EXPERT WITNESS: The economics of music for attorneys and others: A redux (part three)


By John F. Sase, Ph.D.
Gerard J. Senick, general editor
Julie G. Sase, copyeditor

“There’s a great Duke Ellington quote, ‘There are only two types of music—good music and bad music...’ I experienced this last week! Here I am, a film composer, talking with Pete Townshend [of the Who]and he’s explaining the last four Beethoven Quartets to me. We musicians are funny. We’re incredible snobs about music—but this is not dependent on style. We could have been discussing some fantastic Country and Western song or a piece of Electronica.”
—Hans Zimmer, American Film Composer (quoted in “Role of Music in Human Culture,” by Vikas Shah, MBE, Thought Economics, August, 2017)

In Parts One and Two of this series, we considered the concept of Labor through the example of a professional musician and addressed the general economics of producing performances and copies. This month, we will explore the economics of creating recorded music.

Depending on the individual foci of practices, attorneys may take on cases that involve Intellectual Property and Contracts in the Music Industry. Quite often, composers and performing artists remain neophytes in matters of the economic and legal issues of their industry. Therefore, in this month’s and next month’s column, we will address the basics of Economics and Law for producing, recording, manufacturing, and marketing recorded music. I (Dr. Sase) will address the economic issues. In addition to being an Economist, I am a musician who has released my compositions and has produced and engineered the music of other artists in a project-studio that I have owned and operated for two decades. In respect to the legal elements, I am grateful for the advice and clarification offered by Entertainment Attorney Howard Hertz of Hertz Schram PC in Bloomfield Hills, MI ( For the benefit of our readers, we will keep our techno-speak and accounting-math to a minimum. Instead, we will present the big picture as we offer our basic treatise on the issues involved in the music market. We hope that our efforts will aid attorneys in educating their clients, family members, or friends who may desire a career in this field. (Since many attorneys also perform music, some of our readers may be interested in making their music available to the public at large.) Therefore, without further ado, we present our primer on recorded music for your edification.

Producing Recorded Music

We suggest that every musician start by making a “low-fi” recording at each rehearsal and gig. Often, performers use a digital pocket-recorder, the type that is employed to record lectures and meetings. Since newer digital models hold more than six hours of recordings, musicians can turn them on and let them be. If the material and its performance sound acceptable under such primitive conditions, the recording passes the pocket-transistor radio test of the 1960s. Also, these recordings preserve the changes to the song structure and the arrangements that occurred during the session or performance for future reference.

Digital video-recorders serve us well for the same purposes. In the world of Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), video recordings may provide excellent scratch-tracks for the production phase. The ability to watch movement and to see changes as they happen frees musicians, producers, and engineers from the old-fashioned mechanical click-track. This approach helps everyone involved to achieve a more natural and expressive feel in the multi-track overdubbing process. For a good example of synching up music tracks and concert videos from multiple performances, we recommend viewing the video by the American rock band the Grateful Dead that is entitled Grateful Dead 4 17 72 Tivoli Concert ... with Sound from Europe 72 CD (

We suggest preparing all of your instrumental and vocal parts in advance and developing a work-schedule that includes contingency plans for when you enter the studio, which is the final place in which you may be able to maintain creative control. If you need to make last-minute changes, you can keep them to a minimum in order to avoid excessive pressure and confusion during a session.

With the assistance of his friend, the American crooner and film star Bing Crosby, renowned U.S. guitarist Les Paul (né Lester William Stutz-Polsfuss) invented the modern multitrack, sound-on-sound recording process at his garage studio in 1957.

Paul stated emphatically, “I never walk over to that machine until I know what I’m going to do and I never use the machine to find it. I find it and then go to the machine and use it. I never let the machine tell me. I tell the machine what to do.” (Advice from Les Paul for Recording Music,

English guitarist Jimmy Page of the band Led Zeppelin acted as the producer on their recordings. He obtained the massive drum sounds played by drummer John Bonham by recording them in the great hall of Hedley Grange, Page’s medieval-era home.

Forests, beaches, bathrooms, living rooms, and other ordinary locations provide wonderful places to experiment and to develop unique musical sounds. Generally, the recording studio does not serve well for this purpose. Even if musicians have project-studios that allow them to work off of the clock, they usually can maintain perspective by doing the work-up somewhere else.

