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Recording the Successful Demo from A to Z
A demo recording checklist
By Lorenz Rychner

Recording demos for paying clients is the bread-and-butter work that keeps many a personal studio financially afloat. But lots of home studios were started by folks who never look for clients—these owners use their studios to record demos to further their own careers.

In either situation it’s good to have a plan, to know what the specific purpose and desired results of a demo project are. The hands-on aspects of the recording process are no different than those of any other project, but time and money spent will vary according to the plan. So let’s sift through an alphabetically-arranged list of demo topics worth keeping in mind, in the hope that clear thinking will result in maximized returns.

Aim

What’s the aim? This is the first and most important question you must ask, and do not proceed until it has been firmly answered. Aside from special circumstances, there are four basic aims, each requiring a distinct approach.

1. Demo of a song to showcase the songwriting skills to producers and artists.

2. Demo of a song to be shopped for inclusion in TV, film, or jingle productions.

3. Demo of a song to showcase the performance of a band or artist to get label attention for the band or artist.

4. Demo of a song to showcase the performance of a band or artist to get live gigs.

Scenario 1 requires that you present the song on its own merits, without fancy production, maybe as stripped-down as a guitar/vocal or piano/vocal. Why? Because producers and artists can be expected to use their experienced ears and musical imagination to tell them what they would add to make that song their own.

If you have a specific artist in mind, by all means include a second version that emulates the sound of that artist’s recent production. Doing this “sound-alike” exercise will teach you a lot, and who knows, someone like Shawn Colvin or her label people might appreciate it if your demo sounds like a John Leventhal production. But what if she’s moved on, going in a new direction? Your stripped-down version will still work for you, so do both.

Scenario 2 requires just the opposite of scenario 1. For TV and movie executives you need to dress the song up as much as possible, because you can’t expect them to hear things that aren’t there. If the song sounds finished and has personality and attitude thanks to good production, it is more likely to get included “as is” in a project that can turn out really lucrative.

And if it makes the short list but seems to lack something, it’s easier for the non-trained execs to hint at their needs, like “It rocks too hard for our demo (caution—in their world demo stands for demographics!), can you make it softer?” or words to that effect. So you mix the drums further back and re-amp the guitar solo with less distortion, for example, to give them your new demo for their demo....

Scenario 3 requires a radio-ready production. The band or artist may strike a much better financial deal if the label people realize that the band or artist (or you, their trusted engineer/producer) is or are capable of producing a polished final mix. The label won’t need to advance the kind of big bucks that keep the band or artist in debt forever, and if the label’s A&R (artist & repertoire) people have real creative suggestions they may assign a producer who will respect the skills that you have already shown.

But beware of this ugly yet common trap: If you do an inexpensive demo for a band or artist and they end up getting the label deal on the strength of your work, you may never see them again, nor any money that makes your efforts worthwhile after the fact. Insist on a contract that stipulates resonable remuneration in case the band or artist get “picked up” by a label—chances that you’ll still be working for them are slim, the label more likely assigns their own producer and sends the band or artist to a studio with which the label already has a relationship. So cover yourself—even more so if you were a co-writer (see ‘Collaborations’ and ‘Sharing credits’ below).

Scenario 4 requires not only a fully produced project but that extra vibe that kicks butt and has the live excitement often missing from a finessed studio recording. Don’t be afraid to mix in samples of a live audience, and simulate a fake band introduction if you can pull it off, but don’t make it the ambience of U2 at Wembley Stadium if you’re looking to play at the local bar that seats a hundred.

Barter

Need a vocalist for a project but money is tight? Chances are that the vocalist needs a demo and can’t afford one. Work out what’s fair for both of you, discuss it in a friendly but business-like manner, put it in writing, and do a good job. Word gets around fast.

Collaboration

What starts out as a straight work-for-hire job often turns into a collaboration. You were just going to record the singer/songwriter, but she can’t seem to manage the guitar part in the bridge. You can play it. Or she’s giving up on the lyrics she brought over after she hears the first playback. You have an idea that saves the day. Should you offer your contribution?

