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1 Million Bucks to Create a Hit Song

I read a fascinating article this weekend by Zoe Chace from NPR about the costs behind crafting a hit single. She digs into the background of one of Rihanna’s singles (“Man Down”) from her latest record titled, Loud.

One of the most intriguing points she makes in an article full of intriguing points is the estimated costs for all the behind-the-scenes players who turn songs into records into money. I’ve included a graphic from the article below:

That’s $1 million bucks folks, and of that, $78,000 goes toward crafting a single song.

So much for the concept of sitting in your basement and crafting your best song that you hope and pray becomes a hit single.

Here’s a revealing quote about the writing camp:

“The writing camp for Rihanna’s album “had to cost at least 200 grand,” Daniels says. “It was at least forty guys out there. I was shocked at how much money they were spending! But, guess what? They got the whole album out of that one camp.”

A writing camp is like a reality show, where top chefs who have never met are forced to cook together. At the end, Rihanna shows up like the celebrity judge and picks her favorites.”

Simply amazing.

Listen to Man Down by Rihanna

Each day I listen to songs and write about artists who only have a single Top 40 hit. We all know there are people who consider a one-hit wonder label a badge of shame.


I see one-hit wonder status as a badge of honor. Particularly for many artists in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s who did things independently. As Sinatra sang, “I did it my way.”

I’m thinking about artists like Kraftwerk whose quirky snyth-based songs had no place on the radio in the early 1970s, yet somehow “Autobahn” made the list.

Or how about The White Stripes. No writing camps or slick producers created “Icky Thump,” that band’s single Billboard Top 40 hit.

I’m not naive enough to believe that there aren’t thousands of bands who had stacks of producers behind them to create a single, indelible hit. Exhibit A: Taylor Hicks’ “Do I Make You Proud” from 2006. That one had the entire weight of American Idol behind it. All the producers, the stylists, the managers, the handlers, the Soul Patrol. You could argue that song cost a lot more than $1 million to hit the top of the charts.

Check out this list of 24 1970s Number One Songs that Are One-Hit Wonders and try to discern which artists were the independents and which ones had lots of help steering them along. I think there’s a bit of both in the mix.

I don’t care whether someone hits the Billboard Top 40 with a single quirky hit or a lasting anthem. I don’t really care if they did it alone or if brilliant producers and songwriters made it happen.

What I find most amazing is the fact that once in a while, to use the cliche, certain songs capture “lightning in a bottle” and become massive hits.

Sometimes it’s expected (see Hicks, Taylor). Sometimes it’s a complete shock (see “Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba or “Macarena” by Los Del Rios).

But no matter how much money you throw at a song, no one can guarantee a hit. “Man Down” by Rihanna sits at #59 this week after six weeks on the chart and hasn’t yet broken the Billboard Top 40.

It’s more proof that a million bucks can buy a lot. But it can’t always buy a hit.

Click to read “How Much Does It Cost to Make a Hit Song?” by Zoe Chace.

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I'm an obsessive music collector, cataloger, commenter and trivia nut. Sometimes I'm even a listener. One-hit wonders have always been a guilty pleasure.

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3 Responses to "1 Million Bucks to Create a Hit Song"

  1. John Wilson says:

    When music is being created like this, at what point does it stop being art and become purely business?

  2. Michael Waterman says:

    Great question, John. It’s like everything these days; you have to maximize your return on investment (ROI). We could debate this for hours. Art is still involved in the writing, arrangement and performance. But it’s as closely married to commerce as songwriting can be. Good product development and popular products = revenue. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking music, cars, clothing or politics.

    By the way, it has been one week since I wrote about “Man Down” by Rhianna. It continues to drop in popularity and is now at #67 on the Billboard Hot 100 after peaking at #59 last week. That million bucks ain’t gonna push that song into the top 40.

  3. Rickson Fore says:

    Over a million bucks to create songs that sound like “Man Down”? What is there to like about that song? I guess there’s a market out there for stuff that achieves a 2 on a 10 rung substance chart. Geez. I feel bad about bagging on it because she’s going out there and really living her dream of being a singer but a million to write and promote that stuff? It’s probably a drop in the bucket for these record companies but I wish they produced better stuff.

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