The economics of music albums have always been and likely always will be buried deep in not-for-public-consumption quarterly reports of major labels/conglomerates, but that hasn't stopped news reports proclaiming a record to be among the most expensive albums ever created. These proclamations are based on researched information, forthright and/or publicity-desiring musicians, and in the deadest of giveaways, whenever a record label files for bankruptcy soon after the album's release. Here are fifteen of the most egregious examples of spending a lot of money to get the sounds just right.
1. GUNS N' ROSES // CHINESE DEMOCRACY
In the 2005 New York Times article "The Most Expensive Album Never Made," a "recording expert" who was present for some of the recording of Chinese Democracy said that Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose wanted to make "the best record that had ever been made. It’s an impossible task. You could go on infinitely, which is what they’ve done.”
Infinitely, in this case, was 14 years. In the seemingly neverending quest for perfection, certain eccentric methods of music production were allowed to happen, such as guitarist Buckethead playing in a makeshift chicken coop, scented with authentic dog poop (Buckethead likes the smell of dog poop). There was a vigorous vetting process to be involved in the project, which included a necessary approval by Axl's spiritual therapist Sharon "Yoda" Maynard, and re-recording every song off of Guns N' Roses' debut album Appetite For Destruction. Geffen documents claimed that over $13 million was spent in production costs; the label actually saved money after promising Rose $1 million if he delivered Chinese Democracy at a certain time, a deadline Rose would miss by almost 10 years. The $13 million price tag accumulated from the monthly payrolls: Each bandmember received $11,000, guitar technicians $6000, the chief engineer $14,000, the recording software engineer $25,000. Rental of the studio itself cost $50,000 a month. Expensive guitars would be rented for "many thousand dollars" every month without being used, to the point where it would have been cheaper to buy axes like the '59 Les Paul outright. Rose wouldn't bother going into the studio for long stretches of time, long enough that some of the musicians formed another band, A Perfect Circle, during his absence.
Finally, on November 23, 2008, the album was released. Dr Pepper gave away a soda to every thirsty person to celebrate. The reviews were mixed, and album sales were lower than expected—a fact that Rose blamed on the label not caring enough about the album to heavily promote it.
2. THE BEACH BOYS/BRIAN WILSON // SMILE
Forty years before Axl released what he hoped to be the greatest album ever made, the story of Smile's arduous recording process effectively began with the reported mission statement Brian Wilson made to dinner guests on an October 1966 night: "I'm writing a teenage symphony to God." Some songs from the album's aborted sessions would appear on official Beach Boys albums, but it wasn't until 2004 that a Wilson-approved Brian Wilson Presents Smile was released.
The long delay can be blamed on Wilson's drug intake and depression in the late '60s and 1970s, which began with the public's tepid reaction to the single release of "Heroes and Villains," a song Wilson believed would be as welcomed as The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever." While there isn't an official or reported figure revealing exactly how much money was spent on the entire album, Wilson's demands included an Arabian-style tent built in his house for the consumption of sandwiches, weed, and LSD, which ran $30,000 (about $220,000 now with inflation factored in). The placement of his piano in a sandbox filled with eight tons of premium beach sand could not have been cheap either. The economics behind "Good Vibrations," the song produced first and placed last on the track listing, was made public, approaching $75,000 ($550,000 today), including use of the Electro-Theremin itself (responsible for $15,000). Even though Capitol Records knew it was the most expensive single that had ever been produced, the results led them to approve of the conception of the rest of the "symphony," to their financial detriment.
3. QUEEN // A NIGHT AT THE OPERA
After fighting to be released from a management deal gone sour, Queen decided to go for broke on A Night At The Opera, which in 1975 was considered to be the most expensive rock album ever made. Spending over £40,000 (equivalent to $500,000 in today's money), the group worked to create their own Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Particular meticulousness was showcased with "Bohemian Rhapsody," containing a 180-voice "chorus"—just Freddie Mercury, Brian May, and Roger Taylor's vocals stacked on top of one another—created over a week's worth of 12-hour days. Producer Roy Thomas Baker referred to the song as "totally insane. We never stopped laughing. It was basically a joke, but a successful joke." It wouldn't be the last time Baker was accused of humor.
4. THE DARKNESS // ONE WAY TICKET TO HELL...AND BACK
After the success of their debut album Permission To Land, anchored by the hit single "I Believe in a Thing Called Love," The Darkness began to further indulge their 1970s hard rock/glam sound and image for their follow-up record—and found themselves quagmired in personal tumult and escalating money issues. The band even hired Roy Thomas Baker, who besides working with Queen was also behind albums from Journey, Foreigner, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick, Motley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, and yes, for a time, Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy. Approaching £1 million in costs (about 1.8 million in 2005 U.S. dollars), One Way Ticket to Hell...and Back was made up of songs that included 120 to 160 guitar parts each. Baker claimed that in some cases 100 guitars made it to the final track for "just two seconds." After one year, Baker cut down 37 songs, 400 reels of tape (he insisted on recording in analog) and almost 10,000 tracks to just 10 songs and 35 minutes, but not before bassist Frankie Poullain was fired and a "great amount of angst and paranoia" set in. The album didn't nearly sell as well as its five-times-platinum predecessor, and the reviews were mixed, with one critic writing that One Way was the "world's most expensive penis joke."
5. FLEETWOOD MAC // TUSK
Four years after A Night at the Opera, Fleetwood Mac's 1979 LP Tusk took over the "most expensive rock album ever made" designation by the media, thanks to its $1 million price tag—a number that in later years would change to $1.4 million (if only the 1979 media knew).
Twenty-three million copies of the group's previous album Rumours would eventually be sold, yet Warner Brothers denied band manager Mick Fleetwood his request for the group to buy its own studio with a company advance. Instead, $1.4 million went to "custom-fitting" Studio D at the Village Recorder in Los Angeles. In Rob Trucks' 33 1/3 book Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, it's said that on the very first night of recording, the whole group celebrated Mick's new purchase of a $70,000 sports car with cocaine, before Mick received a phone call saying that the uninsured car was broadsided and demolished while being towed to his home. When the session ended at 6am, the night/early morning officially ended without any actual audio put to tape.
The 20-song, double album Tusk would sell four million records, thereby making it a profitable failure to the label. The number of copies of Rumours sold compared to Tusk's is the all-time biggest decrease by any recording artist from one major-label album to the next. Excuses for its "disappointing sales" include RKO radio networks playing the entire album to its cassette tape recording capable audiences prior to its release, and the high retail price of $15.98 (over $50 in 2014 dollars).
6. STEELY DAN // GAUCHO
Gaucho's expensive delays can be blamed on drugs and musicians given as much time as possible to develop their new, possibly more profitable set of songs—but it was the terrible luck of Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker that made the Gaucho story unique. During the sessions, Becker was severely injured after getting hit by a car. While possibly saving the life of the woman he pushed out of the way, he sustained multiple fractures in one leg, a sprain in the other leg, and secondary infections during his six month hospital stay. Becker and Donald Fagen continued their musical collaborations over the phone, but then Becker's girlfriend died of a drug overdose. Her family later sued him for introducing her to drugs, with the court eventually ruling in Becker's favor.
Bad luck wasn't all to blame for the two year gestation period—Becker had his own drug problem, complicating matters. At least 42 different musicians contributed to the recording. MCA, Warner Brothers, and the band had a three-way legal battle over the rights to even release the record. Jazz composer Keith Jarrett received $1 million in an out of court settlement after suing Steely Dan for copyright infringement, claiming that the title track was too similar to his "Long As You Know You're Living Yours." The final mix to the 50-second fade out of the song "Babylon Sisters" was completed on the 55th attempt. About three-fourths of the song "The Final Arrangement" was accidentally erased by an assistant engineer, and despite liking the tune and attempting to re-create it, the band eventually dropped it. In perhaps the best example of star-musician hedonism, engineer Roger Nichols spent six weeks and $150,000 creating a drum machine for Fagen and Becker—its name was WENDEL.