Probably yes—but ask yourself how important the project is, how far this recording may go in the real world, and don’t be shy about taking a moment to explain that the nature of the project has just changed and that you need to come to a new understanding. Generally speaking it’s a good thing to get a name for being the resourceful guy or gal who makes it happen without charging extra. But learn how to present your business angle nicely, and your business sense is likely to gain respect, too.

Deals

Be realistic when making an offer to record a demo. Discuss the points mentioned above under ‘Aim’ and come to a firm understanding. I know, it’s often hard because musicians can be, well, shall we say vague? Still, if that supposed ly quick and fixed-price demo for a space cadet turns into a never-ending saga where you wish you’d arranged for paymen t by the hour, it’s often too late to reverse the deal without causing major friction. See Jon Bare’s article “Recording Great Drums (The Hard Way)” in the 6/2002 issue of Recording for a prime example of time and budget fizzling out on an unrealistic deal.

Effects

We live in dry times where less reverb is more. This works in your favor when recording a demo for a songwriter. Unless it’s an ambient New Age thing that couldn’t live without it, cavernous reverb is not recommended—let the melody and lyrics be heard clearly. Save the clever stuff for your own productions.

Full CD?

Probably not. The attention span of the people who listen to demos like yours is short. Don’t overwhelm them. Label the CD clearly, so if you start with a short and simple version (skip the intro, get right to the song) followed by a longer and more fully produced mix of the same song, print it clearly so that they know there’s a choice.

Gig demo

I suggested earlier to make the gig demo as “live” and realistic as possible. Just as important as the music is the CD’s ROM track where the band or artist can put images from other gigs, scans of newspaper reviews, posters, bios, even Quicktime videos and anything else that will promote the band on the venue manager’s PC. Most important of all: Contact info—on the label, on the jewel box or sleeve, and in a prominent document in the ROM track. This is extra work and can be used to bump up your fee, as it is added value that not everybody can provide.

How much?

It’s increasingly difficult to finance a personal studio with fees earned from recording demos. In the major entertainment cities the rates are nothing short of ridiculously low, and it’s not always a case of “you get what you pay for.” There are people who know what they’re doing but who feel they have to match the lowballed rates advertised in the music magazines.

Compromise and people skills can make the difference here. Honesty, too. Make it clear (without implying that the client should feel guilty!) that you’re losing money on the quick in-and-out demo at the lowest rate, but that you’ll do one (and only one) to establish a relationship. Chances are that the artist will come back for more and at a higher rate, but only if the first experience was both a pleasure and a success.

So have your act together, everything plugged in and tested, your studio neat and your mood calm and friendly.

Instrumentals

The conventional wisdom about recording demos, as dispensed in this article, doesn’t necessarily hold true for instrumental music. For example, the advice about stripped-down versions aimed at producers and A&R people makes little sense where the sound and production are a big part of the instrumental’s character. We can all imagine (but do we have to?) an unaccompanied Barry Manilow demoing “Mandy” by singing and tickling the ivories, but a stripped-down Pat Metheny track? Hardly.

Make instrumental demos as good and finished as you can—there is a considerable and well-paying market in TV, in some movies, in music libraries (buy-out or royalty agreements)—all in all a market where residuals are the norm and can add up to serious money.

Jingles

It’s a very specialized field, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give it a shot. Smaller markets may be more easy to crack—your local car dealer who advertises on the local AM station may be receptive to your ideas. Now we’re talking business skills and people skills, and we’re assuming that you know how to record voice-overs, that you have voice talent in your Rolodex, and that you’ve done your homework (or an unpaid internship) learning about the station’s needs regarding delivery formats (cartridges, MiniDiscs, CD-R?) and the like.

Know thy strengths

It’s an extremely competitive field, and it’s getting more so every day. Not long ago you needed at least a semblance of a “studio” to be in the game, now you can go to the client’s home with your laptop and a decent mic or two. So use this to your advantage. Why not specialize in one area, say guitarist/singers, and offer an “anytime anywhere” service, stressing your vast experience and the convenience and comfort for the client?

Label deals

The traditional model of the band-label relationship has already begun to vanish. It once meant that a band would be signed. Then money would be forthcoming (aptly called an ‘advance’), covering at first studio time and the services of a producer, finally promotion and the like, and maybe a deal was struck with a booking agent to send the band on the road in support of sales of the finished album.

That’s when the deeper meaning of the word ‘advance’ would surface: Advance against royalties from future sales. So the catering truck, the photo shoots, the equipment rentals (that nobody in the band ever ordered), they all come out of the band’s pockets? Yep. But if the band was really good, more money would be advanced, against a second album. More debts, for sure.

Many books have been written about how to deal with labels. This is not the place to go into further detail, but in the context of demos, it needs to be pointed out that a demo for submission to a label might as well be done so that it is ready for distribution and airplay. To make it really good is not that much more difficult and time-consuming than to make it sound just OK. Many labels like to do a licensing or distribution deal—you make the recording, they promote and sell it. Each does what they’re good at, and both sides win.

Modeling demos

If you have a knack for writing songs in a very recognizable style, submit them to a label that is known to put out songs in that style. More so, if you have the ear and savvy to imitate production styles, record an original song (don’t plagiarize the tune or lyrics!) in the production style that you modeled after a particular producer or artist. Then submit it to a label that already has published tracks by your model, and to labels that carry music in a similar style. Just make sure the material is original!

One of two things can happen. Either they say “We’ve been there, have done that, and don’t need a copycat” in which case it’s no different than getting a rejection (or absolute silence) from anyone else—get used to it. Or they appreciate your knowledge of their specialized style and something good may happen.

New clients

Learn what in the field of medicine is called “bedside manner.” A new client is likely to be insecure (often masked by exaggerated casualness or—worse—bossiness), and it’s up to you to make a good first impression that leads to a successful gig. Discuss the project (see ‘Aim’ above), and let the new client hear some of your previous work while pointing out what went into the tracks you’re playing.

Objectivity

It’s hard to come by if you do demos of your own music. It’s so easy to fall in love with everything you’ve done, particularly if you spent hours getting it down. But just as you have to listen to your mix in progress on various playback systems, you need to develop a trusting relationship with fellow recording musicians. Your mother and your sister probably like what you did if they at all agree with the overall style, and if they don’t like something, how would they know just what it is they dislike? So start networking, offering to return the favor, and make sure you’re hooking up with people whose vocabulary extends beyond “awesome, Dude.”

Presentation

First impressions count, your mother always told you, and it’s just as true for your demos. The track order should be printed on the label—the fewer songs on one CD-R the better, and save the listener time by coming in with the vocal right away instead of showcasing your prowess at looping extended intros. Follow a short version with a longer, more fully produced one if applicable.

It doesn’t hurt to have a pleasant speaking voice announce briefly at the very beginning something like “Thanks for listening to the demo of Silly Billy’s unpublished song ‘Nilly Willy’.”  But no more than that, or impatience may result, quickly followed by a push of the ‘Eject’ button and a well-practiced frisbee toss toward the permanent filing system...

The label, jewel case, and accompanying paperwork all must be attractive, printed crystal clear for easy reading even in dim light (most demos are auditioned in moving vehicles!), and complete with current contact info.

Quality control

Much can go wrong with CD-R discs, and often for unknowable reasons. Listen before you mail them when at all possible. I recently did a favor for a friend and set out to duplicate fifty demo discs at 16x speed. Luckily, I listened to the first one while the second was being burned. I heard clicks that weren’t in the original, which showed no flaws when I imported its tracks into a DAW for close waveform inspection. I reduced the speed one available setting at a time, and the clicks disappeared when I got down to 2x. Yeah, I sat there for a lot longer than planned, but at least I caught it.

Also beware of running and smudging ink on your labels and tray inserts. And mail the demos in padded envelopes—a cracked jewel case does not make a good impression.

