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7 Alternatives To Dollar Per Hour Recording Studio Pricing

Brandon Drury —  December 14, 2011 — Leave a comment

DollarPerHourBilling

#7 – Dollars / Minute
If you can’t make the dollars / hour model work just change it to the minute.

#6 – Dollars / Second
This pricing model takes #7 and multiples it by 60. Studios charging $1 per second are raking in nearly $30k a day. Try it! You only need to get right a few times a year to afford that U47.

#5 – Euros / Hour
This may seem like cheating as it is technically money per hour. Warning: Most Americans don’t consider anything other than the Dollar real money regardless of what some chart says or how ironic that statement is in this age.

#4 – Silver Ounces / Hour
This goes back day a time when the concept of currency was in its infancy. It’s probably a better method anyway.

#3 – Sandwiches / Hour
Instead of Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, or Ben Franklin, in this pricing model you’ve got Big Mac, Whopper, and hopefully some better local options. Feel free to change this to pizza, oats, or Gatorade.

#2 Hours / Hour
Nothing beats enslaving a highly skilled worker to do real work while all you do is put a mic in front of them and push record.

#1 – Minutes With Wife / Hour
The value of this fluxuates tremendously depending on the quality of the goods. I’d recommend a trial run before committing long term to this agreement.

Okay, so this didn’t turn out as funny as I had hoped. [mafia voice/]Whaddyagonnado?[/mafia voice]

After charging for this studio gig for right at a decade now and attempting every possible method of compensation on the planet, I’ve determined that in my world there are no other pricing models than trading my time for a very specific cost.

I’ve officially done my last fixed price gig of my life. Let me blab a minute on why the fixed price gig is so terribly flawed.

The Utopia

Deep down, none of us want to rush during a recording session. No one wants to be rushed, either. Both of these are unideal. We all would like to think that we’ve been hired by August Burns Red, Tom Petty, Neil Diamond, MGMT or whoever it is that turns our crank to take 6-8 weeks and make the most outstanding creation possible.

Any audio engineer excited about this gig is going to push for that Utopia. That is the dream. It’s a long 6-8 weeks and it means a person isn’t doing much of anything else. (Forget birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, etc unless you’ve got a sneaky way of sliding them in.) If you’ve got other stuff on your plate, let’s just say you don’t anymore.

Would you put your entire life nearly on pause to record your favorite band? I would. Would you put your life on pause for a band that’s gonna sell $2,000 in music and merchandise, play 10 gigs, and then split? Obviously the payoff is much different and all costs and benefits need to be factored in.

When Time Isn’t A Factor

Ever mixed your own song? When did you finish it? I honestly have no idea how to finish my own song. The closest I’ve ever gotten is setting imaginary deadlines. I HAVE to get this finished by Saturday or that is IT! Of course, arbitrary points are bent, mangled, and stretched with the shadiest of rationalizations. Excuses like, “I was too tired” carry weight somehow when they wouldn’t when dealing with a third party.

Exhibit #1: You never finish your own creative work without a firm deadline. Why should you expect more from others?

When Stomach Capacity Is A Factor

Have you ever left a buffet without hearing your stomach tear just a bit? (You know that sound they use in movies when a rope is about to break.) I can sensibly eat half a plate at my favorite local hole-in-wall and jam the other half in a box for later. An hour later I feel great. It’s baffling how at a buffet I find some way to compact three freakin’ plates of food into something that shouldn’t hold more than. There’s no mistaking that I will feel absolutely miserable afterward. All so I know they didn’t rip me off! Yeah, I’ll show ‘em.

This is were it gets interesting. In my head I have some mission to get 100% of my money’s worth from that buffet even if it nearly kills me or at least ruins my afternoon.

Exhibit #2: When you pay a fixed price for a good/service with no clear limit, your ridiculous instincts kick in to maximize value even if it nearly kills you. Why would you expect someone else to behave any differently?

For Real

If both exhibits weren’t enough, we all know that the last twenty years of production have been dominated by the band who took months to perfect their opus. Most local bands hate the idea of the demo and if they make one little mistake on a record they act as if it will be engraved on their tombstone, whereas in live performances they can embrace slop in full drunken glory.

This interest in perfection and desire to do it “for real” will kick in when they first start questioning whether it’s worth THIS much work. The insecurity of sounding like a bad singer or crappy lead guitar player will carry them the rest of the way down the epic road of complete insanity.

My favorite example is when the band boss starts to contradict himself. One minute he says, “Wow! Those guitars sound great.” After a bathroom break he says, “I’m not really sure about the guitars”. That’s when you know he came up with that all on his own and listening didn’t have anything to do with it. (Make sure to let him know that he might be losing it, but you’ll take a look at it.)

Keeping Everyone Sane

I’m of the opinion that the best thing you can do for both your sanity, your personal life, and staying a content audio engineer with no interest in Columbine-like activities is utilize the cash/hour invention. It works exceptionally well. It keeps them for gorging themselves at the buffet. They don’t have to look down on themselves for not playing as well as their favorite bands because they can just blame it on the fact that they didn’t have a $100,000 budget and they work real jobs. As long as they can play relatively well and write great songs, the recording will kick ass.

I’m all for busting ass on a craft. I do think working hard to nail great performances is integral to the gig. However, that thing that makes a recording great or special is not that the artist got to scratch each and every insecurity they may have off the list. Too many recordings that have impacted my life (and yours) don’t hold up well to the find-the-flaws game, either. Many of us can name a band’s first album which was done on a tight budget and has “something” to it (flaws and all). The second album becomes a multi-million dollar affair and isn’t always superior. (For those so inclined, read up on Gun N Roses making of Use Your Illusion. If that’s not the most absurd way to spend months and millions just to make something that just isn’t quite as good, I don’t know what is.)

I’m all for being meticulous. Attention to detail is an integral part of the gig, too. However, how much is it worth? How much better does a song really sound? How far is too far?

If if rabid attention to detail made you sound incredible, how much would the local band gain if their recording sounded BETTER than your reference cd? I’m talking full-blown major label stuff. Are they going on a world tour? Is Clear Channel going to wave their payola fee and put them in heavy rotation? Then what? Does any of that crap even matter? I’m 31, I’ve got my good gig, going platinum and pocketing $18,000 after two years of epic work doesn’t sound all that enticing. I’d rather play with my dog a little bit.

No One Is Stopping Them

If a band wants to go ALL OUT and do everything as freakin’ awesome as possible no matter what, it can be done. All it takes is time and money. I have recorded a few guys who rode their bike to the studio. I have recorded many, many, many people driving $30,000+ vehicles. If that person chooses to drive in style, but only delegate enough cash to do an album in 3 days, I’m cool with that. That’s their business. If they decide that it’s worth more to make a “better” product, they can ditch their car and get a bike. I’m very cool with that.

It doesn’t take many gigs before you realize that those guys you’ve bent over backwards for to give them a killer deal are blowing their cash on the most ridiculous of junk. That’s why they didn’t have any money in the first place. The notion of finding Anthony Kedis sleeping under a bridge and being that producer who “discovered” him sounds noble. Good luck!

Conclusion

The best way to keep you, your wife, your friends, your family, and your clients sane is to work on a fixed time for cash method that everyone agrees to ahead of time.

If you really “believe” in a band (whatever the hell that means), put your time where your mouth is and do it for free.

Brandon

I cover all of this and trillion other lessons learned the hard way in my upcoming book, Surviving And Thriving In This BS Recording Studio Business.

Saved Comments
m24p – 12-13-2011, 08:04 AM Edit Reply
Although it wouldn’t hurt to have something other than straight hourly. For example, more than 8 hours a day = overtime. Or multiple day gigs the second day is cheaper. That sort of thing. But I’m seeing your point about the danger of fixed price gigs.

paul999 – 12-13-2011, 08:08 AM Edit Reply
This is a fantastic article! It really shows the pitfalls fixed pay schedules. I’ve had to adjust my fee system quite a bit over the years. Learning the same lessons you’ve pointed out here. The biggest flaw I’ve had with the hourly experience is when you get someone looking at their watch and screwing up takes because of it. I’ve landed on a system I’m pretty content with. It is a mixture of hourly and fixed. I always keep an eye on how much I am being paid/hour in the fixed situation. This helps keep your head screwed on straight.

weefolk – 12-13-2011, 08:28 AM Edit Reply
Fantastic stuff Brandon, you make lots of sense. I recorded a friend yesterday, his first recording, was really excited, and wanted to do it one takes only, until he geared it back!! I am exchanging that session for a tattoo not money though. I know he will want to do it again, but in a more prepared way, I may be covered in tattoos by the end of next year…

earwax – 12-13-2011, 09:16 AM Edit Reply
I do flat rate pricing for some things like “add a bass part,” but never when the client is going to be in the studio. It takes 3 – 5 times longer to do anything with the client there. I do a lot of projects long distance with “semi-pro” people I’ve never met in person, so it’s easy to do it that way and it eliminates the client worrying that I might be squandering his hourly dollar.

mamm7215 – 12-13-2011, 09:29 AM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by m24p
Although it wouldn’t hurt to have something other than straight hourly. For example, more than 8 hours a day = overtime. Or multiple day gigs the second day is cheaper. That sort of thing. But I’m seeing your point about the danger of fixed price gigs.
The girl I’m recording right now doesn’t have a lot of money but she is also a locally reknowned vocal coach,
so it’s recording time for vocal lessons. Bartering is as good as cash sometimes.

Mike Upchurch – 12-13-2011, 09:38 AM Edit Reply
Really good metaphor comparing fixed prices vs. hourly rates. Well done, Brandon! I don’t usually use my little studio to record others, but since I teach guitar there I wanted to reward students who stick with me for over a year. I decided to offer them one “free” song done there. My stipulation is that they have to write their own song, record the rhythm and lead guitar in one hour, and then record the lead vocal in another hour. I get paid only for my hourly guitar lesson rate. If they desire bass, drums, and back-up vocals I will add them for free. Then I quickly edit, add effects, mix it down, copy their song to CD, and hand it to them. I post their song to my band’s web site if they want it there. My total time invested is 2 hours (paid) and another 2 hours playing instruments and playing audio engineer (for free.)So far, the reaction has been great, considering their level of playing. (I only teach beginners up to intermediate level.) Parents love having this done for their kids!

bobbeals – 12-13-2011, 09:51 AM Edit Reply
Brandon, I love your stuff. Keep up the good work. I work at an independent recording studio and love the gig. It’s part time, it’s extra cash and I can spend time on stuff whenever I want. I always enjoy your articles and take a lot of pearls from them. Keep ‘em coming, bro!

mixerguyhendrix96 – 12-13-2011, 01:19 PM Edit Reply
I have done pricing/quoting in many ways, and as in most things…it depends. Know your client, if possible. if unknown, by all means go hourly. But some projects just turn out better when youre a bit flexible. Sometimes I’ll do a fixed price with limits, and call efforts beyond those “al a carte”. If they like yourwork and are reasonable humans, they shouldnt balk at that. But yes, you get what you pay for ultimately. And actually charging to little (or quoting too little) is often a negative marketing move. Like..why is this dude so cheap? if youre experienced, charge what your worth. Method is up to you, but the more familiar I am with the client, the more flexible and open to fixed quoting I am. YMMV.

andmarhar – 12-13-2011, 01:58 PM Edit Reply
As a gigging musician ( with kids and a mortgage ) I can tell you that paying hourly for studio time makes you spend more time in preparation before you go to the studio.

cporro – 12-13-2011, 02:52 PM Edit Reply
agreed. the incentives are all wrong in a fixed price deal. there is an incentive for the artist not to get there act together basically. to second guess everything and to think way too much. i think it works against studio owners and artists a like. i tell people to do a bunch of practice recording before the studio. that way they can hear if they are ready or not, work out issues, and mentally prepare. imagine the shoe on the other foot. i charge a band fixed price to record them. they pay me up front. i have the luxury of time. so i try out every mic i have on the vocalist. then i swap out cables to find the “magic” one. that compressor isn’t quite doing it for me so i patch in another. pretty soon the energy of the band is gone and did we get something magical from mic XXX and uber great preamp? probably not. big picture loss.

stevethebeeline44 – 12-13-2011, 07:49 PM Edit Reply
I COULDN’T AGREE MORE WITH ALL OF THE ABOVE!!! I’ve just finished recording a guy who cycled to my studio who went to the “buffet” wanting to do note by note editing on MIDI takes for a piano / organ part and then is concerned about the mounting costs!!! Always learning lessons with this recording fiasco… (:-O)

retrogradeorbit – 12-13-2011, 09:27 PM Edit Reply
When you really “believe” in a band, I would suggest NOT doing “it” for free. When I’ve done this in the past, “it” NEVER ENDS. What was originally a four piece, seven track release, just grew, and grew. The more unsure they were of how it was going, the more their solution became just MOAR! The tracks actually sounded way better as just the minimal, spacious, original takes. But the more tracks they put on, the more cluttered it sounded, the less they liked it, and thus the more they wanted to put on it. Then they started bringing in outside musicians. Trumpets, trombones, cellos. More and more. On EVERY track. 30 tracks. 40 tracks. 50 tracks! Arrrgghhh. YEARS went by (I’m serious).

The lesson here is if you “believe” in a band, give them a free block of time. Enough to complete what they want. But by only having a fixed block it forces them to get to the point and not go chasing butterflies. After that block has expired they can take it to another studio, or start paying. Once you create an open ended agreement, something like I’ll record your “album” for free, then the definition of what that “album” entails will begin to change. As the finishing line approaches, they’ll move it further out! Why not? It’s free! Lets go nuts!The best recordings I’ve produced have been by well rehearsed bands that actually pay for a block of time, like a weekend. Then come in and just non stop smash out some amazing music, producing pure gold in just a single weekend! More like this, and less of the former!!

I’ve also found that when its paid, even a small amount, the musicians are more prepared. If its paid, they will have restrung their guitars fresh, the drum skins will be new, they wont have spent the entire previous night drinking, and they turn up on time. When it’s free, they turn up 3 hours late, totally hungover with old strings (if they remember to bring their instrument at all), old skins, and flat batteries in their pedals. I’ve noticed even a cursory amount of money creates this effect. If it’s four band members paying $50 each, then three will be pissed off when the fourth rocks up 3 hours late, because it’s their money on the line, too!

adorian – 12-14-2011, 04:25 AM Edit Reply
Well said about the fancy cars and then “poor musician on budget” mentality. Worked with local band where they would nickel and dime the recording, yet they have $200,000 in cars between ‘em.

