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The Economics of a Studio CD

July 14th, 2014
money, free_raisins, cd

How much does it cost to make a CD in a studio? Answering this in general is pretty hard, but with our first studio cd out I can at least see what it cost us. We've tracked all the expenses for this CD, and while we have them at a pretty granular level I'm only going to give sums here. [1] For some background on how we approached the CD, it might be useful to read how we prepared for our CD first.

For this CD, we set up the finances so we would take all the risk. Everyone involved except us received a fixed payment for their work with us fronting the money, and we'll make our money back through selling copies. This seemed like the most fair way to do it: almost all the CDs will be sold from the stage at our gigs, so we're the ones who have influence over how many are sold. This also provided a nice pressure to keep the costs down. [2]

Aside from the three of us, there were several other people involved in the CD:

All of these people were wonderful, and it was a joy to work with them. Aside from Will, who we met through Andrew, they were all people we knew before we started, and we were familiar with their work.

Before we got into the studio, Andrew to come out to Boston a few times to rehearse with us and help us plan the CD. This would have been a bit easier if he didn't live three hundred miles away, but we were glad he was willing to make the trip. The distance made this more expensive than it would have otherwise been, but this preparation was a lot of what let us work efficiently when we got to the studio and compared to studio time it was pretty cheap!

We spent two and a half days at Wilburland, the studio in Ithaca, but we only spent 23 of those hours "on the clock". These hours included setting up to record, recording, listening back, committing to takes, and fixing small things. Basically any time Will was working. After we left Will and Andrew stayed on to mix the CD, spending eight hours over the next day and a half. Then Will sent us rough mixes, and we had a few rounds of back-and-forth to tweak them to our liking, where Will put in another five hours. Once we were satisfied, Will mastered the CD (4hr) getting it to where we could send it off for manufacturing. So 23hr in the studio, and then 17hr after over the next ~20 days. We were really impressed with not only the quality of Will's work but also the speed: we expected many of these steps to take much longer (and so cost much more).

The week after we recorded the CD we went out to a park with Daniel to take pictures. This involved lots of wandering around, with and without instruments, hoping we would do something that looked interesting. We're not that good at this—most of the pictures were really much too silly—but we ended up with several we liked a lot. Unlike with the mixing, the steps after the photo shoot didn't need to involve back-and-forth with Daniel: he gave us a copy of all of the images, and we looked over them to find the ones we liked. It would have been good to have a step where after we identified our favorite images Daniel had done some tweaking (contrast etc) but through miscommunication and poor timing on our part we ended up using the images a bit more "raw" than you normally would.

Max did the CD art and graphic design. Over a few weeks he prepared the cover image, which we're really excited about, and then he laid out the CD once we had decided on a form and could send him a template. We really should have started working with him earlier: there were a lot of steps here, and in trying to have our CD ready for our tour we were trying to move pretty quickly.

For manufacturing we went with CDBaby disc duplication this time. This went well: they have a nice online "quoter" interface where you can easily see what things cost and when you're likely to receive an order, their template worked well, and the CDs arrived a bit ahead of schedule. We decided to print 1000 CDs this time, and we decided to go with "digipack" packaging: six panels folding over a CD in a plastic holder. Less annoying and plasticy than a jewel case, but more substantial feeling than a wallet. [3]

We also needed to pay royalties for the tunes that weren't traditional. The standard rate is $0.091/tune/CD, but sending people checks for $91 felt a little awkward so we sent $100 instead. We used ten new tunes, not counting ones Amy and Audrey wrote, so this was $1000 total.

Total costs were:
$3,830recording, mixing, mastering, producing, guest musicians
$1,623CD printing and cases
$1,000copyrights
$800photography, art, graphic design
$7,253total
Ignoring the cost of the time we put into this as a band, this means we need to sell 483 CDs to break even at $15/CD.

You might notice that this is about 3x more expensive than our previous CD, even after you account for us printing twice as many copies. What's different? The main thing is that this time we were in a studio instead of recording live at dances, so we had to pay for that. (Mixing and mastering actually cost about the same for both CDs). The second big change in cost is that last time most of the tunes we recorded were traditional, while this time we were paying for the rights for many more. Then we also had a producer and guest musicians this time, as well as non-amateur art. It adds up, but we're pretty happy with how we kept costs under control and ended up with a break-even number that isn't too terrifying.


[1] This makes it more simple, but it also avoids disclosing how much an individual person made, because people often don't like to be public about that.

[2] We did consider using Kickstarter to raise money instead of just fronting the costs ourselves. While we've heard this can be a good way to promote your CD and raise interest, we didn't like the idea of asking for money if we didn't need it.

[3] Amy and I were actually pushing for a wallet design while Audrey felt strongly about the digipack. Audrey cared enough that we went with her preference, and getting the CDs back and holding them I'm glad we did.

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