Gaucho won the 1981 Grammy for Best Non-Classical Engineered Recording, and was certified platinum (over one million albums sold), but despite its success, the band broke up. Fagen and Becker would reunite 12 years later.
7. DEF LEPPARD // HYSTERIA
It started with the most money-conscious of intentions, when all four members of the recently wealthy Def Leppard moved to Dublin to get away from their native England's punitive tax rates—but years of delays would lead to $4.5 million spent on Hysteria. The biggest blow was the December 31, 1984 car accident that took the left arm of drummer Rick Allen, who understandably needed some time to figure out how to do his job. The early departure of trusted producer "Mutt" Lange due to exhaustion was almost as responsible for the band requiring three years to finish its work. Meatloaf songwriter Jim Steinman was not an adequate replacement, and when Lange eventually returned one year later, he insisted all of the work done while he was away be scrapped. Lange would later be hospitalized from a car accident of his own, and singer Joe Elliott got the mumps. In an example of Lange's perfectionism, the final song to be recorded, "Armageddon It," was mixed for three months until a suitable rendition was chosen.
Def Leppard has given varying accounts as to how many records of Hysteria they had to sell just to break even. In 1988, they told People magazine they needed two million copies sold. In 2012, guitarist Phil Collen upped the number to three million. On their Behind The Music episode, the magic number to avoid debt was five million. Fortunately for them, while the album "only" sold three million copies initially, the hit single "Pour Some Sugar On Me" bumped album sales to over 20 million, making it one of the best-selling LPs in rock history.
8. TEARS FOR FEARS // SEEDS OF LOVE
It was four years between Tears For Fears' 1985 album Songs from the Big Chair—featuring "Shout" and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"—and the follow-up Seeds of Love. At a cost of $1.5 million, the band started the album sessions writing and playing music with machines and sequencers as they always had done. But ten months into the recording process, they decided to go for a more human approach and produce the album themselves. Co-founders Curt Smith and Roland Orzabel flew to the U.S. to convince hotel lounge piano player and singer Oleta Adams to work with them on the record, remembering how enraptured they were seeing her perform in a Kansas City hotel bar two years earlier. Two years after that sojourn, the album still wasn't completed; two members had quit, principal songwriter Orzabel had become an "intricate perfectionist," and Smith had divorced and was accused of living a "jetset lifestyle" instead of working on the music. The album was a worldwide success and sold millions of copies, but an extensive world tour was necessary to get out of the debt incurred. Orzabel and Smith would part ways after the tour before reuniting in 2000.
9. MY BLOODY VALENTINE // LOVELESS
Creation Records believed that My Bloody Valentine's second album Loveless would be recorded in a fast five days. Instead, it required 20 studios, multiple engineers, and 2.5 years for the critically loved album to be completed. By the time of its 1991 release, the record label was allegedly out $500,000, the excuse it used for dropping the band. But My Bloody Valentine's guitarist/vocalist Kevin Shields claimed the album never cost anything near that amount; Creation Records co-founder Alan McGee thought it would be "cool" to say the record got financially out of control. Shields would admit to feeling dissatisfied with all of those studios, a perfectionism that contributed to My Bloody Valentine's follow-up album not being released until 2012.
10. THE HAPPY MONDAYS // YES PLEASE!
Concerned about The Happy Mondays' use of drugs like ecstasy and heroin, Factory Records head Tony Wilson had the group record Yes Please! at reggae star Eddy Grant's studio in Barbados. The project got off to a terrible start, when singer/songwriter Shaun Ryder's case containing a four-week Methadone supply was accidentally smashed at Manchester Airport. When Wilson eventually heard that the recording was being ruined by crack cocaine, he flew to Barbados. Wilson later claimed that as his plane was landing, he saw Ryder and bandmate Bez wheeling one of Grant's sofas down the road to trade for drugs. After the album's recording was supposedly completed, Ryder got hold of the master tapes for the album, threatening to destroy them if Wilson did not come up with £50 ($95). Once the tapes were in Wilson's possession, he discovered that the recordings contained no vocals. Yes Please! was eventually released—with lyrics—on September 22, 1992, to a two-word review from Melody Maker that read "No thanks." Factory Records declared bankruptcy that November.
