The economics of pop are strange. On the one hand this year we’ve had the gold plated ‘Watch The Throne’ album sleeve (not to mention the bespoke pop-up shop) and Katy Perry’s everything-but-the-cupcake-themed kitchen sink ‘California Dreams’ tour. Both OTT, no-expense-spared spectacles, whose aesthetic opulence have been key to the success of both projects.
On the other hand we’ve had Ke$ha admitting that the amount of glitter she uses onstage was a “few thousand every month” and Lady Gaga admitting she went bankrupt after the epic ‘Monster’s Ball’ tour ended. The singer said she was left £1.82 million in debt.
Meanwhile, the seemingly endless money pot that was Simon Cowell’s Syco label had a massive cull earlier this year, escorting Joe McElderry, Shayne Ward and (allegedly) Alexandra Burke from the building with not a biscuit to their names.
The maths, it seems, doesn’t add up.
It’s been estimated by record industry body IFPI that it costs a staggering $4.65 million (£2.9 million) to release a new album from an established act, while it’s £1 million (£613,071) for a new act.
These costs includes stuff like the advance, recording, videos, promo and marketing. Another set of stats from NPR, estimated that it cost Def Jam $1,078,000 ( £660,000) to make Rihanna’s recent single ‘Man Down’.
For singers like Rihanna, Britney Spears and Katy Perry, there’s the expensive process of “songwriting camps” (like summer camps but with pianos instead of trampolines) where producers and songwriters get together for a Brill-building style write-off (in Rihanna’s case 10 studios at a cost of $25,000 – £153,252 – a day ) in an attempt to pen the biggest potential hit. To put it into perspective, lyricist Ray Daniels said it took “12 minutes” to pen.
With stakes being so high, it’s no wonder there’s such a homogeneity in the charts, with proven hitmakers being re-hired by any big popstar wanting a “guaranteed” Number One (RedOne, Guetta, Steve Mac are names who never leave the credits of the charts). These bespoke hitmakers mean that the DIY revolution promised by Garageband will never come. The high costs of making pop remain. Is that healthy?
It doesn’t have to be this way. Interestingly Syco’s latest hope, last year’s X Factor runners-up One Direction, have stuck with the shows’ vocal coach (and also, helpfully, Glee and Britney songsmith) Savan Kotecha for their debut single ‘What Makes You Beautiful’, which presumably brings the cost down.
Ben Cardew, News Editor of Music Week says these kind of ballooning A&R costs stop new acts from being signed. “Whatever you might hear about new bands taking the DIY route, for a certain type of act – typically big pop bands – there’s no getting away from the fact that it remains an expensive business to launch into the market – half a million upwards,” he says. “There is an amazing amount of things you need to take into account, from hairstyling to taxis.
“This is one reason fewer pop bands are getting signed these days. For other kinds of bands a launch can still be pretty expensive, even if the rise of digital has helped to reduce promo costs significantly. And this is why most bands eventually sign record contracts.”
In terms of the costs of putting on a great show, personally I think that pop should never stop being the spectacle it always was. That’s what gives it the ‘wow’ factor; just look at our recent gallery of the worst pop acts in history; pop on a budget is a pretty depressing sight.
I feel less comfortable with the idea of paying a ‘known hit-maker’ thousands to come up with surefire hit. Originality has no place in the environment of trying to second guessing a radio plugger. I think about the best pop songs of recent times, songs by Robyn, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, Those Dancing Days; they were tracks created in a vacuum. Organically and away from the craven demands of the Top 40.
£3 million might get you industry-favoured songwriters and producers, but a good song that stands the test of time is money-can’t-buy priceless.