Representation

When dealing with labels, established bands, or other entities with some commercial clout, try to be represented by a lawyer who knows your field. In the major music markets like L.A., N.Y.C., Nashville, and Chicago, entertainment lawyers are not hard to find—ask around and make sure someone comes highly recommended after much repeat business. Elsewhere this might be more difficult, but if you really try, you’ll find an entertainment lawyer, even if not in your own town or city.

I’m recommending this not just for the drawing up or at least scrutiny and correction of agreements and contracts, but also because most labels and other industry heavyweights refuse submitted demos unless they come via the services of an entertainment attorney or an established agent. The latter is harder to come by than an attorney who will bill by the hour.

Sharing credits

Once you’ve established beyond a doubt what the aim of the project is and who will play what role, the issue of collaboration might pop up (see ‘Collaboration’ above). If it turns out that your creative contribution becomes a part of the work, be it in the lyrics or the music or both, you need to establish how credits are being shared. Sometimes this is done on a percentage basis, like you might agree to a 20% share of the music credit for having found a new melody for the second half of the bridge. Put it in writing.

Where a collaboration is a normal part of the process rather than a fix to save the project, it is much more common to split credits fifty-fifty—it gets too silly to count words or notes to establish who deserves what. It could be that your four lines of lyrics become the hook, overshadowing the other 12 lines that nobody ever seems to remember. Again, put it in writing.

Targeting demos

It’s smart to target your demo very specifically if you can. If a label puts out nothing but mainstream jazz and you’re a jazz player with some following in your town and aspirations for gigging at festivals, capable of doing college clinics, and willing to play as a sideman on other people’s projects, send that label your best jazz recordings. Nothing else, even if you’re also proficient at playing other styles. Keep it as focused as you see the label’s policy being focused. And because their focus is mainstream, don’t submit the most avant-garde tracks of your band, or the smooth jazz tracks you played at the yuppie martini bar—submit the straight-ahead stuff. Be on target.

Unpublished but not unprotected

Create immediate interest by stating “unpublished material” so that a label person or a producer knows right away what they’re dealing with. It’s more attractive for them to take on something that hasn’t already appeared elsewhere and might require tedious licensing negotiations.

But protect yourself by copyrighting your material, and encourage your clients to do the same so that there will never be a dispute over rights, something that can cost a lot of money and lead to a lot of burned bridges. Much information is available at www.loc.gov/copyright/ where you can click on links for downloadable forms to register your opus.

Variety or not?

Multitalented folks often desire to show off their variety of talents on one demo, and in the process they create confusion. If you’re a player, a songwriter, a producer, and a writer of lyrics, think long and hard before you produce a CD-R that shows off examples of all those talents. Maybe you’ll find a worthwhile target, like that community college where they have a vacancy in the music department and would want you to use all your talents, from classroom to production studio. Fine, that’s a good reason to do it. But mostly you’re better off following the advice under ‘Aim,’ ‘Presentation,’ and ‘Targeting.’

Writer’s studio

As a songwriter who mostly shops songs in the hope that they’ll be performed by someone who’ll make them into a hit, you need very little by way of equipment to record your demos. If you purchased your PC in the last couple of years, it is likely to be suitable for the purpose, enhanced with a couple of mics, maybe a “breakout box” or mic preamp and the right software.

Once you have the bare necessities (see the 1/2000 issue of Recording for free or dirt-cheap music software for the PC), you’ll still have to spend money, on a lawyer for getting your demo in the door, on postage, internet access (to get your MP3 files up on the web), and other expenses. So there’s a good reason for not expanding your writer’s studio into a production studio, although the temptation is always there.

X/Y/Z

No wisdom comes to mind for these letters, except mother’s advice to “examine your zipper” before an important appointment. ’Nuff said.

I wish Recording’s readers much luck and stamina in their efforts to land a demo where it leads to a profitable venture. Keep at it, wisely but tenaciously, since you gotta be in it to win it.

Lorenz Rychner is the Editor of Recording Magazine.

 




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