The Price of Music: the cost of recording for unsigned artists, in their own words – Far Out Magazine

The past few years have thrown up a momentous fork in the road for those attempting to work within the music industry. The Covid-19 pandemic, the cost of living crisis, technological advancements, restructuring and shifting listener tastes have all impacted this rapid metamorphosis. Indicative of this trend, even the established indie star Santigold recently cancelled a tour citing “immense physical, mental and economic” stresses. While that alone is damning, the disastrous effect that current issues have had at the grassroots level is often hidden. Here, we spoke to unsigned bands to shed some light on the matter as part of our ongoing investigation, The Price of Music.
It has become clear that on the economic front, being a musician is vastly different from what it once was. This is true from the professional height right down to the basement level. Whilst there have always been obstacles, proceedings are trickier than ever. Sadly, the risk of giving it a go now seems to heavily outweigh the reward. 
Whilst musicians of all varieties have been affected by the shift, up-and-coming acts are the ones feeling the burn the most. Whether it be an unsigned artist or one recent to the world of record labels, the landscape has changed from a time when companies would give any promising band a bash. 
With this in mind, we’re looking into the economic and personal cost of recording music as an unsigned act. To do so, I have drawn on various artists to establish a robust understanding, from DIYers to recently signed hopefuls. To get us started, Graeme Martin, one-half of the alternative London-based duo Pet Deaths, offered some quantitative data regarding the myriad costs that artists face today, with recording a notably high price point.
In addition to the fees, Martin hit upon a critical point. Often, when artists don’t have the backing of a label or the luxury of unlimited funds, they rely on the favours of friends and connections. In many ways, this is a majorly overlooked foundation of the industry. In my mind, there’s great potential for artists to capitalise on this method of creation by creating a form of online networking hub. This would bring the skillsets of creatives together whilst also adding to their respective CVs.
As Pet Deaths have just completed a run of shows supporting Elbow, one of the UK’s most critically and commercially successful outfits, Martin’s experience contains considerable weight. “It’s hard to put a price on it as it is spread out over years, and generally relying on favours from years of being in bands,” he explained. “We do everything on mates rates and as cheap as possible, but you’re still looking at £8,000 to 10,000 for our record from start to finish”.
Listing the eye-watering costs for vital components of an artist’s operation, Martin continued: “So, the first things to think about; rehearsal spaces which are ridiculously expensive, making demos and investing in all the gear. Recording costs are anywhere from £200 to £1000 per day, touring costs, radio plugger which is also anywhere between £500 to £1500 per single, cheap, rubbish PR campaign at around £1500, vinyl pressing”.
Remarkably, that’s not all. Martin also listed other costly factors such as marketing, photoshoots, and design work, saying with a slight resignation: “the list goes on”. As for music videos, another critical tool for artists that often spreads the recordings to new listeners, Martin noted a range in cost from “free to £5000”. He concluded: “Lots of people to pay and no one paying you”.
Such is the life of a contemporary musician. With Martin’s comments outlining just how tricky it is to exist as a musician on the fundamental level, we turn our attention to some of the country’s most exciting up-and-coming artists who explain the trials and tribulations of bringing their music to life in a studio. First, I spoke to Matt Heuck, the frontman of Leeds group Divorce Finance. With one single to their name, the menacing psychobilly cut ‘Django’, and the band currently finalising their debut EP, they are in the perfect position to offer an insider’s point of view.
Stating in more general terms, I asked Heuck whether the overarching cost of living crisis harms band operations. His answer is one you’d get from almost any unsigned artist who doesn’t have the backing of mummy and daddy. To Heuck, economic pressures are omnipresent in band life. He said: “I believe it does. Being in a band famously takes up a lot of time and money, so the cost of living has only made it harder. For example, in Leeds, there aren’t many private rehearsal rentals available, which means you mostly have to rehearse at pay-by-the-hour facilities like Pirate Studios. With less spare cash available, it’s not always financially viable to rehearse as much as we’d like to, resulting in us attempting to rehearse in people’s basements – to varying degrees of success and neighbour anger.”
More significantly, the frontman outlined how being unsigned hamstrings the band. Customarily biting, he joked: “Last time we smashed up a room at the Holiday Inn, we had to foot the bill ourselves, which is not how I thought this whole rock ‘n’ roll business worked.”
Turning his attention to the contrast in approach between major and independent labels, Heuck continued: “But in all seriousness, yes, simply by having to consider ‘Can we afford this?’ about almost anything that requires money, be it printing some new merch, going into the studio or planning a tour. This struggle is coupled with the fact it’s also harder than ever to get signed.”
He adds: “There is no artist development department at record labels anymore; all they want is a finished product for them to advertise and distribute. If you’re not what they deem to be ‘in’ – polished or toned down – there’s no chance. There’s some great little independent labels mind, especially for physical releases; but in reality, all they can offer is a limited distribution deal.”
Of the steep costs to record their debut EP, the Divorce Finance mastermind concluded: “We’ve recently recorded a live studio EP which you will hopefully be able to experience soon. We have a very specific, analogue-heavy sound, so we decided to go on an 8-track tape with Jason Baldock at his recently closed-down nuclear bunker-based studio, The Crunch. Jason is a very reasonably priced producer for how beautiful all his old equipment is and how fast he gets results. All in all, two days in the bunker, along with mixing and mastering, came to about £700 – not including the cost of the luxurious Norfolk caravan park we stayed in, featuring an Elvis impersonator who didn’t show up and a pool we weren’t allowed in”.
Next up, we have the Bristol post-punks Grandmas House, who are gearing up to release their debut EP, Who Am I, through Brace Yourself Records. Having the experience of recording when unsigned and now as a signed act, their thoughts are enlightening. Crucially, they echo what Graeme Martin outlined earlier. They also noted that their label eased the process of recording “massively”.
