Albums cost money.
We all know this, but rarely when you’re listening to an album do you hear credit cards being swiped, dollars being exchanged, bank accounts being emptied - rappers are all about overstating how much they make, not how much they spend on their albums. But once you account for the guest features, production, sample clearances and all the extras that happen behind the scenes you really are listening to music that cost more than most Americans will make in a year.
Personally, I never came across an artist explaining every cost down to the dollar. It’s one side of the business that’s rarely exposed. Kelechi, an artist from Marietta, Georgia by way of Nigeria, is about to change that. His recently released debut album, Before The Quarter, was created through Green Label Sound. Green Label is a Mountain Dew subsidiary, and being under the same umbrella as Mountain Dew and Pepsi allows Green Label Sound to do things other music websites can’t - like hold a contest for artists on the rise and give the winner $50,000 to make an album.
Back in March of 2015, Kelechi won the Open Call contest with his song “Want” and it was like he won the lottery, eliminating one major issue that all new artists run into - money. Without signing a deal he had a real budget. I believed it was more than enough money, more than he could possibly spend, but that was before we spoke and he broke down all the costs involved.
“15% off top because the IRS ain’t no hoe.”
Artwork/Web Design: $3,000
“I really value the overall experience of how a listener consumes my music. Even if it isn’t a video, there is still a visual aspect to how people are introduced to a song. Between the website, the artwork for "Reaching," "The Glo," the actual albumand additional pieces that didn’t make the final cut, a lot of money was just spent on how Before the Quarter looks.”
“Moving around was probably the biggest surprise expense. Linking with artists who weren’t in Atlanta was a totally unforeseen and underestimated expense. I had to catch BJ the Chicago Kid in Houston while he was on tour with K.R.I.T. It was a last second flight and a last second hotel and last second [reservations] cost more money.”
Studio (Including Engineering & Mixing): $16,000
“The studio is the meat and potatoes of any album. It’s where the most money was spent. The thing about going to the studio to create is that whether today was productive or not, your time costs money. So there may be sessions that end up not yielding anything that still come out of your pocket. Not to mention, I’m really meticulous about how my mixes come out so I spent a lot of sessions just tweaking songs.”
“Getting exclusives on beats isn’t cheap. Not to mention I sat with multiple musicians and laid post production down on several tracks. Keys, strings, bass. Some of which didn’t even make the album.”
“We’re artists and this is fun, but this is our job. Paying for features, even though it was one of the more costly parts of the project, didn’t really make me flinch. I really value art and when I got the chance to put bread in some really phenomenal artists pockets, I didn’t really hesitate.”
“Pretty much every interaction on the album needed a contract of some sort. From production to features all the way down to artwork and each choir singer. Because of the involvement of such a big brand, limits and parameters had to be very black and white and it costs money to make sure you’re protected legally.”
A breakdown of all the costs really puts things into perspective. Lil Yatchy isn’t the only artist that cares about cover art, as I have written the past, you will pay a pretty penny when you decide not to go the route of a stock image. There’s a lot of vibrant color and details on Kelechi’s album cover, the artist Yesterdaynite has a unique style that really works. Web design is also becoming very important, especially when you’re selling an experience. When the album dropped I remember him encouraging everyone to listen on his website first, to immerse themselves in the hand-written letters that coincide with the Before The Quarter’s theme. Makes you wonder how much money went into Childish Gambino’s custom webpages and the script for Because of the Internet. Good coding and an interesting layout doesn’t come cheap.
Traveling was also something I had never considered. When you see your favorite artist taking flights across the world it looks like an incredible lifestyle but it’s also a costly one. Imagine doing this without a label advance or budget, it all will add up. And every time a rapper Instagrams a picture in the studio it should come with the amount each session costs. I've been told that Young Thug has a session booked in a popular Atlanta studio every night and no matter if he shows up or not, his card is charged for it.
$50,000 dollars to make a rap album. Not everyday is an artist given such a large sum of money to fund his or her dream. Kelechi has a line on his album where he raps, “Couple hundred thousand SoundCloud plays ain’t gonna retire momma.” When you look at how much he spent, what’s the worth of a single Soundcloud stream? Unless you can turn that into monetary value it’s literally just a number. Some rappers may be rich but it costs money to make money. Everything in this industry has a sticker price. Everything. This is the music business.
When you listen to Before The Quarter, you are listening to something that cost $50,000 to make. That’s not an exaggeration. It would take forever to save that much money working at The Gap or some regular 9-to-5 job. While we might focus on the expensive cars and clothes that artists wear, I think it’s more interesting to think about how much is spent making the music we adore so much. That’s a price tag that isn’t flaunted. Instead of showing us hip-hop's top earners, Forbes should produce a cover story about the artists who spend the most on their album. Now that would be a great read.
This won't be Kelechi's last album. For him, this is the beginning of a career, but Mountain Dew won't be around to cut a $50K check for the next one. It makes you wonder about how he will move forward in the future. It's a surreal experience. If you make a $50K album, it's because you signed to a label or you're indie and already very well established. He was thrown into that next level with a large sum of money, able to spend it, but no real blueprint to make it all back and more. His future is in his own hands.
I asked him about being in this unusual position, "The easiest thing that can add value to an emerging artist is a co-sign from a major artist. I don't have a co-sign so people don't know how much I'm worth. It's weird, most values (especially on emerging artists) are very abstract and I received a concrete sum of money, so it's odd to give an exact, 'return on investment.' I've gotten paid more from shows based on opportunities leveraged from it. I'm having conversations with companies about licensing songs from the album for huge budget movies. Cara Lewis is my booking agent and I'm touring this summer. I hate to sound like I'm bragging, but there are revenue streams starting to generate off of spending the money that was from the contest and I will continue to open up possibilities to afford me the [same] kind of money for my future albums and career."
A career in music isn't free for anyone.