Want to Make an Album? Better Build a Budget First

If you’re like me, you like the idea of creating something new, releasing it into the universe and seeing where it goes. One of the ways musicians can do this is with recorded sound. But if you want to make an album, you’ll have to build a budget. 

I’ve been producing albums with my quintet, SYBARITE5, for the past 10 years. In the fall of 2017, I decided to start my own label, Bright Shiny Things, to help other artists maximize their impact when releasing albums and avoid some of the pitfalls I’ve run into. 

Let’s get to it. Most budgets can be separated into two categories: income and expenses.

INCOME

Income is the money that your project generates for you. Income can be either EARNED or DONATED


EARNED income comes from projected sales. This is the money you expect to earn from selling your album over the next several years. Be careful not to overestimate! Projected sales encompass physical sales (from CDs, posters, vinyl records, T-shirts or anything else related to your project that you physically make and deliver) and digital sales (from iTunes, Google Play and other music platforms).

PRO TIP: If you produce 1,000 CDs and sell them for $20 each, you make $20,000, right? Wrong! Most venues and online merchants take a cut of your sales – sometimes as much as 30 percent. 

Remember to factor in promotional albums – the copies that you give away to media outlets and venues to get reviews and gigs, respectively. If you run a crowdfunding campaign that offers physical discs as a reward, be sure to include those copies in your calculations, too.


DONATED income comes from…

  • Personal donations, or money from friends and family.
  • Corporations who would like to see their name in your liner notes.
  • Grants and foundations. 
  • In-kind donations, which are donated goods and services. You’ll want to record the cash value of a donated service.
  • Crowdfunding efforts from sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. 
  • Other fundraisers like house concerts, where all of the proceeds go toward your project, or letter-writing campaigns, in which you might recruit friends to ask their friends for support.

EXPENSES

Next, we have the big one: Expenses! This is the money you spend to create your album. Within expenses, we have two main categories: PERSONNEL and NON-PERSONNEL


PERSONNEL, or the people who work on your project, can be broken down even further into Artistic and Non-Artistic Teams. 

Artistic Teams can be either Musical or Creative/Visual.

The Musical Team is responsible for anything having to do with producing the final audio product. They are your musicians and audio personnel, most of whom are paid by an hourly, day or project rate, such as your…

  • Producer, who manages the recording sessions and identifies your best takes.
  • Recording engineers and assistants, who actually record the sound and keep information about the takes organized.
  • Mastering engineer, who might also be your recording engineer. Among other things, this person regulates the dynamics in the album’s final tracks.
  • Musicians, who produce the sound you want to capture. Their rates include recording and rehearsal time.
  • Technicians, who might tune the piano, turn pages or perform other tasks.

Your Creative/Visual Team primarily handles projects related to the visual aspects of your project. These people are usually paid on a per-project basis. They include your…

  • Artist for cover art. Cover art often acts as your first impression. You can commission an image or use existing artwork or photos, but you’ll always need to secure permission to use the art.
  • Graphic designer, who brings a unique perspective to your design and layout. They might also handle your cover art. 
  • Photographer, whose written permission should be secured to use headshots or other photos for the liner and anything else related to the album. 
  • Video artist. Videos are one of the most effective promotional tools. Expect to pay thousands, not hundreds, for a professional video production team. 

Your Non-Artistic Team does not aid in creating the artistic project. Rather, they help get it out into the world. This team includes your…

  • Project manager/executive producer, who ensures that all the moving parts come together to meet deadlines. Sometimes a label will take on this work.
  • Publicist, who should have a deep understanding of your project and pitch it to media outlets for coverage and reviews.
  • Social media manager.
  • Fundraisers.
  • Grant writers.
  • Attorneys, if you want legal help writing contracts or securing copyright registration.
  • One-off administrators, or people who handle data entry, envelope stuffing, shipping and other tasks.

PRO TIP: If you’re on a shoestring budget, you can handle some of these roles yourself. For example, there are many templates for legally-binding contracts available online. 


NON-PERSONNEL expenses include things like… 

  • Printing, including one-sheets, press flyers and postcards.
  • Manufacturing CDs and vinyl records.
  • Licensing. If you want to record music that you have not written, you must obtain permission or purchase a standard mechanical license from the copyright holder before you release the product. 
  • UPC and EAN codes – these are needed to sell any distributed items – and IRSC codes, which are track-specific identifiers that are embedded in your audio. 
  • Shipping and mailing CDs.
  • Fees for use of crowdfunding platforms, which can be five to 10 percent of your earnings on these sites. 
  • Distribution fees for both physical and digital music.
  • Rentals of things like studios, halls and instruments.
  • Label imprint fees.

PRO TIP: CDs and vinyl records are types of media, so take advantage of the media mail rate at the post office!

MAKING THE RECORDING

Made it through the budget breakdown? Now comes the fun part! Let’s talk about the process of actually recording your album. 

Remember that in real-time recording situations, time is money. Recording venues like studios and concert halls either charge by the hour or quote a flat day rate. The studios I’ve used in the New York City area charge roughly $100-$200 an hour, with day rates coming in at $800-$1500. Sometimes these rates include an assistant engineer, who can help save you recording time (and therefore money) by helping with setup and adjustments.

PRO TIP: Plan on scheduling some hours for engineers to set up mics before you start recording in a studio. You can save money by recording in a church or recital hall, but remember you’ll have to pay the engineer for the task of hauling equipment and setting up a remote studio. 

Musicians typically work by the hour, with a limit on how much performing they can do in a single day. For most classical instrumentalists, I schedule no more than six hours a day, with a minimum 10-minute break for every hour of work. Classical solo vocalists max out closer to four hours a day. 

HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU NEED?

Figuring out how many days to budget for a recording project is one of the most daunting tasks for first-timers. Here’s a general rule from my engineer buddy Andrew Bove at Bove Audio: If you’re working with a well-oiled team – musicians who have played together for years, know the music inside and out and have recorded many times – and you want to be very aggressive, you can budget one hour of recording time for every five minutes of music.

If you’re working with a new musical team, or with lesser known or more complex material, plan to budget at least twice that. 

For reference, our recent SYBARITE5 album, “Outliers,” contains about 60 minutes of music. We recorded that over four days with studio time scheduled from noon to 6 p.m. Each day we took a one-hour break, but we were still mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the day. With 20 intensive hours to make one hour of music, we averaged three minutes of final sound for every hour of recording time!

Making an album can be intimidating – but it’s also one of the most rewarding projects you can undertake as a musician. The end product is not just the recording. You will emerge as a more sophisticated artist and experienced team player, ready to ask, “What’s next?” 

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Louis Levitt

As a member of SYBARITE5, Louis Levitt was the first double bassist to win the Concert Artist Guild Competition. Since then, …more 

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