They explained: “Without being signed, you have to raise the funds yourselves for everything to do with the release, including recording in a studio, mixing and mastering, PR and marketing, physical release, as well as music videos and artwork which makes it impossible to afford without help from a label if you want to create vinyl etc. We ‘DIY’d’ it as best we could and really enjoyed that process, and were lucky enough to be surrounded by some lovely creative friends who were willing to help us out.”
Adding: “Still, the dream of a physical album or even an EP seems very far away when you don’t have any help from a label. We have been lucky enough to have been signed to Brace Yourself Records for our past couple of releases which has helped us massively with the quality of recordings and physical releases”.
Looking back on their unsigned days, Grandmas House informed me that their first-ever demo was recorded on their phones. This rudimentary option was the only one available. Again, they supported Martin’s statement concerning the importance of connections. They revealed that a friend helmed their first two singles in a mutually beneficial collaborative effort.
Grandmas House explained: “Being in Bristol, the way the community loves to support each other is amazing. We recorded our first-ever demo with our phones and our first two singles with a friend who was just getting into producing and recording, so we helped each other out and managed to capture that raw feel of our starting sound perfectly as a result. We’ve found there’s a lot of support for new bands here in Bristol, which has been amazing and definitely helped a lot with getting our music out there before getting signed. Without that support, we would have definitely found it difficult to get the songs out there that led to us getting signed in the first place.”
Enigmatic DIY artist Eugene Dubon, who hails from Seattle but now finds himself in Leeds, offers an interesting take on the nature of being an unsigned artist. An unbelievably individual musician, who combines a form of post-punk with reverb-heavy melodies, he’s one to keep an eye on.  Dubon expressed: “Financially, it can burn a hole; any expenses are coming straight out of your pocket and sorting out merch is only getting more expensive. We’ve been putting off getting anything sorted for the last year because of the upfront costs. I think signing helps to alleviate some of those worries, and it can also put you in the right circles in terms of PR, plugging etc., which can all be very expensive. There aren’t a lot of easy ways to do this stuff yourself that don’t eat up a lot of your time. Often, around releases, you find it’s almost a full-time job trying to navigate all the extra bits that a label may be able to provide support with.”
Crucially, Dubon highlighted the many costs that unsigned acts face, even when recording from their bedroom. “Even the DIY approach is expensive”, he maintained.
Looking back on the recording of his first two EPs, he explained: “Both my EPs were recorded at home, the truth is that it started with demos with the intention of taking them somewhere, but again, the costing situation just wasn’t plausible at the time. That being said, they weren’t free. I’ve bought some simple recording gear, but even the DIY approach is expensive if you’re starting from nothing and getting monitors, an interface, a few basses, and a computer to run it all; mine was accumulated over half a decade, so the costs are a lot more spread out.”
Finally, we have one of the capital’s most exciting bands, My Fat Pony. The quartet crafts dynamic alt-rock drawing on the lo-fi tones of Dinosaur Jr. and Guided By Voices, with a killer trumpet mixed in for good measure. Another outfit with a bright future, already at this relatively early point, their experience hasn’t necessarily been a traditional one. 
Skilfully summarising the benefits of being unsigned and signed, they said: “It’s hard to know exactly what we’re missing out on. But I suppose being signed would hopefully give us a leg up in terms of promotion and getting bigger gigs and support slots. It also might mean having a bit more leverage in terms of dates of gigs. Financially, being signed to a label that had the means to pay us some sort of advance to make an album is the stuff of dreams – it would give us the freedom to take time off from our day jobs and focus more fully on the band. But being signed to a label can also mean giving up a bit of creative control over your music, which we’d have to adjust to.”
The group are presently gearing up to release their debut single ‘John Woo’ on February 17th, a track that was recorded by Manchester-based Nile Marr, son of former Smiths guitarist Johnny. The band admitted that they were lucky to have worked with Marr, a connection formed by their manager, Evan Soule. Despite this fortuity, they still incurred costs in the recording process, including travel up to the northwest, accommodation, and taking time off work. 
They offered: “We’ve recorded the equivalent of two EPs so far – or a small album, depending on how you look at it. We were lucky that this was much, much cheaper than it might have been otherwise because we were able to record at Always Studio, with the dream team of Nile Marr producing and Dale Charlton engineering. Our manager, Evan, hooked us up with those guys, and they were generous enough to charge us very minimally for their space, time, expertise, and use of some pretty tasty gear. Even though we got lucky and saved loads of money doing this, it still did cost us a fair whack when you consider fuel and travel cost up to Manchester, accommodation costs for the week we stayed there, taking time off work, etc. It all adds up”.
So, where do unsigned artists go from here? Ultimately no one knows. Whether it be recording or the other vital aspects of being a musician, there will always be costs, but hopefully, the current eye-watering ones will depreciate soon. A change in government and a healthy economy would start to change things. But that’s a given. 
As for labels, they’re missing out on a wealth of good music that would add much to their rosters and broader culture. Duly, it’s time for unsigned artists to collectivise and put the DIY ethos at the forefront of thinking once more. Get that hub going. Weaponise each other’s talent. 
Follow Far Out Magazine across our social channels, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
{{#message}}{{{message}}}{{/message}}{{^message}}Your submission failed. The server responded with {{status_text}} (code {{status_code}}). Please contact the developer of this form processor to improve this message. Learn More{{/message}}
{{#message}}{{{message}}}{{/message}}{{^message}}It appears your submission was successful. Even though the server responded OK, it is possible the submission was not processed. Please contact the developer of this form processor to improve this message. Learn More{{/message}}
Jobs / Careers
Contact Us
© 2023 Far Out Magazine


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *