How to Budget and Record an Album in 2017: Three Approaches to Breaking Down the Cost

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Read on for hree approaches to breaking down the time and cost of making an album in 2017.

Two of the most common questions we get from musicians here at SonicScoop are:

“How much should I budget to record a full length album?” And, “If I want to record my next album myself, how much do I really need to spend on gear?”

On a similar theme, one of the more common questions I get from new studio owners is:  “How much do you think should I be charging, anyway?”

Conveniently enough, today’s story should address all three of these questions—plus an even more important question that you might not be asking yourself. Namely: “Should I even be recording an album at all?”

Today, we’ll go over three models for recording an album, compare their strengths and weaknesses, and estimate the costs of each. We’ll be drawing on some past research we’ve done here, as well as some fresh new survey data we’ve collected as of 2017.

But first, let’s visit that most important of questions that you can ask yourself in this arena:

It’s “the current year”. Should I be making an album at all?

Let’s face it: We’re back in a “singles” culture once again. I’ve been writing about this on SonicScoop for years.

This tends to happen every time a new consumer audio technology emerges, and every time a large new generation starts consuming music en masse.

Perhaps some day, as millennials continue to age, albums will become ascendant again. But until then, the great bulk of the “echo boom” generation is under the age of 30, and their purchasing and listening habits seem to be driven more by the fresh new single than the full-length magnum opus.

That’s not to say that no one sells albums. Of course they do! It’s just that if you’re planning on selling an album, you should have a fanbase first.

Beyonce has no major problem selling albums. Neither does Radiohead or Taylor Swift. (Though the quantities may be lower than in decades past.)

But you? Are your fans asking for an album? If not, why are your giving them one?

Wait… you don’t have any fans yet? Let’s work on that first.

A Better Way to Build Fans (…And end up recording an album along the way)

Fine, fine. I’ll eventually give you what you want:

I’ll tell your how much you should budget to go in and record your magnum opus of 10-15 songs, and I’ll break it down in a variety of settings, from the humble home studio to the enormous, palatial “world-class” recording facility and everywhere in between.

But before we get there, I’m going to tell you what you actually need to know: Don’t start by recording an album. Start by recording songs.

Think about it for a minute. If you can’t sell me on one song, how the hell do you expect to be able to sell me on 12?

Start there. That’s how so many of the greats did it in generations past, from The Beatles to Phil Spector to Motown to Frank Sinatra to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

Can you get me truly, deeply excited about one song? If so, great! Make another.

If not? Too bad this time, make another. And another. Maybe you’ll finally find your voice, realize your unique message, and start truly connecting with people on song #3 or #5. Then, do more of that. (While always remembering to try new things.)

What? Did you expect to be an absolute genius at this on your first try? If so, you have too many participation trophies sitting on your mantlepiece. Swipe them off the shelf, throw them in the trash and get started working on another song.

Write and record one really great song. Get people interested in it. Succeed or fail, make another one. Get it out there. Let the cold hard world judge it. Take their feedback with that quintessential artistic blend of of curiosity and disinterest. Then, make another song.

There is only one exception to this general rule: If you’re playing in a genre that relies heavily on the impact of a whole bevvy of original arrangements that you’ve already been testing in front of reasonably large, live, in-person audiences for years (jam bands, jazz ensembles, experimental acts, some heavy music subgenres come to mind) you can ignore this advice.

Otherwise, starting off with one song at a time is probably the approach for you. Build your “album” brick by brick, song by song.

How much should this cost to do? Fortunately, not much more than recording them all at once. Plus, there’s the added bonus that you don’t have to save up quite as much money (or go into as much debt) to get started—all while giving yourself the opportunity to build a fanbase along the way.

Once you’ve got that fanbase, then we can start talking about making your next album from scratch, all at once.

1) How Much Will This “One-Song-At-A-Time” Approach Cost?

To pursue this strategy, I’d recommend booking 1 or 2 days at a reasonably well-equipped studio with a reasonably experienced (and personable) producer or engineer.

