory in our small NYC apartments that really don’t have much room to store boxes of CDs. But the cost per CD actually isn’t that much lower, and the time investment is also a big factor. Luckily my wife really enjoys making EPs!
Marketing & Promotions
Finishing your album’s music and artwork is really just the preliminary stage of a new release. Now the real fun begins. If you want to make some of your money back, you’ll need to tell people about your new music! Save a little room in your budget for some marketing and promotional materials and services to give you that extra edge.
1) Promo CDs
Even if you opt for a digital only release, there are some instances where you still need a CD to hand somebody. Record labels make promo CDs, usually well before the artwork is even done, so radio, retail accounts, reviewers, and other press contacts can hear the music prior to the release date.
Promo CDs (sometimes called advances) typically just have black printing on the silver disc, and a single black and white insert or disc tray that includes the track list, credits, and release information. If the cover art is ready, another nice option is to print cardboard wallets, or minijackets. Full color artwork adds a little extra to the price, but they can double as CDs to sell at gigs. Keep in mind, however, that the current industry standard is to use a jewel case with a spine so the CD can be easily shelved.
Example Costs for Promo CDs
- Jewel Cases / CDs Only ($1 – $3 per CD) To save money, order bulk CDs and jewel cases separately, then print your own inlays.
- Minijackets / Wallets ($2 – $4 per CD) This option is usually only available for quantities of 100 units or more.
The brilliant thing about good merch, like t-shirts, is that fans happily give you money to proudly advertise your band on their chest. Even though merch can be a profit center for bands and musicians, I’m still going to categorize it as marketing materials because, well, we’re musicians, not clothing designers. If it’s not the music, it’s only purpose is to support the music!
Example Costs for Band Merchandise
- T-Shirts ($5 – $12 each)
- Hoodies ($15 – $25 each)
- Hats / Caps / Skullies ($5 – $15 each)
- Bags / Totes ($1 – $5 each)
The options for merch are virtually endless. Anything you can slap your logo on could work, you just have to know your audience. If your fans are older, professional types, maybe coffee mugs or flash drives are better than t-shirts. How about some custom reusable grocery bags? Do something different and turn some heads. I ordered custom label hot sauce for my latest album, and a lot of people ordered it along with the CD!
If you’re crafty, you can save money by making your own merch. I know somebody that knits hats while on the road and sews custom patches with her band’s logo on the front. The personal touch and one-of-a-kind nature of every hat goes over really well with their fans.
3) Posters, Postcards, Stickers, etc.
If you’re going on the road, posters are invaluable. Most clubs will expect you to send some ahead of time. Postcards, stickers, buttons, magnets and other simple items make great freebies on the merch table as well.
Example Costs for Print Items
- Posters ($0.30 – $2 each)
- Postcards ($0.15 – $1 each)
- Stickers ($0.10 – $1 each)
- Buttons ($0.25 – $5 each)
- Magnets ($0.25 – $3.50 each)
Pricing for these kinds of items will vary based on how many colors you use, and of course, how many you order. Keep in mind that many of these items are printed on large sheets and cut down to size, like postcards or sheets of stickers. Expect to see minimum order quantities for these items. For smaller quantities, check out your local copy shop and see if you can save some money.
4) Advertising and PR
If your music is ready for it, advertising and PR / Marketing services can really help take you to the next level. However, I’ve run into a few companies that simply try to get as many clients as possible, run a standard campaign, and don’t produce many results. If you’re going to invest in these kinds of services, make sure you have something going on, like a tour, that could really benefit from a solid marketing campaign.
Example Rates for Advertising
- Print Ads ($200 – $1000) Print ads depend greatly on the publication, size of ad, and placement.
- Online Ads ($20 – $500) Online advertising is generally bundled in two ways: by impressions or by start/end dates. Paying per impression (the number of times your ad appears on the site) is most cost effective.
Example Rates for PR / Marketing Services per Campaign
- College Radio Promoters ($1,000 – $3,500) Radio promoters will send your music to stations and follow up with calls trying to get targeted stations to play your music. They may also set up radio interviews for you.
- Press and Publicity ($1,000 – $5,000) These campaigns will send your music and press materials to specific press contacts. Prices will vary depending on how many contacts you would like to reach.
- Marketing Services ($500 – $2,500) Marketing teams can help coordinate all your promotions efforts and maximize exposure across different markets. They can be especially helpful if you are trying to run a broader campaign that covers tour and retail promotions, publicity, and advertising.
When you hire these kinds of services, you need to look for experience. This part of the business is built on relationships and reputations. Hiring people that are well known and have good reputations among the press and radio stations they’ll be contacting. Otherwise you might as well be doing it yourself.
Finally, there are a few other items that might cost you a little more money. I’m sure I’m missing a few things, feel free to add them to the comments below.
1) Your Website
Releasing a new album is always a great time to update your website, or get your own website if you don’t have one yet. Designing a simple website on your own, using pre-existing templates is easy enough, or you can hire a web designer to make a slick, professional looking custom site.
For more thoughts on musician websites, see Website Design for Musicians and Bands and Designing a Website for a Freelance Musician.
Example Website Related Costs
- Custom Domain Name ($10 per year) At the very least, you should own [your-band-name-here].com!
- Hosting ($10 – $200 per year) Pricing really depends on all the fixings you get with your hosting package. There are some excellent musician-oriented hosting services out there that include everything you need to create a slick musician site.
- Web Design Services ($200 – $1,000) Prices will vary based on the complexity and customization of your website.
If you plan on selling your music anywhere other than your shows and website, you’ll need distribution. Distributors are responsible for getting your music to retailers, collecting the money from those retailers, and then paying you. In the current state of the industry, independent musicians are probably only concerned with digital distribution. The prospects of getting your album in brick and mortar stores is slimming by the day, although it is possible.
For the sake of this article, I’m simply going to focus on the two most popular digital distribution models by CD Baby and Tunecore. Both services are great, some people just prefer one pricing model over the other.
Example of CD Baby Digital Distribution Costs
- $35 Set up fee (one time cost per album)
- $20 Barcode (required if you don’t have one already)
- 9% Commission for CD Baby (on all digital sales, no annual fee)
Example of Tunecore Digital Distribution Costs
- $46.99 Album set up (includes all available stores up to 100 tracks)
- $19.98 Annual fee (due one year after initial distribution, no commission charges)
These rates are subject to change, but current at the publication of this article.
3) Cover Songs
If you have any cover songs on your album, you’ll need to license them for both physical and digital copies you will sell. I recommend using Limelight’s online licensing service to pay royalties for any cover songs. With Limelight, you’ll pay a $15 service fee per song, plus the statutory rate for your mechanical license. To learn more about cover songs, see our article “Recording, Releasing, and Performing Cover Songs.”
Example Rates for Mechanical Licensing with Limelight
- 1,000 copies x $0.091 (statutory rate) + $15 (fee) = $106 per cover song
The royalty rate increases for songs over 5 minutes long. You can pay for as few as 25 licenses with Limelight. Also, don’t forget that you will need to license songs for both digital and physical releases, each requiring a separate transaction.
Here’s a list of related articles on MusicianWages.com: