How Much Does It Cost to Record a Demo?

performing band silhouette

If you’re wondering “How much does it cost to record a demo?” the answer is, it depends on the quality of the two major elements: the recording studio costs and the talent. Like most things, you get what you pay for.

In this article we’ll cover typical studio rates, session musician fees, give a few cautions to prevent you from wasting your hard earned money, then put a mock quote together, typical of a quote we’d give here at Nashville Trax.

You are probably also interested in opportunities to  pitch or market your song after your demo is made. Here is a free list of major label and independent label song pitch opportunities.

Why is quality in every aspect of the demo making process your best bet?

A cheap pair of shoes from Dollar Bargain may not be as stylish, may not ne as comfortable or last as long as a pair from a high dollar shoe store, but they’ll basically do their job. Unfortunately, unless your demo is for “family and friends only” a cheap demo almost surely won’t. Your shoes aren’t looking to “take first place” in a lineup of competing shoes. Your shoes aren’t going to be scrutinized by a gauntlet of professionals before you can “win the big prize” (a publishing contract, an artist deal with a record company or a major label recording).

If your goal is simply to have a demo made for your family or friends then B list musicians or a one man band style demo using a drum program instead of a session drummer may be good enough.

Aiming for that big prize? That publishing deal? The major label contract? Wear cheap shoes, spend the extra bucks on your demo, it’s a better investment.

These days most A&R people are straight-from-college, wet-behind-the-ears newbie interns with little experience and little ability to hear a gem in the rough, you must spell it out for them. If it doesn’t sound pretty close to a radio hit and/or doesn’t sound as good as the song from a hit songwriter with an unlimited demo budget they just screened two minutes ago, they will delete your mp3 or toss your demo CD in the trash before it even hits the first chorus.

If you’re in this songwriting business to play games, to toy with it, by all means, do a three or four hundred dollar full band demo and kid yourself you have a shot. If you’re serious about getting your songs cut, do it right: Make the investment needed to be in the game for real, $300 doesn’t even cover the fees a full band of session quality players charge. No matter what the studio claims, you are not getting quality for that price. In the long run it’s not that much extra to get session quality on a demo you’ll be proud to play in any professional-scrutiny-situation the rest of your life.

The costs discussed here reflect what professionals in the music industry who do stellar work charge, not semi-pros or hacks who do “passable work” or “pretty good work”. Pretty good doesn’t win you that one open slot on a recording project. Stellar might.

So let’s crunch numbers:  the “talent” portion in the talent/studio equation mentioned above includes the singers, musicians, arranger, engineer and producer. Typically the costs about to be discussed are part of a turnkey package quote as in, “We’ll demo your song for $1.150” or whatever price the demo service arrives at.

Price alone isn’t the only test of a quality service. There is more than one active demo service a.k.a “recording studio” here in Nashville, including one of the biggest on Music Row, that subs out every full band project. They charge between $400 to $1,000, then hand your song off to one of their subcontracted studios for about 50% of what you pay. They pocket the other half for fifteen minutes of simply forwarding your rough materials to a subcontracted studio, getting the completed project back and giving you back the finished mix.

How does a sub do a demo for $250 or $500 when even the full $500 would not be enough to hire pro session players, a pro vocalist and do a quality, multiple hour mix, let alone cover the studio costs, engineering fees, etc.?

They cut every corner possible. They write quickie charts then hire sub-par C list musicians, one or two singers and run 20 songs at a time, assembly line fashion. Instead of spending approx. eight to ten hours on your song, the time required to do quality, each song may receive a grand total of forty=five minutes to two hours of attention, next!

It’s called sharking and that particular Music Row studio’s name on a project is a red flag to industry pros. It’s cheaper yes, but is that really what you want? A ripoff product and the scarlet letter of shame?

So how much does a legit demo studio cost?

First, caution number two, when choosing a studio, get what you need, but not more.

Most good demo studios charge in the $70 to $150 per hour range. Don’t go below $70 per hour on the studio time portion because then you’re scraping bottom barrel so the equipment probably isn’t very modern or very high quality, there will almost surely be issues (dirty pots, noisy analog cords and connections, gear that doesn’t work properly, etc.) and those issues will almost surely show up in the music itself. Above $150 per hour and you’re likely getting into master session audio/video studios that are charging for equipment and recording spaces you probably don’t need to create a good demo.