fHumble fHingaz – 12-14-2011, 08:08 PM Edit Reply
Great blog once again… the “All You Can Eat Buffet” analogy is very apt.Like just about everything in life, it leaves me with feelings of ambivalence, so here’s the perspective I have on it – not sure if anyone relates or agrees, but here goes…I got into recording/mixing purely as a personal outlet for my own music. I had no expectations of making money – I’ve been a musician all my life, but never had any delusions of granduer. I’m one of those silly people who believe in “Art for Art’s Sake”, & damn the expense. My personal experience with everything I’ve done is that “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right, & to the absolute best of your ability”… Each individual has a degree of natural talent in different areas, but I’ve found that, to distinguish yourself, you have to work hard at it – there’s no way around it – it’s as simple as that…That’s the attitude I took toward my own music – & it’s true – the harder I worked on it, the better it turned out.The result of that was that people started asking me to mix their music. This is both encouraging & confusing. On the one hand, you’re encouraged (dare I say, even thrilled?) that someone values the skills you’ve worked hard to develop, whereas on the other hand, you’ve developed those very skills by putting in long hours & never being content with second best… Now someone says “how much…” They are asking you to put a finite value on something you never even considered in those terms before. Ultimately, it’s a case of: “you’re damned if you do & damned if you don’t.” Let’s face facts: No one in the “semi-professional-up-&-coming-haven’t-made-it-yet-probably-never-will” realm most of us here inhabit is going to pay you what it’s really worth to mix a track to the standards they are hearing on modern radio, yet that is the standard they expect you to work to if you “volunteer” for the role of their mixer. There are just too many people out there with computers/DAWs/monitors willing to do it for less (or free). Can you mix a song in an hour? Maybe, but it will sound like it. Can you mix a song in 3 hours? Yes, & it will probably sound half decent… The fact is, though, if you want to mix it to the standards expected, it’s going to take a lot longer… & it’s a process governed by the law of diminishing returns. Will a 3 hour mix sound better a 1 hour mix? Yes, but will it sound 3 x better? Will a 30hr mix sound better than a 3 hr mix? Yes, definitely – but definitely not 10 x better…So here’s where I get caught – I’m not willing to stop until I’ve done the best I can do for a mix – I can’t put something out there that I know could be improved with just a bit more time – it’s simply a matter of taking pride in your work… After all, isn’t that the very reason someone asked me to mix their music in the first place?In the end, I try to look at things positively: I’ve gained a ton of experience & gotten better at this gig. Some that I’ve mixed for have wolfed down the “buffet” ravenously & generously complemented the “chef”, even offering to pay him more for his “meal”. Others have greedily scoffed it all down,filled their doggy bags to the brim & left me to clean up the dirty dishes/spilled food/vomit, with nary a mention of anything approaching appreciation…I know who I’ll be doing work for again. Of course, there are probably some of you super-talented guys/gals out there who can get a radio-ready mix in an hour, in which case you’re probably laughing out loud at my inexperience & naivity. C’est la Vie.
PS: Sorry if this looks like a big exhausting block of text – I did put proper paragraphs & everything, but somehow they all disappeared when I posted it.

garageband – 12-17-2011, 01:23 PM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by retrogradeorbit
When you really “believe” in a band, I would suggest NOT doing “it” for free. When I’ve done this in the past, “it” NEVER ENDS. What was originally a four piece, seven track release, just grew, and grew. The more unsure they were of how it was going, the more their solution became just MOAR! The tracks actually sounded way better as just the minimal, spacious, original takes. But the more tracks they put on, the more cluttered it sounded, the less they liked it, and thus the more they wanted to put on it. Then they started bringing in outside musicians. Trumpets, trombones, cellos. More and more. On EVERY track. 30 tracks. 40 tracks. 50 tracks! Arrrgghhh. YEARS went by (I’m serious).

The lesson here is if you “believe” in a band, give them a free block of time. Enough to complete what they want. But by only having a fixed block it forces them to get to the point and not go chasing butterflies. After that block has expired they can take it to another studio, or start paying. Once you create an open ended agreement, something like I’ll record your “album” for free, then the definition of what that “album” entails will begin to change. As the finishing line approaches, they’ll move it further out! Why not? It’s free! Lets go nuts!The best recordings I’ve produced have been by well rehearsed bands that actually pay for a block of time, like a weekend. Then come in and just non stop smash out some amazing music, producing pure gold in just a single weekend! More like this, and less of the former!!