Lessons from Filmmaking

We can borrow a good parallel of detailed planning from the Motion-Picture Industry, the industry that interfaces the most with the Music Industry. English-born filmmaker and TV host Alfred Hitchcock worked as a director in both the British and American studio systems. He was responsible not only for his own time but for the time of many other professionals working together on the same project. In advance of shooting, “Hitch” storyboarded every shot of a scene before stepping onto the soundstage. In the famous shower scene in his film “Psycho” starring Janet Leigh (Shamley Productions, 1960), there are fifty-two individual shots in this scene of three minutes and ten seconds (Famous Shower Scene from “Psycho” (1960) Dissected in 52 Shots,

Hitchcock, the master of storyboards, worked out every detail, including the use of chocolate syrup to simulate blood going down the drain. He framed each shot in advance of rolling the cameras. Also, a significant talent that contributed to Hitchcock’s success came from his ability to maintain creative control in exchange for tight budget-management through meticulous planning, a practice that pays off when time is money.

The Recording Studio

Returning to the recording studio, we also borrow from the filmmaking practice by preparing more material than we intend to record. Life happens. With a bit of good fortune, musicians sometimes move through the tracking faster than expected. At other times, a piece of music does not gel satisfactorily. When this occurs, producers need to shelve the tracks that have been recorded in order to rework them later. With the time and physical cost of preparation, travel, and coordinating the schedules of the producer, recording engineer, musicians, and other participants in a session, contingency plans constitute a valuable asset. On this point, the time-is-money constraint spills over to the tools of the trade. A variation of Murphy’s Law states that items including amplifiers, microphones, cables, and fuses have the notoriety to fail at critical times. Back-ups of these items must remain available on short notice.

As with many life endeavors, experience remains the best teacher in the recording arts. Rehearsing along with tracks previously recorded for use during overdubbing sessions provide the most economical way to prepare adequately for a take. Generally, sound-on-sound recordings gel best when built upon percussion tracks that are recorded against a simple scratch- or click-track. Then, tracking progresses upward through the pitch-spectrum (lower to higher frequencies). The addition of bass, keyboards, guitars, and other instruments provides the bed for the lead instruments and vocals. Offering a lead instrumentalist or vocalist a copy of the best mix, sans scratch-tracks, helps to avoid confusion, frustration, and wasted time. This work-mix allows soloists to develop their parts while getting acclimated to the nuances of tempo, rhythm, and volume-changes before the session. Such development results in fewer retakes on the path to the final mix. Thorough preparation helps to minimize production costs that eclipse the replication cost of creating CDs, Vinyl, or MP3 copies. The benefit of time management outweighs the time-and-money costs of thorough preplanning.

Whether or not musicians pay out of pocket for studio time, they make hefty investments of their own time, as do the other musicians, producers, engineers, and technicians who are vested in the project. Therefore, everyone should show up (first of all) at the studio and arrive on time or, if possible, should get there a bit early. The studio is a professional work environment for musicians and their associates. Therefore, we extend the same respect and courtesy to music professionals as to professionals in other fields. If we must delay, postpone, or cancel, we must do so promptly. Equal to the importance of showing up and starting on time is knowing when to stop work on individual tracks and the session as a whole. Work fatigue remains a relative term. However, a trait worth developing is being able to sense the point at which the marginal net-benefit of tracking an additional take equals zero.

Time Is Money

Musicians who do not act as producers or engineers on their work should make time to meet with the other professionals in order to share the vision, needs, and concerns of the project in advance of any sessions. We use this time to go over production notes, equipment requirements, and other mundanities. Before work begins, everyone involved needs to understand the scope and depth of their responsibilities. Delays eat up time and money. Remember, Time Is Money! Therefore, musicians and recording professionals need to make certain that they remain on the same page.

Furthermore, everyone involved in the project needs to be aware of the limitations of the studio and its equipment. This practice requires knowing the number and assignment of tracks, microphones, signal processors, the mixing console, and other essentials. Planning to use any unfamiliar equipment? Then, those involved need to make the time to research and to understand those items and, if possible, to work with this equipment beforehand. If possible, unpleasant surprises should not be a part of recording sessions. For optimal planning, members of the group need to familiarize themselves with any limitations in order to avoid last-minute alterations to the planned mix.

When the red recording sign lights up, the artists and technicians need to discipline themselves in order to keep the production from going over budget. All the while, we bear in mind that we “art” (the denomilisation of art, the noun). Playing with feeling and emotion from the heart remains of paramount importance. Producing art commercially or otherwise requires that we walk the fine line between the pragmatic and the ethereal, as 99% perspiration provides the platform for genius.

As recording musicians, we must work with the technology, not against it. Generally, many of us believe that it is best to “keep on playing” through a take that feels “flop-ish” rather than to stop and to start over again. Often, suspected sub-adequate performances sound great in retrospect. As part of the art of recorded music, we have the capability of “punching in” a short section of retake or digital copy and seamlessly molding a few notes into a track. As long as most of the take maintains the necessary artistic integrity, the pragmatism of time-is-money works out.

