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How Rihanna's Hit Single "Man Down" Cost Over a Million Dollars to Write, Produce, and Promote

A rare and fascinating look into the monetary mechanisms of pop music, including writing camps, strobe lights, and flying doves.

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"They'll have strobe lights, incense burning, doves flying around the studio," she says. (Yes, Riddick has had doves circling her head while she's working.)

Rihanna is "very focused" Riddick says. So no doves.

Riddick's fee starts at $10,000 to $15,000 per song, she says.

The last step is mixing and mastering the song, which costs another $10,000 to $15,000, according to Daniels.

So, our rough tally to create one pop song comes to:

The cost of the writing camp, plus fees for the songwriter, producer, vocal producer and the mix comes to $78,000.

But it's not a hit until everybody hears it. How much does that cost?

About $1 million, according to Daniels, Riddick and other industry insiders.

"The reason it costs so much," Daniels says, "is because I need everything to click at once. You want them to turn on the radio and hear Rihanna, turn on BET and see Rihanna, walk down the street and see a poster of Rihanna, look on Billboard, the iTunes chart, I want you to see Rihanna first. All of that costs."

That's what a hit song is: It's everywhere you look. To get it there, the label pays.

Every song is different. Some songs have a momentum all their own, some songs just break out out of the blue. But the record industry depends on hits for sales. Having hits is the business plan. The majority of songs that are hits — that chart high, that sell big, that blast out of cars in the summertime— cost a million bucks to get them heard and played and bought.

Daniels breaks down the expenses roughly into thirds: a third for marketing, a third to fly the artist everywhere, and a third for radio.

"Marketing and radio are totally different," he says. "Marketing is street teams, commercials and ads."

Radio is?

"Radio you're talking about . . ." he pauses. "Treating the radio guys nice."

'Treating the radio guys nice' is a very fuzzy cost. It can mean taking the program directors of major market stations to nice dinners. It can mean flying your artist in to do a free show at a station in order to generate more spots on a radio playlist.

Former program director Paul Porter, who co-founded the media watchdog group Industry Ears, says it's not that record labels pay outright for a song. They pay to establish relationships so that when they are pushing a record, they will come first.

Porter says shortly after he started working as a programmer for BET about 10 years ago, he received $40,000.00 in hundred-dollar bills in a Fed-Ex envelope.

Current program directors told me this isn't happening anymore. They say their playlists are made through market research on what their listeners want to hear.

In any case, to return to our approximate tally: After $78,000 to make the song, and another $1 million to roll it out, Rihanna's "Man Down" gets added to radio playlists across the country, gets a banner ad on iTunes ... and may still not be a hit.

As it happens, "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— if the label recoups what it spent on the album — will Rihanna herself get paid.

 

Zoe Chace is a producer at NPR's Arts Desk.

 
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