Choose wisely, because one of the major reasons some artists are scared away from “proper” recording studios for life is due to a formative experience with a jerky recording engineer that they didn’t connect with, but chose to work with anyway, just because they were cheapest.

Bad engineers have created more good engineers (mostly by scaring musicians into recording and producing themselves) than you might imagine. So choose wisely. Ask for referrals from artists you respect and can relate to. Listen to their past work. Meet them in person. Shop around with more than one option.

Based on my 2013 analysis of recording studio rates I found that—of the recording studios in New York that listed their day rates publicly—all of them fell between $400 and $825/day with engineer, with the most common rates being $400, $600 and $650.

Studios that did not publicly list their rates tended to have higher rates, often as high as the $1000-$1500/day range, with a precious few of them going as high as $2000 or $3000/day.

Today, based on our most recent surveys, fewer commercial studios seem to be found in the New York City area that advertise rates in the $400-$500 range. Prices appear to have risen slightly at both ends of the spectrum, with a bulk of mid-level commercial studios in the still-very-attractive $600-$700/day range—and with much nicer accoutrements than similarly priced NYC studios would have had in the past.

In markets outside of New York City—including respondents from much smaller urban centers such Portland, Kansas City and Dallas—prices could often be found in the $400-$500 range for similar spaces. (And some options can be found a bit lower still.)

Obviously, there are still an elite few who can command much higher rates. To work with some very notable engineers in a major city, you might expect to start looking in the $1000-$2000/day range.

With this in mind, I would generally recommend connecting with a solid engineer you respect in the $500-$850/day range to start. If you come in very well-prepared, and with all your own musicians sourced, you should be able to record—and even mix—one amazingly-well-realized song in just one day.

This is sometimes referred to as the “George Martin Approach” or, as I like to call it, the “Song A Day” approach.

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  • Jeff

    I appreciate what the author is trying to communicate about albums vs. singles, as the times have certainly changed, and it would be foolish not to acknowledge that on some level. However, I’m not sure I agree with his snarky disdain for the effect of an album, even for the unestablished artist/band.

    In my own humble opinion, I can lose interest in a band very quickly if I really connect with a single of theirs and then I look for more, only to find a mere handful of other singles, whether those singles are as masterful as the first one that hooked me, or especially if they seem random or disjointed in any way. This, to me, is a sign of an artist who is undeveloped and not serious about their craft and their ambitions. An EP says the same to me in bold letters– AMATEUR. And then I quickly flip the page. Or turn the channel. Or swipe left, since that seems to be the appropriate metaphor for the audience he’s trying to reach here.

  • Justin C.

    Sure. Sounds like you are more interested in hearing artists that have already been developed, rather than new artists who are just developing.

    Whether that new, developing artist has put out a single no one has ever heard of, or an album no one has ever hear should be irrelevant to you, because you seem to be the kind of person who doesn’t really care about artists that practically no one has ever heard before.

    That’s fine! Most people are that way. You are not alone. That’s kind of the whole point of the article.

    But I’ll tell you what: The artist who starts with singles and keeps putting them out is much more likely to develop into the kind of artist you might want to hear about than is the artist who starts with an album that they spent all year making, only to fizzle out once they are done.

    There are no rules, but that does seem to be a general trend, at least in my 15-20 years of experience. Of course, YMMV. Hope that helps!

  • I’m thrilled to see that others in the business are trumpeting the same belief regarding singles over albums. Thank you!

    Routinely I suggest the very same to my clients. Sure, record an EP or album. But don’t throw the whole thing against the wall in hopes that it sticks! Paul Lamere of Spotify wrote in a blog post back in 2014 that according to Spotify’s data, 35.05% of users skip a song before the 30 second mark. Even more sobering, 48.6% of users skip before the song ever finishes.

    Artists are vying for attention in a world where the supply of entertainment is endless. First – think of the user experience and how to treat them to something remarkable. Second – drip it out in an episodic type of manner. Make every one of those assets work for you. It cost you enough!