In shaping the sound, musicians remain focused on a lead line that prevails at the moment. In popular music, the vocal usually takes the lead, except during intros, outros, and instrumental solos. Developing the vocal and instrumental accompaniment against a rough take of the lead-line serves to achieve a fluent and natural sound. Also, the accompaniment provides a solid understructure that offers flexibility and independence to the musicians who rerecord the final takes of the lead-lines. Ergo, the accompaniment continues to remain most economical to achieve the desired sound during original tracking. Normally, it costs more to dig into a final master-mix in order to repair or to rebuild short segments before the final mix-down to mono, stereo, or surround sound. Recording clean and then adding effects and other “sweetening” afterward tends to produce the superior sound.

Profits Equal Revenues Minus Costs

Musicians approach the production of recorded music with the same regard that any other successful professional or business entrepreneur would treat their concerns. As in many competitive markets, the Average Revenue per physical copy or downloaded track remains relatively constant across the span of all artists. For example, consider the album “Born This Way” by American singer/performer Lady Gaga. A top-ten seller of 2011, her record hit the market at a retail price equivalent to that of the album “MDNA” by American recording-artist Madonna. “MDNA” ended up as one of the bottom-ten sellers of that year. Notably, Price was not a determinant. Resultantly, the economic task of controlling the Profit per Unit rests fully on the cost side of the calculation. Since music production involves the costs of talent and studio time, the producer seriously should consider any action that can shave costs safely without destroying the integrity, quality, and marketability of the product. Note: these actions may include keeping “guests” out of the studio session, frequently making backup copies of takes, and keeping detailed notes that have been written throughout the project.

In order to complete a quality product, we expect that editing, mixing, and other post-production work will consume the “lion’s share” of budgeted time and money. When we add together all of the production and post-production time, we should anticipate an average investment of at least forty to fifty hours per track. In other words, we may consider 500 hours per album as the norm. This time-estimate may explain why having open access to a home studio for most of the post-production work carries a great value that results in savings. This value comes in part from the fact that human ears tire easily; consequently, prolonged post-sessions lead to diminished listening capabilities. This results in Diminishing Returns to Scale in respect to prolonged session length. Work beyond the mundane cutting, splicing, and adding fades and plug-in effects demands the perspicacity of fresh ears. Tired ears usually result in a substandard mix that requires costly reworking.

Wrapping Up

How and when do you know when the mix is done? This question resembles asking a chef if the soup is done. Simply, it is a matter of knowing. We may define that moment in the commercial-recording process as the point at which we reach an economic Constrained Optimality. It reflects the balance at which artists achieve the fulfillment of their visions subject to practical budgetary constraints. One knows that the soup is done. For some engineers, this endpoint arrives when they play the mixdown through a pair of “crappy old car-speakers.” Others define this bliss-point in respect to playing the recording for others who have not heard it previously and getting a positive response. The sound must feel right to the producer, engineer, and objective listeners as well as—importantly—to the artist. Studio professionals obtain the most desirable vocal and instrumental takes and then use their wizardry to create a work that reflects the vision and integrity of the artist while sounding great as well. From their talent and experience, these professionals know that the time has come to release their music to the world.


We hope that we have edified our readers with respect to the physical and economic aspects of the Recorded-Music Business. Next month, we will explore the legal perspective that complements the artistic, technical, and economic side of the Music Industry. We will explore the tangible contribution to a recording that may result in copyright ownership or performance rights being held by any person contributing to the work. Alternately, we will discuss that agreements should contain proper “work-for-hire” language. This is necessary in order for the artist and the record label complete an album for which they own the copyrights and then may distribute for sale to the public.
Dr. John F. Sase teaches Economics at Wayne State University and has practiced Forensic and Investigative Economics for twenty years. He earned a combined M.A. in Economics and an MBA at the University of Detroit, followed by a Ph.D. in Economics from Wayne State University. He is a graduate of the University of Detroit Jesuit High School (

Gerard J. Senick is a freelance writer, editor, and musician. He earned his degree in English at the University of Detroit and was a supervisory editor at Gale Research Company (now Cengage) for over twenty years. Currently, he edits books for publication (

Julie G. Sase is a copyeditor, parent coach, and empath. She earned her degree in English at Marygrove College and her graduate certificate in Parent Coaching from Seattle Pacific University. Ms. Sase coaches clients, writes articles, and edits copy (