Sunday, 12 May 2013

Budgets for a concept album

Since we started to chat about the concept of a concept album, we touched on a few ideas. We talked about what a concept album is, and why we want to record a concept album. I also talked about the broad process of making such concept album.

Tonight I want to talk about how we start to plan the concept album. Let's assume for now we have written our play and we have written the songs. So now we have between 20 and 30 songs, totalling about 2 to 2 and a half hours of music. Now we must decide which song we will include on the concept album.

Before I go on, let me say that there is no rule here. The best I can do is give you an idea of what my thought process was when I did the concept album for The exile.

Ideally, we would want to record all the songs, but let's think about it for a moment. At this stage, you greatest considderation is the cost. If money is no problem, I'd say go for it and record every song. Unfortunately, in my case, money was not free flowing and I had to set myself a budget.

When you set your budget, start by listing all the songs. For each song, record the number of instruments needed. Split this by the number of instruments you can do yourself and the number of instruments for which you will have to hire session musicians. If you are lucky, you will get enough friends together who will do it for you for free. In my case, I did not get enough friends together, mainly because I do not have friends. Count each vocalists line as an instrument. If a vocalist is needed for only 2 seconds, you will still have to count him or her as one instrument. This is where the big chorus songs can become expensive. If you need a chorus with 16 voices, count each one separate, i.e. 16 instruments. Even if you plan to get one person to record 2 or 3 lines in harmony, it would still take 2 or 3 separate recordings, therefore you must count them as separate tracks. Some session musicians would charge you full price for the first line and then half price for each extra line, but more about that much later.

Depending on the complexity of your music, time needed to record a song may differ significantly, but let's work on more or less averages. Most song would need two (2) sessions per instrument, i.e. a session for the musician to get to know your song, and one session to record the instrument. Union negotiated rules differ per country, but usually provide for 3 hours per session. Current rates are about $150 per session, or R1,500 in South Africa.

Just a brief note here. Most union rules limit a song to 5 minutes maximum. You do not get discounted rates for less than 5 minutes, but there is a very complicated formula for calculating costs for each minute in excess of 5 minutes. For now, let's keep all our songs below 5 minutes.

A few simple calculations may now give you a rough baseline budget; for each song you must have the number of tracks to be recorded (T), and the cost per session (C). Here is the formula:

The total budget for a track = T x C x 2

Let's take an example: I have a song that needs an acoustic guitar strumming, doubled by an acoustic guitar finger picking, an electric guitar playing rhythm, a solo electric guitar, a bass guitar and drums. For vocals I need one male and one female singer. Each singer needs to harmonize for the chorus. This all gives me 6 instruments plus 4 vocals, i.e. total 10 tracks. The budget for this song is therefore 10 x $150 x 2 = $3,000.

Calculate the cost for each song in this way and add up all the costs. Let's for simplicity assume all songs need the same number of tracks and we have 20 songs in total. A very quick calculation gives us the total cost of musicians for the recording at $60,000. Add to this your studio time of about 6 hours per song at $100 per hour and the producer at about $300 per song. The studio time usually includes one recording engineer, but specialists like drum recording engineers are usually extra. This gives us an extra $18,000. To this you will have to add the cost of a mixing engineer, a mastering engineer and then the cost of making the CDs. In all the cost for your album will probably exceed $100,000 by now.

Good news?

For most of us, this sum would frighten us and we would give this up as a bad idea.


Do not not give up this easy.

Next I will show you how we can bring this cost down to about one tenth of that cost by being clever.


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