Making Pop Records Ain’t Cheap

 |  July 6, 2011
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Constructing an intended hit for a well known artist comes with a hefty price tag. The problem, from the outside looking in, involves discovering the bill and what it entails. Thankfully, thanks to NPR, we now have some perspective on the goings-on in creating and promoting a high-budget single. The organization asked some folks behind Rihanna’s “Man Down,” as well as some industry insiders, to assess just how much the record cost to make. Their report makes a great example out of the process and its findings drop multiple gems on the high risk, high reward system employed by major labels.

Ray Daniels, the manager behind writing duo Rock City, heavily contributed towards breaking down the money and resources spent in developing a potential hit. Rock City wrote “Man Down,” along with a collection of other songs in a writing camp for Rihanna’s album. The camps hire multiple songwriters and rent out the best studios the label can afford to churn out could-be bangers. This process usually takes place over two weeks and costs a pretty penny. That’s far from the worst of it.

The numbers fueling “Man Down” in total, roughly gauged by NPR’s admission, are pretty staggering. The single’s total production and promotion cost ran Def Jam over $1 Million by NPR’s estimation. Approximately $78,000 get spread between the writing camps, mixing/mastering, and producing the single. So what about the rest? The lion’s share of that mill comes from marketing, the $100,000-$150,000 video, paying for artists’ promo tours and “radio” i.e. giving program directors “incentives” to play the song. Daniels didn’t quite call it payola but admit labels routinely send PDs on nice dinners among other perks. Former BET programmer Paul Porter said he got $40,000 from an unnamed label. Of course his case isn’t prevalent but let’s not act like PDs aren’t getting something extra across the table.

The kicker is, as Ray Daniels said in the piece, “This is money! We’re talking about money [just for something] that might not work.” From there the article says “Man Down” hasn’t taken off. The radio isn’t really my bag these days but, in my limited time tuned in to Hot 97, I haven’t heard it much myself. Plus the single peaked at #59 on Billboard’s top 100 chart. Thus, it’s not a stretch to say Def Jam’s pockets are less than pleased with their return of investment: or lack thereof.

Spending in excess of $1 Million on a record middling on the Top 100 goes beyond excessive. Then again labels likely spent even more on hits and flops all the same. The phenomenon goes to show there isn’t an exact science explaining a smash single’s conception. You could say “Man Down” didn’t hit its mark because it isn’t that great to begin with. You’d get no argument from me on that sentiment. Nevertheless, song quality isn’t a determining factor towards weighing a record’s chances to top charts. Sometimes songs just don’t resonate with fans despite the machine propelling it. But, when it comes to a noteworthy pop artist, labels are willing to take the gamble since their landmark performers yield a considerable portion of their revenue.

NPR: How Much Does It Cost To Make A Hit Song?