Musicians and engineers vary in quality too. The timing and chart reading experience required to be a successful session player is far above that needed to play a live gig. The timing part can’t be emphasized enough. Use live players who aren’t seasoned studio vets and the music piece almost surely won’t lock together the way music played by seasoned session quality players does. Impeccable timing is a rare talent that session players seem to be born with.

And some engineers have “great ears” some don’t.

To better understand why it’s important to get “session quality musicians” you should know: the majority of musicians who come to Nashville intending to break into the session scene, the “best of the best” back where they come from, mistakenly think they’ll easily compete with a bunch of “country three-chord-playin’ bumpkins” but have no idea what they’re getting into.

Instead of “easy pickin’s” they typically have their behind handed to them on a platter. The majority fail miserably at session work attempts and end up either focusing strictly on live work which is less demanding musically and less competitive here, or return to where they came from, broke, embarrassed and broken.

You want the players who work sessions daily.

Experienced session quality musicians cost per song

For a demo session, musicians typically charge the studio (with no markup on the studio end) are about $50 to $125 per instrument per song, occasionally higher in certain situations. Guitar, for example, usually requires multiple tracks (lead, rhythm, acoustic, etc.) so guitarists usually make more per song. Ditto keyboards, live strings and a few other instruments.

Rates are generally higher if you are doing only one song. Multiple songs can sometimes knock the per song price down a bit. At our studio, Nashville Trax which is the physical studio we use for our Play It Again Demos service, we usually discount for multiple songs as well as for doubles, passing on player discounts to our customers. For example, both our fiddle players play mandolin at session quality and for a same song second pass on mando they already know the tune so they’ll charge less for that pass.

Singer’s fees are all over the map. Decent singers start around $80 per song for a lead vocal with 1 track of self-harmony. But some charge as high as $250 or even $350 per song, and get it, because they’re that good, that in demand. Typically the singers charging over $175 per song do a lot of major label work. and maybe you do need a vocalist of that caliber. But we can almost always get an excellent singer, perfect for your song, in the $100 to $175 range.

Let’s put together a quote for a basic 4 piece band demo:

A typical 1 song band demo requires about one day or a little more of studio time for the pre-production charting, rhythm tracking, overdubs, vocals and mixing. So at least $560 there. That does usually include the engineer.

It may or may not include the producer’s fee. Here at Play It Again Demos, or Nashville Trax, it does.

2 musicians at $75 each and 2 at $125 = $400

Add the singer we need to put the song across properly, let’s assume a $125 per song rate. Our philosophy: the singer IS the song, pay what you must to get the right one. That isn’t necessarily the most expensive one.

TOTAL: $1,085.
TOTAL with optional mastering for that “radio ready polished” sound: $1,200
TOTAL to add two more instruments and include mastering: $1,400

Note that each song is different. Some are lengthy, some short, some need a more expensive singer to put it across properly, The actual cost is going to vary and could be as low as $795 or so, but those are pretty reasonable ballpark figures.

Typically the majority of the full band demos we produce here, using session quality singers and players, land between about $875 up to $1,200.

Also note that stacked or extensive background vocals, or certain high profile musicians, often cost more. Horn sections cost more. a more elaborate mix. A 6 piece band instead of four…these elements can push a demo up quite a bit. A $1,200 to $1,500 total cost for a one song demo is pretty common for that sort of layered, extensive track work. Adding an extra musician adds their fee, extra record time and extra mix time.

If you think something simpler, such as a piano/vocal demo will get your song across, you can cut back to about 2.5 to 4 hours of pre-production and studio time depending on complexity. A piano/vocal usually lands at about $250 to $350.

So now instead of asking, “How much does it cost to record a demo?” you can figure out what instrumentation is required, do the math and know approximately what a demo should cost.

Or hit us up for a quote! E-mail your mp3 rough and a lyric sheet to:

nashtrax@bellsouth.net Att: Bill Watson

* By definition, a demo is intended to demonstrate the song with the intention of playing it for friends. family, industry professionals etc. it’s not usually intended to be sold publicly so the rates charged by services and musicians for demos reflect that. There are also other levels of recordings usually demos that later get the mastering process called “limited release” that give you a license to sell a certain number of CDs or downloads (for example a limited release project permits sales of 10,000 downloads or 2,500 CDs).

An upgrade of your demo to limited release will add $100 to $200 to the costs detailed above.