Spotify and the internets reckon “nothing”. HMV reckon £5 – £10.99, depending how far away from the bargain bin you are. But what is the actual cost of an album – or even a single track – now that music is digitised?
The first thing is to establish what the cost of producing an album is. I’ve only got first-hand experience of one album, so here’s my back-of-the-envelope calculation for the cost of producing our excellent 2009 debut album.
- 1 x Peavey TVM8 amplifier: £850
- 1 x Epiphone Les Paul: £450
- 1 x 1972 Yamaha Semi-acoustic: £420
- 1 x Dunlop Wah Wah pedal: £60
- 1 x Boss Delay: £80
- 1 x Boss Tremelo: £45
- 1 x Bontempi Organ: £0.50p
- 1 x M Audio Keyrig Midi keyboard: £90
- 1 x Zoom Effects unit: £600
- 1 x Fender Jazz Precision bass: £800
- 1 x **** bass amp: £250
- 1 x **** bass cab: £400
- 1 x Slingerman 1950 vintage drum kit: £1500
- 1 x Recording desk £2500
- 3 x *** Mics: £180
- Various percussion (est.) £50
- Leads, plectrums, drumsticks and sundries: £100
- 1 x Reason mixing software: £200
- Some kind of acoustic guitar: £100
- Total: £8765.50
Using minimum wage as a low-standard benchmark (currently £5.80 per hour) we can sketch some idea about how long it took to make this album in terms of hours.
- Songwriting and lyrics – guessing around 4 hours per song: 52 hours (3 songs were left off the album)
- Rehearsal time – playing the songs live until we got them – around 2 hours per song: 78 hours (26 hours per member of the band)
- Initial recording – the basic live instrumental takes of the tracks, allowing for 4 takes per song on average, messing around in between, false-starts and so on: 36 hours (12 hours per member of the band)
- Overdubs – doing re-recordings over the initial tracks with new instruments, additional parts and so on: 12 hours (4 hours per member of the band)
- Vocals – just me overdubbing the lead vocal tracks, plus sessions for harmonies with me, Brendan and Dave: 6 hours
- Programming – moogs, drum loops and other effects were programmed by Brendan more less by himself, with some input from me: 20 hours
- Mixing – Brendan more or less by himself listened incessantly to the album for about 2 months and tweaked the levels, added post-recording effects and so on: 50 hours
- General – discussion time, arguments, group listening sessions: 15 hours
- Total: 269 hours x £5.80 = £1562
So from this we can reasonably infer that you should pay me £10327.50 for my album. Email me and I’ll send you my PayPal details.
I’m still waiting.
What… you won’t pay that amount?
Ah – that’s because you and I both know that actually you’d only be paying for a copy of the album. Now if I wanted you to buy it on vinyl, then I could work out how much a copy costs to make and charge you that, plus a little extra as profit to help pay back the costs of making the album. So let’s say a tenner and you can be on your way.
What… you won’t even pay that?
Ah right… you only like one of the songs. You’re not going to pay a tenner just for that one song. I understand. So I’ll make it available as a single to you. Now the only difference between a single and the album is that really a single uses about tenth of the amount of materials used to produce an album. So I’ll sell you the single for £2 to allow some profit and hopefully you’ll buy the album for a tenner when you decide that we’re ace.
Still no? You’re a tough customer!
OK. You don’t have any room for vinyl. Or six tracks or tapes any more. I can dig that. But luckily we’ve got the MP3 these days, so how about you buy one of those for a quid?
Hmm. A problem. I could charge you a tenner for a vinyl album at least partly because each album cost £7 or whatever to make. Fair’s fair. But an MP3…? I can make bajillions of them with Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V. A pound for a track doesn’t seem like that much of a bargain when the production costs are nothing.
Still, it cost £12000 to make in the first place, so maybe if I divide that by the number of potential sales it might work – what’s £12000 divided by infinity again?
Herein lies the trouble caused by the digitisation of music. We’re left with ones and zeroes that are beamed invisibly hither and thither through various channels that vary in price from effectively free (Spotify), actually free (torrents and filesharing) to a quid or whatever per track on iTunes. And as long as that free alternative exists there’s little motivation for people to pay. And when someone does pay, a good percentage of the money goes to iTunes/Spotify/whoever rather than the artist.
Worse still, I want loads of people to listen to us (possibly even more than I want the money, in all honesty) so I have to give away free music so that people can listen to us without taking the risk of forking out a quid per track in order to get them interested. Which then makes it doubly hard to justify charging for the music in any case!
So: short story is… digital music has fucked the musician over. It’s maybe easier to find an audience, but it’s not easy to get them to pay you. In the meanwhile, making money from music remains something of a Hobson’s choice.
Put a penny in my cap, guv’nor?