I’ve also found that when its paid, even a small amount, the musicians are more prepared. If its paid, they will have restrung their guitars fresh, the drum skins will be new, they wont have spent the entire previous night drinking, and they turn up on time. When it’s free, they turn up 3 hours late, totally hungover with old strings (if they remember to bring their instrument at all), old skins, and flat batteries in their pedals. I’ve noticed even a cursory amount of money creates this effect. If it’s four band members paying $50 each, then three will be pissed off when the fourth rocks up 3 hours late, because it’s their money on the line, too!
This makes sense to me. If I “believe” in a band, I’ll pay the cover to see their show, but certainly not record them for free. Let’s keep a sense of proportion. I mean, that’s not far from, “If you believe in a band, you’ll let them live at your house.” “Hey, I think you guys are great! I got a hundred bucks in my wallet… here you go!”

brandondrury – 12-22-2011, 12:43 AM Edit Reply
The biggest flaw I’ve had with the hourly experience is when you get someone looking at their watch and screwing up takes because of it.
This can be an issue. I’ve found the only people who do this are those pushing their budget.

The cool thing about this is you can be the “good guy” and when it’s obvious a vocal or something needs more attention, just say “Don’t worry about this next hour. Let’s get a great take.” I do this all the time.

Sometimes I’ll do a fixed price with limits, and call efforts beyond those “al a carte”.
I think we’ve all tried this and some clients do have specific needs we need to account for. However, I find that if I deviate from the good ol’ $$/hr method I’m always taking it in the shaft. It seems that, no matter what, people find loopholes. The al a carte method can turn into IRS tax code in hurry if you can actually think of everything. You never do. At least I never do.

the more familiar I am with the client, the more flexible and open to fixed quoting I am.
The one thing I will say about this is I’ve seen Jekyll and Hyde with bands when switching from $$/hr to fixed fee. I’ve been burned by this enough that I’m VERY leery of every doing it again.

i have the luxury of time. so i try out every mic i have on the vocalist. then i swap out cables to find the “magic” one. that compressor isn’t quite doing it for me so i patch in another. pretty soon the energy of the band is gone and did we get something magical from mic XXX and uber great preamp? probably not. big picture loss.
The tendency is for us to feel we need 6 months to make a record like the “big boys” do it. That’s one way of working, but my experience shows that both I and the band(s) tend to work better within limitations. Sometimes I screw up and dramatically over compressor or something like that. It happens. You make it work. If you can’t, you just do the vocal again. It’s never a world ender.

The best recordings I’ve produced have been by well rehearsed bands that actually pay for a block of time, like a weekend.
I’ve noticed this, too. There’s something about a band that has to track live because they are broke who gets their crap together. Most of these bands play live a lot anyway and have already worked their songs out in that environment. It seems the songs that are concocted in studio land are more challenging to get right.

I, too, have been through the layers and layers and layers mess. My minimalist kick has been very good to be here lately.

Will a 3 hour mix sound better a 1 hour mix? Yes, but will it sound 3 x better? Will a 30hr mix sound better than a 3 hr mix? Yes, definitely – but definitely not 10 x better…So here’s where I get caught – I’m not willing to stop until I’ve done the best I can do for a mix – I can’t put something out there that I know could be improved with just a bit more time – it’s simply a matter of taking pride in your work.
I had a band (a good band, actually) say, “We are going to be Burger King. Can you have this song mixed by the time we get back?” I laughed and took it as a personal challenge with no promises. It ended up being a damn good mix.

I’m not sure that my mixes get better with time. Sometimes. Sometimes I overthink things, make it worse, try to do too much, etc. When I’ve got one hour I often step up. When I’ve got one month…..

This makes sense to me. If I “believe” in a band, I’ll pay the cover to see their show, but certainly not record them for free. Let’s keep a sense of proportion. I mean, that’s not far from, “If you believe in a band, you’ll let them live at your house.” “Hey, I think you guys are great! I got a hundred bucks in my wallet… here you go!”
Well said!

Brandon

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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