Engineer / Musician Responds: Why a Dollar Per Song is a Great Price

Posted by:
Date: Wednesday, April 30th, 2003, 05:05
Category: Archive

There has been a lot of discussion in the past 24 hours about whether Apple’s pricing scheme is fair. In case you haven’t read, they’re charing USD 0.99 per song, and between USD 4.99 and 9.99 per album. I am going to try to explain, from a technical standpoint, why music is expensive to produce and therefore, why a buck a song is an incredible price for the consumer. Click ‘read more’ for the full story.


There has been a lot of discussion in the past 24 hours about whether Apple’s pricing scheme is fair. In case you haven’t read, they’re charing USD 0.99 per song, and between USD 4.99 and 9.99 per album. I am going to try to explain, from a technical standpoint, why music is expensive to produce and therefore, why a buck a song is an incredible price for the consumer.

Imagine a four minute song by a band with a guitar, a bass, a drum kit, a keyboard, a lead vocal track and a backup vocal track. Though we listen to it for a mere four minutes, the song probably took the better part of a day to create. Let me explain.

For those who don’t know, nearly all music is recorded in some kind of multitrack format while in a studio. What does this mean? Well, a compact disc has two tracks per song, one for the left channel and one for the right channel. In the studio, the music is recorded either to some kind of tape, analog or digital, or to hard disk. In any of these cases, there are generally upwards of eight tracks: one for each instrument or voice, and usually several for the drums. This is done so that the engineer can control the volume, equalization, and other parameters of each instrument independently, allowing for the kind of precision that modern ears have come to expect.

To minimize so-called “bleeding” from track to track, band members are frequently recorded separately, with the drummer and bassist recording first, then the guitarist, then the keyboards. This is not always the case, but often. Almost always, the vocals happen later. Given this separation, and given the fact that to ensure a good recording, several takes will be recorded, I estimate the total recording time at approximately 60 minutes for a 4 minute song. (That’s five passes, three takes per pass, four minutes per take.) Add to that setup time for each instrument, which consists of tuning the instrument, arranging the musician’s equipment, placing microphones and setting volumes. About half an hour per instrument, and 15 minutes per vocal track is pretty fair. So now our total is 62.5 hours, and we’ve gotten the music on tape.

Next, the producer, the engineer, and the band listen to the takes. They select the best one after listening at least twice to each take. That’s another half hour.

Then the engineer begins the process of mixing the album. Effects are added. The instruments are mixed into a stereo image. Compression and limiting ensure that the music will sound loud and even. During this time, the engineer might listen to the song ten times and spend five to ten minutes per listen per track making adjustments. Call it five. That’s another five hours. We’re now at 68 hours.

With studio time costing $100 per hour and more, it’s not hard to understand why music is so expensive these days. $6800 per track means that Apple has to sell a song 6800 times for the producer to break even on studio costs. That doesn’t sound too difficult, but then we haven’t added the producers’ cut or the artists’ cut, which is ultimately the most important part.

What it comes to next is, how much do we pay for creativity? Some things cost more than a dollar: bottled water, a gallon of gas, a ride on the bus, a sandwich . . . for a musician to be able to buy one sandwich with the money earned off a song, he or she has to sell more than seven thousand copies of a song.

When you break it down, and look at the amount of time and energy that goes into the production of a piece of music, one dollar, cheaper than a Happy Meal, starts to look like a pretty good deal.

Sam Kusnetz is a sound designer and musician. He doesn’t have a contract with a big label, and doesn’t want one either.

Recent Posts