Dear Metalhead Money,
My band Green Smoke Wizard has been rocking the basement for long enough and we're ready for the world to hear our music! How much should we expect to spend to release our debut album? How much of a profit do you think we'll make?
Whatever you spend, don't expect to make it back.
Here's a rundown of my own band Turkey Vulture's most recent recording costs, for our 2022 EP Twist the Knife:
Tracking (two days) and mixing: $1400
Studio use fees: $675
Printing of 50 CDs through Discmakers: $240
Digital Distribution through DistroKid: $20/yr
Music video production: DIY -- but I'm not asking my husband/drummer what that video camera cost...
Childcare: $0, thanks Grandma!
Incidentals (travel, food, strings, bass setup, drum heads...): ???
Total: $3200-ish, plus the purchase of a family video camera and $22/month for an Adobe Premiere subscription
(Wondering what I mean by "studio use fees"? Our engineer had traveled from North Carolina to New England to work with some clients, so we were paying to occupy someone else's studio for a couple days.)
About half of the total cost was paid through freelance work and the other half came from our COVID economic stimulus money -- so Turkey Vulture was doing our patriotic duty by recording our EP! It made me feel better that none of the money had to come out of our regular budget.
How much of that cost has made it back into our pockets through bandcamp sales? Enough to cover the CD printing... Kinda. The money all stays in the "band fund" along with door/merch proceeds from shows, to pay for future endeavors like new stickers, SubmitHub credits, etc.
Although we didn't come close to making our money back, that was never an expectation in the first place. And IMO, it was worth it to have a high-quality recording of our music and get it out into the world. Some couples go on vacation, we go to the recording studio.
"But Jessie, maybe you didn't make three thousand dollars because your music stinks and you're bad at marketing. Green Smoke Wizard is the new Black Sabbath as well as marketing geniuses, so we will surely do much better than you."
I wasn't sure if my own band's monetary investment vs. return was typical, or if it was just me -- so I asked some friends from the heavy music community to share the financial side of their own recording experiences.
As it turns out, no one I talked with made money or broke even on their underground metal endeavors. But one thing we all agreed on was that we were creating this particular music for enjoyment or a fun side hustle rather than as a main source of income. As Dan from the UK's Gramma Vedetta and the indie label Mandrone Records put it, "Having a band is a money pit for the majority of us. We do it because we love it. We must not stop doing it."
Out of the bands that shared numbers, the total costs were similarly in the four figures. It was also a common theme to leverage band members' skills to DIY or barter various aspects of the process. For instance, Igor Jakobsen of Norwegian outfit Dreamslain told me that the band invested approximately $4700 USD in recording equipment for their 2021 album Tales of Knights and Distant Worlds, saying "For the same price, we would have gotten 8.5 hours of studio time in a professional studio. So for us, DIY recording has definitively been the way to go. It might feel like a big investment to buy all the equipment, but compared with studio time, it's nothing."
Learning to use recording equipment in a professional capacity is something that will never be in my wheelhouse, but there are lots of other things a band can DIY. For instance, UK outfit Disconnected Souls saved at least £1000k ($1200 USD) on PR for their 2021 EP Warring Elements because guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist Holly Royle works for a public relations company. One hand washes the other!
Another way to reduce out of pocket expenses is to work with a label. UK dark folk artist Duncan Evans was able to avoid the more expensive costs of tracking, merch production, and PR by releasing his 2018 album Prayers for an Absentee with Prophecy Productions. However, don't count on Green Smoke Wizard finding a label for your debut LP -- even if you are the next Black Sabbath.
(On that note, a friend with a long-running band that has had label support for some releases recently texted me that the band finally broke $1K of sales on bandcamp -- which he said would cover a third of what they'd typically spend on a full-length. This was followed by a poop emoji.)
I didn't just talk with weekend warriors, though. Oregon professional blues musician Lisa Mann shared her experience recording a cover single of Rainbow's "Stargazer" under her metal moniker White Crone. Mann did preproduction herself and was able to barter with guitarist Alastair Greene for the final guitar track. She then hired Vinny Appice to record the final drum track!
"I spent far more money on 'Stargazer' than I should have," Mann commented. "However it was a totally self-indulgent process. I spent almost as much money hiring Appice as I did mixing and mastering! But my working relationship with him was the reason I wanted to track it in the first place. I was able to get Pandemic Unemployment Assistance... Recording a badass cover of a Rainbow song with Dio's drummer is what I spent my unemployment on!"
She went on to say, "Blues is my business, and business is good. It subsidizes my metal projects, which serve as a tax write-off for now, and hopefully another income source in the future."
So the short answer to your question?
DIY the tasks that fit with your skill set.
Expect to spend a couple grand when all is said and done.
The experiences shared in this column may not be representative of the entire Underground Scene, but they should give you a general idea of what to expect -- and costs like tracking/mixing and PR will vary by where you live and who you work with. (For more on what to expect from a PR company, read this article.)
Best of luck with your recording, Green Smoke Wizard! I hope you enjoy the process.
Listen to all the bands in this article and more, on the Spotify playlist below!
Free stock photo by @cottonbro, from Pexels.com.
To learn more about budgeting, band finances, and more, order Money Hacks for Metalheads and Old Millennials in paperback and ebook formats: https://amzn.to/3lCsFdq
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