As music fans and listeners, we are the ones who ultimately decide whether a band or artist’s musical merits upon releasing a new album warrant purchase and repeated listens. Sure, the record company will invest the dollars into a project, either based on a band’s past success or newfound hype, in hopes of recouping the capital spent on the production of a new album, but the fans inevitably dictate whether the record company’s decision was a good one or not. By shelling out their hard earned money to pay the record company back on their investment, fans are giving the bands leverage over the record labels by using their success to demand higher budgets on album production and promotion.
While nowadays plenty of albums don’t carry the exorbitant price tag they used to, thanks to digital equipment making recording far more inexpensive than in the past, there are still a few modern albums that had to be mega hits in order to recoup the financial investment of it’s producers. On this list you’ll find albums recorded as follow ups to a band’s critical and financial pinnacle of success that failed miserably. You’ll find egomaniacal experiments by superstars gone wrong and finally, you’ll find the most ill conceived album of all time.
Keep in mind this isn’t a comprehensive list chronicling the most expensive albums ever made, merely a look at some of the more interesting that crack the top ten.
5. Fleetwood Mac Tusk: $1.4 Million
Fleetwood Mac started out as a fantastic blues band from England whose influence can be heard nowadays in bands like the Black Keys. They then transformed into a fantastic pop/rock band after adding Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to the fold.
In 1975, the band recorded their first album, self-titled, with the classic (and most profitable) line up. Though it was successful, 1977’s Rumors broke everything wide open for the band. Rumors has sold over 40 million copies, and was so immediately successful that when the band went into the studio to record a follow-up in 1979, the label had no choice whatsoever but to capitulate to all of their demands. Moreover, the demands were a bit much.
First, guitarist/vocalist Lindsey Buckingham demanded to produce the album, which didn’t go over well with the rest of the band or label, so he began creating his songs all on his own. Second, when a request for the record company to build the band their own studio was denied, Fleetwood Mac instead spent massive amounts of money, the majority of their budget in fact, on ‘renovating’ a studio in L.A. Third, and most damaging, the album was a double album, which was going to cost consumers around $16 to purchase, a lot of money now, never mind in 1979.
With a cost of $1.4 million to Warner Bros. Fleetwood Mac released Tusk to little critical or commercial acclaim. Sure, the album still sold four million copies, but it also marked the biggest decline in sales from one album to another by any band in history.
4. Tears for Fears Seeds of Love: $1.5 million
Another album recorded by a band as a follow-up to their biggest commercial success, Tears for Fears were coming off the chart-topping success of Songs from the Big Chair, which included mega hits “Shout”, and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”.
When the group set out to record follow-up album Seeds of Love they initially stuck to the formula that made Songs from the Big Chair so successful, and their highest selling album to this day. After ten months of recording songs using synthesizers, drum loops and pop motifs, the band did an entire 180 and tracked down a lounge piano player they had seen perform in the U.S. a few years earlier. After convincing her to join the project, everything that had been recorded prior was scrapped and the band decided to produce the album themselves.
After nearly bankrupting their label, and after over two years of recording, the album was released, eventually selling a million copies. Still nowhere near the success of its predecessor, the album also effectively broke up the original lineup of Tears for Fears for over a decade.
3. Garth Brooks Garth Brooks in….The Life of Chris Gaines: $5 million
In a case of ego outgrowing talent, and even creativity, country superstar Garth Brooks decided that he wanted to branch out from the constraints of country and record an album of darker, alternative rock songs. While most musicians may just let their fans know that their next album might be a departure Brooks created an alter ego, Chris Gaines, decided he was going to film a movie about the troubled musician’s life, and recorded a “greatest hits” album.
To prove he was all in with the Chris Gaines character Brooks even dyed his hair black and grew a soul patch; talk about commitment from the artist. Financially, commitment for the Chris Gaines experiment fell on record label Capitol Records Nashville, a country music label, ironically enough. The label shelled out $5 million to record the album and another $15 million to promote it. The album ended up only selling two million copies, making it an unmitigated failure given its cost, and forced the head of Capitol Nashville to lose his job. The album’s failure also spared us the Chris Gaines movie.
2. Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy: $13 million
Perhaps the most famous album that most assumed would never see the light of day, Guns N’ Roses’ (such as they are nowadays) Chinese Democracy was finally released in 2008, 14 years after work began on the behemoth.
During the Chinese Democracy sessions, what was left of the classic lineup of the band, Slash, Duff and Matt Sorum, all quit. Ozzy Osbourne guitar hero Zakk Wylde was hired, and subsequently fired as well. Beyond the list of amazing musicians who helped actually record the album (Buckethead, Josh Freese, Robin Finck, Ron Thal etc.), the production is infamous for its string of false release dates (2000?!) and its $13 million price tag.
Beyond egomaniacal Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose was trying to make the greatest album of all time, and as such everything needed to be perfect, which, as any musician knows, is impossible. So remix after remix, after re-recording, after throwing away entire albums worth of songs later, Chinese Democracy was released. While it is a decent album musically, despite the interminable wait, it was a severe disappointment financially; selling just over half of a million copies in the U.S. and a million in Europe as a whole, Chinese Democracy nowhere near justifies the wait and the price tag. (The second guitar solo in “Better” almost makes it worth).
1. Michael Jackson Invincible: $30 million
The late “King of Pop” certainly earned that moniker over his storied career, particularly as a child star with Jackson 5 and through his domination of the pop charts during the 1980s and early 90s with albums like Thriller, Bad and Dangerous. By the beginning of the new millennium however, the king had fallen on hard times. Scandals in the press, his ever-changing appearance and no new music in years made the pop icon more of a tabloid sensation than anything else. It was to much hype then that Sony Music announced Jackson would be releasing a ‘comeback’ album, titled Invincible in 2001.
The album was doomed to fail almost immediately; production costs soared to mind bending heights, upwards of $30 million, as nearly 100 tracks were recorded in three separate studios simultaneously. Adding to the enormous pressure on Jackson to deliver a great album was the extra $25 million in promotional costs Sony had set aside for the record. The album was released and promoted heavily at first, until Jackson decided that not only did he not want to tour in support of Invincible, but that he was leaving Sony when his contract expired in 2002. Promotion for the album essentially ceased, as did record sales. Though Invincible sold six million albums world wide, it in no way, shape or form justifies the price tag, making it the most expensive flop ever recorded.