How Much Does It Cost To Make A Hit Song? : Planet Money We go step-by-step through the making of Rihanna's song "Man Down." Bringing in top songwriters and producers costs tens of thousands of dollars. Trying to turn the song into a hit costs much more.
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How Much Does It Cost To Make A Hit Song?

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How Much Does It Cost To Make A Hit Song?

How Much Does It Cost To Make A Hit Song?

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The pop star Rihanna has had three hits singles from her latest album. And this month, she's going for a fourth.

(Soundbite of song, "Man Down")

RIHANNA (Singer): (Singing) Man down. Rum bum bum bum. Rum bum bum bum. Rum bum bum bum.

SIEGEL: "Man Down" has Rihanna's name on it but dozens of people and lots of money went into its making.

Zoe Chace of NPR's Planet Money team wondered exactly how much it costs to put a song on the pop charts.

ZOE CHACE: The words hit factory used to mean an actual building where radio-ready pop songs got written. These days, hit factories still exist but they're temporary. They're called writing camps. A record label hires the best and the brightest music writers in the country and drops them into the nicest recording studios in town for about two weeks.

Ray Daniels was invited to the writing camp for Rihanna's latest album, "Loud."

Mr. RAY DANIELS (Songwriter): It's like, you know, an all-star game. You get everybody in it. Yeah, we're going to have the best of the best so we're going to make the best records.

CHACE: Here's who shows up at a writing camp: songwriters with no music and producers toting music tracks with no words.

Daniels manages a songwriting team of two brothers called Rock City. They had to write words to music they'd never heard before.

Mr. DANIELS: They'll go into the booth and they'll hum the record. They'll just say a melody.

(Singing) Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da. Da-da-da-da-da-da-da, da...

CHACE: All that humming is expensive.

Mr. DANIELS: Let's say we've got 10 rooms working. Every day, them rooms are costing anywhere between 2,000 to 2,500 per day, per room. You've got 10 rooms going, that's 25,000 per day.

CHACE: That's not including the hotel costs, the rental cars and the nice dinners. At the end of the two weeks, Rihanna picks her favorite.

(Soundbite of song, "Man Down")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I feel the music and the drive know it wasn't right I can't even...

CHACE: What you're hearing is the demo for the song "Man Down." Rihanna liked it.

Mr. DANIELS: They literally wrote "Man Down" in about 12, 13 minutes.

CHACE: Def Jam bought it, along with the 10 other tracks that made up the album.

The cost of the writing camp breaks down to about $18,000 per song. "Man Down" was released as a single off Rihanna's album two months ago, and we'll use that song for our example.

The songwriter and the producer each got a fee for their services: 15,000 to the writer, 20,000 to the person who did the music. That's about $53,000 spent on the record so far, before Rihanna even steps into the studio - with her vocal producer.

The vocal producer's job is to make sure Rihanna sings the song right.

Ms. MAKEBA RIDDICK (Vocal Producer): I need you to belt this out. I need you to screen this.

CHACE: Enters Rihanna's vocal producer, Makeba Riddick. She's coached Rihanna to sing many chart-topping singles, and she's expensive.

Ms. RIDDICK: it can start anywhere between 10 to $15,000 to go in and do a song.

CHACE: So the writing camp, plus the songwriter's fee, plus the producer's fee, plus the vocal producer's fee, plus the mixing engineer's fee, it all adds up to about $78,000 to get to the finished product - this song...

(Soundbite of song, "Man Down")

RIHANNA: (Singing) I didn't mean to end his life. I know it wasn't right. I can't even sleep at night...

CHACE: Seventy-eight thousand dollars is pennies compared to what comes next. It's not a hit song until everybody hears it.

Mr. DANIELS: A rollout of one record might cost $1 million.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: Rihanna is here.

Unidentified Man #2: Hey, Rihanna.

Unidentified Man #3: Woo.


Mr. DANIELS: The reason why it costs so much, is because you need everything to move at once.

(Soundbite of a clap)

Mr. DANIELS: You want them to turn the radio and hear Rihanna...

Unidentified Woman #1: Rihanna is live in Studio 923

Mr. DANIELS: ...turn on BET and see Rihanna...

Unidentified Man #4: Your reactions to Rihanna's latest video "Man Down."

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #5: Rihanna.

Mr. DANIELS: ...when you look on Billboard, you look on the iTunes chart...

Unidentified Man #6: Oh my God, "Loud" is number one on iTunes right now.

Unidentified Woman #2: What?

Mr. DANIELS: I need to pay to make sure the record is on top of iTunes. When you log on to Apple Store, I want you to see Rihanna first. All of that costs. I need every thing to click at once. That's what the money comes from.

CHACE: Daniels breaks down the expenses of what's called the Record Rollout into thirds: A third for marketing, a third for moving the artist around to different cities and countries, and a third for radio.

Mr. DANIELS: Radio, you're talking about treating the radio guys nice.

CHACE: Paul Porter is a former radio program director. He remembers he hadn't been on the job for two weeks as programmer for BET before getting an envelope in the mail.

Mr. PAUL PORTER (Former Program Director, BET): Forty thousand dollars in it. It was hundred dollar bills but I remember it vividly. I miss it no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHACE: Two other program directors I spoke to say they've never received cash. Their playlists are determined through market research on what their listeners want to hear.

Ray Daniels says, these days the relationship between the labels and radio is not so overt. It's more like a nice date versus prostitution.

Mr. DANIELS: You want to get a girl when you want her to be yours, what you got to do? Take her on to restaurants that are expensive, buy her expensive gifts, you got to treat her nice. That don't mean you're paying for her. That means you're paying to show her that you're serious about her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: Kind of call it payola. But I will say that.

CHACE: It's ballpark, but approximately $1,078,000 later, Rihanna's "Man Down" gets added to radio playlists across the country, gets a banner on iTunes - oh, and the video drops.

Mr. DANIELS: Oh, yeah. You forgot the video.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: We're not even talking about the fact that the video costs 100 to 150,000. This is money. We're talking about money just to - and for something that might not work.

CHACE: Indeed, "Man Down" has not sold that well and radio play has been minimal. But Def Jam makes up the shortfall by releasing other singles. And only then, after the label recoups, will Rihanna herself get paid.

Zoe Chace, NPR News, New York.

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