Time and Cost of Making an Album Case Study: NIRVANA

When I ran into producer/engineer Scott Solter at a mutual client’s show a couple of weeks back, he relayed some advice that he’d been giving young bands recently. He’s already one of my favorite guys working today, profiled by Daniel Shuman in the December 2012 issue of Scientist. And his was among the best tips I’d heard in a long time:

“If you want to be like your heroes,” he said, don’t copy their sound or their gear but, “emulate their process.”

That very idea was also at the heart of our lead story last month, “How Long is This Gonna Take? (The Time and Cost of Recording an Album).” In it, we went over the 3 basic approaches to putting together a full-length record, and tried to peg down an average time and cost for the whole thing. This month, I wanted to make these ideas even more concrete by zooming in on the works of one great band to see what we could learn about planning a record.

A Quick Recap

There are no hard and fast rules about budgeting a commercial release, but if pressed for an average, I’d say that something in the neighborhood of 2 weeks and $10,000 is a pretty good place to start. I’m not alone in this: When I asked a wide cross-section of producers and engineers about their fundraising recommendations for crowdfunding campaigns, that figure came up again and again. It’s a moving target, but I think it’s safe to say that for career-minded new artists of modest means, it’s probably unwise to spend any less than $5,000 or much more than $20,000 on making their first full-length.

There’s no guarantee that you’ll earn back that kind of investment, but it is doable. I’ve seen it happen again and again. I’ll over-simplify the math here, just to keep things nice and round and optimistic, but roughly speaking, paying for a budget in this range translates to 500-2,000 album sales via Bandcamp, 700-2,800 sales through iTunes, or about 100,000 – 400,000 album spins on Spotify, in order to break even.

The Fine Print: Those of you who’ve actually been involved in financially sustainable releases may notice that we’ve neglected to include the costs of promoting an album, printing up physical copies, splitting the revenue with a manager or label, or touring in support of the release.

Yes, it’s true. Despite what the internet has been telling you, these things are useful, and they can be expensive. Touring for instance,  may be one of the best ways to sell records, but it often ends up costing new bands money.

(In fact, throughout most of the 20th century, live shows were considered a “loss leader” for album sales. Concert revenue has only surpassed recorded revenue in recent years because music sales have dropped 50%, while big-name acts have increased their ticket prices dramatically — by over 40% in the past 3 years alone.)

If you’re optimistic and already have a large internet following, the numbers above may work for you. If you’re not a magician at self-promotion and want to be more realistic, go ahead and add at least 50% and as much as 100% to these target figures to account for publicity/management/label share of revenue. These are those much maligned “middle” men and women, who in reality, are still partly responsible for many (if not most) sustainable music careers today.

If you think you might have some real trouble selling 500-2,800 albums, then it’s a smart idea to begin with some singles or maybe even an EP instead. Oh: and start playing a lot more shows.

I’d recommend growing enough of a fanbase and earning enough press credibility that your record has some kind of shot out there once you release it. If you’re pursuing music as a career, there’s nothing more depressing than spending weeks or even months on a release to find out that not only does no one care… but people aren’t even aware enough of your album’s existence to not care.

A Case Study: 3 Albums by Nirvana

I like to bring up Nirvana for a few reasons: Most modern musicians working in any genre tend to have at least a passing familiarity with all three Nirvana albums, they were one of my favorite bands as a teenager, and they make it abundantly clear that a debut album can cost well less than $10,000 (or far more) and still sustain itself.


Nirvana’s first record, Bleach, is fabled to have taken just 30 hours of recording time. In 1988, an unusually talented young Jack Endino billed just $20/hr for this. For those of us who are lousy at math, that works out to about $600. Endino admits this was a pretty damn cheap price tag for a recording, even back then. He has even said that their first sessions together “went by so fast that I barely remember even talking with them…It was one of the fastest sessions I had ever done.”

Despite their slacker image, Nirvana were among the most well-rehearsed and painstakingly prepared bands in their entire scene. You try practicing together 6 days a week, 4 hours a day and see how long it takes you to record an album. Just listen to the band play “Love Buzz” into a cheap camcorder microphone during an early rehearsal in 1988. Chad Channing’s less-than-inspired drumming aside, tell me it doesn’t sound like a take that’s just begging to be captured in a decent studio with some real mics. Do you sound this good and well-balanced when your whole band plays around a single SM57? Try it sometime and find out:

But before you decide to use this album as a template, there are a few things worth knowing:

First, $600 in 1988 dollars is about $1,200 in 2013 dollars. Back then, $20/hr was about the lowest you might expect to shell out for recording time worth paying for in a small market. Today, I’d peg that minimum at about $40/hr. That should be enough to get you into a studio as grungy as Reciprocal was, also with a talented young engineer just coming into his own. Recording equipment aside, the cost of everything has basically doubled. This includes those things that have always made up the largest potion of any studio bill: Time, rent, and skilled human labor.

Secondly, the album didn’t really take 30 hours to make. Never mentioned in this famous account is the fact that the band booked several sessions with Endino before the official Bleach sessions even began. In reality, the sessions that went into making this album stretched across a full year — from January 1988 right up until January 1989. This includes dates with Melvins Drummer Dale Crover and sessions for their first Sub Pop single. Many of the tracks from these sessions ended up on the album, and when you add up all the hours Endino actually billed while making Bleach, you’re looking at at least 50 hours and more than $2,000 in 2013 dollars. Add at least another $200 in 2013 dollars for a couple of reels of 8-track tape.

The third caveat is that even this 50-hour figure isn’t quite complete. That’s because it doesn’t account for all the session time that Endino didn’t bill for. From the very first day, Endino — inspired by the band and still out to make a name for himself — stayed late, taking the whole rest of the night to mix the songs on his own dime. It also appears that he didn’t charge for setup or breakdown either, which would have been unusual then as well as now.

So there you have it: It is certainly possible to make a great album for less than $5,000. In the end, Bleach probably cost less than $3,000 to record and it turned out to be a damn fine record. It was one of my favorites growing up. But it’s interesting to see just how quickly “30 hours and $600 dollars” turns into “Actually, a whole lot more than that.”

Although an outsider might expect recording to be cheaper now than in the 1980s, we can see that at least at the low-end of the scale, this is just not the case. The same is true for time: No matter how fast computers get, an album like this one just isn’t going to get made in less than 30 hours. If anything, with all the choices and endless recall available today, it’s likely to take longer. I’d peg the current real costs of making an album with roughly the same sonic quality as Bleach at around one week of time, totaling somewhere near $3,000, depending on the city and the engineer.

Case Study: Nevermind

When Nirvana signed to a major label to record their follow-up album with producer Butch Vig, their budget was initially set at $65,000.  http://amzn.to/12cKh03

The band completed all the basic instrument tracking for Nevermind live in the studio together, which took about 6 days in total. For a 13-song album, that works out to about 2 songs a day, which is even slower than the 3-4 song per day pace that we suggested last month.

After this came guitar and vocal overdubs, and then mixing, which Andy Wallace did at a pace of about 1 song each day — a pretty nice way to work. Finally came mastering, a process that’s usually completed within a single day.

By the time it was done, Nevermind ended up costing double what was originally planned: about $130,000 and one full month of work. (And that still doesn’t include the full producer and mixer’s rates, which would have come in part from royalties on the few albums like this one that did take off.)

Although a $130,000 bill might seem exorbitant by the scorched-earth standards of today’s music industry, at the time, it was actually a pretty modest budget for a multi-platinum release.

Consider for a moment that so far, Nevermind has sold 25 million copies in the US alone. That’s a huge return on investment. It makes Nevermind more profitable for everyone involved than a dozen or so Bleaches, upfront costs be damned.

(In fact, as much as we like to point and laugh at the big flops, these larger-budget releases are actually more likely to break even, not less. The label’s original hope was that Nevermind would sell 500,000 copies — an achievable goal that still would have easily covered these recording costs and more.)

To make an album of this sound quality today, you could probably get away with spending a bit less. But not by as much as you might think. My best estimate is that $30,000-$60,000 could get this record made in a similar kind of room with comparable recording talent. This assumes that a pretty decent studio, coupled with an somewhat established producer that has actually worked on a few records you love, will run an average of $1,000 – $2,000/day in 2013.

The costs have dropped a bit— not because the equipment costs that much less, but simply because the paying market for recorded music has shrunk so significantly.

Case Study: In Utero

http://amzn.to/11dJbFGThanks to the staggering success of Nevermind, Nirvana could have obtained any budget they wanted for recording In Utero. They chose to spend just $25,000 and two weeks in order to record at Pachyderm Studio in Minnesota. They did it live as a band, overdubbing vocals and a few other little things at the end.

Since the album was expected to sell in the millions, producer Steve Albini was able to negotiate a reported $100,000 lump sum for his services, in lieu of the producer royalties that traditionally go along with major releases.

(If Albini had accepted the royalties, he would have earned closer to $500,000 for his part in In Utero‘s huge success. Albini rejected this notion on principle, and so the difference of $400,000 wound up largely in the pockets of the record label instead. How that is a progressive outcome exactly, I am uncertain. But Albini favored the principle of “royalties bad” over the principle of “people should share in the success of the things they help create.”)

If Nirvana were to have done the same thing again today and without a major label, they might have recorded with Albini at his Electrical Studios in Chicago. In this case, they’d be likely to pay the same $25,000 and take the exact same amount of time to complete the recording: About two weeks, plus a little extra for mastering and a few remixes. (Albini charges around $1500/day, studio included.)

The only difference is that Albini would be out the $100,000 – $500,000 he would have earned for his part in crafting an album that brought meaning to the lives of millions of people. And okay, fine, who are we kidding: The other difference is that it probably wouldn’t have sold nearly as many copies today.

With The Lights Out

At the end of the day, the cost in time and money to record an album like Bleach or In Utero hasn’t come down significantly.

Their first album cost a bit less than our bottom figure of $5,000 and took about a week of studio time. And since the band self-financed the album through days jobs and loans from friends, that week stretched out over the course of about a year. The latter album cost a bit more than our upper figure of $20,000, and took just over 2 weeks to complete. Both records are decidedly raw, but well-realized.

Meanwhile, Nevermind was a carefully crafted pop record that took about a month to make. It was also easily the band’s most well-received. Although Cobain expressed embarrassment over the album’s success and sound years after it was made, it’s hard for even a die-hard fanboy like myself not to see a little touch of self-conscious posturing in that attitude.

Still, you don’t need to spend that long on an album for it to resonate widely. The fantastic Nirvana Unplugged took just one day, and went on to become their second most popular album to date. It just goes to show: What is most rare is often considered most valuable. A painstakingly well-crafted album like Nevermind qualifies. But so does a great live performance.

There will always be room for a few more great one and two-week albums. But what I’d really love to hear right now are a few more great one-day records and one-month albums. Apparently, I’m not alone.

This entry was posted in All Stories, Behind The Release, Featured Stories, June 2013, Most Popular. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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