11. CHRIS GAINES // GREATEST HITS/GARTH BROOKS IN...THE LIFE OF CHRIS GAINES
Garth Brooks' 1999 experiment to perform as a dark-wigged, soul-patched "alter ego" named Chris Gaines was considered such a commercial flop that it cost Pat Quigley, the president of Capitol Records Nashville, his job. The New York Post reported that over 50 musicians were used in the recording (19 of them included in the credits), and that the $5 million production cost was trumped only by the label's $15 million in promotion, Sadly, the recording "only" sold 2 million units, a disappointing number by Garth Brooks standards (but pretty good for a debut album!). Brooks blamed the paltry sales on a lack of support from Capitol and specifically Quigley; the musician later allegedly apologized to other artists on the label for what they believed to be too much attention paid to Gaines, and informed them that Quigley was "out the door." Quigley resigned from his position soon after.
The album was supposed to serve as the soundtrack for a movie called The Lamb that would appear in theaters one year later, but the film was canceled—along with the existence of Chris Gaines.
12. MICHAEL JACKSON // INVINCIBLE
When Invincible was released on October 30, 2001, is was already being touted as the most expensive album ever made, with reports of Sony's price tag reaching $30 million. The large bill had something to do with the five years spent recording anywhere from 50 to 87 songs, incorporating several producers and co-writers, and, according to one report, booking three studios simultaneously because Jackson "didn’t know which one he’d feel like recording at when he woke up that day.”
Sony also earmarked $25 million for promoting their large investment. At first, two singles and a music video featuring Marlon Brando were released, but soon the advertising was non-existent. The cancellation was attributed to Jackson refusing to tour, and informing Sony that he would not be renewing his contract with them after it expired in 2002. Jackson responded to the end of the album's promotion in part by accusing then Sony music chairman Tommy Mottola of racism. Invincible sold an estimated 6 million copies worldwide and went double platinum in the U.S., but was not considered profitable.
13. MARIAH CAREY // GLITTER
Years before Tommy Mottola worked at Sony, he was Mariah Carey's husband and the head of Columbia Records. When Mottola and Carey divorced, the two no longer had a working or personal relationship to speak of—a problem considering that Mariah was a Columbia artist. Virgin Records paid Columbia $20 million to release her from her contract, then signed Carey to a five-album, $80 million deal. Glitter was her first album for Virgin, a 2001 soundtrack album to the film of the same name. Both the album and the movie were commercial and critical failures. It was so rough that Virgin Records invoked a clause in its contract with Carey that allowed Virgin to get out of the $80 million deal for approximately $28 million.
14. KORN // UNTOUCHABLES
Following the group's 1999 album Issues, which would go on to sell 13 million copies, Korn spent around $4 million on 2002's Untouchables. The bandmembers—specifically singer Jonathan Davis and bassist Reginald "Fieldy" Arvizu—were more than willing to admit to the monetary figures in Kerrang! magazine before the CD was released. "We moved to Phoenix and rented five houses for $10,000 apiece for four months. We came to LA, rented five more houses for $10,000 apiece for four more months. We went to Canada and rented a house for $8000. That's a week, not a month," Fieldy said. Davis added that the recording itself "only" cost $700,000, and the rest went to the crew... and the housing.
15. KANYE WEST // MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY
In 2010, Kanye West spent over $3 million recording a majority of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at the seaside Avex Honolulu Studios. As relaxing as "seaside" and "Honolulu" may sound, during the five days that Complex magazine visited, West never slept a full night at the "glass-enclosed mansion" house he had rented, opting instead to take "power-naps" in a studio chair or couch 90 minutes at a time. Engineers worked around the clock, as Kanye bounced from room to room to work on one song once he got stuck on another—the luxury he gave himself after renting three session rooms simultaneously for 24 hours a day. Because his guests and producers had to eat sometime, West employed two private chefs, one for hot food, and one for cold food.