Making a plan of attack to get into the business

By Bruce Kaphan

People record for a variety of reasons. Recording can be a fun hobby, or even therapeutic, but for many, it’s just another day at the office—a means toward the end of making a living. The simplest recording can be as easy as holding a smartphone up to your mouth to capture a melody, lyrics, or any other idea. On the other end of the spectrum, “master” recordings (recordings destined for publication) can be emotive, compelling works of art that may sometimes reflect more than a year’s worth of hard work.

Somewhere in the middle level of quality and complexity is the demo. A demo (short for “demonstration” tape, CD, audio file, or whatever…) gives its creator a literally substantive means of sharing ideas with others, whether it’s fellow band members, another artist, a production company, a publisher, film or TV director or producer, or a client. It can help enable getting someone else interested in one’s work. Experience has taught me that no matter how good an idea sounds in your mind’s ear, no one else (including gifted musicians, producers and other possible associates) can know what you’re hearing/thinking inside your head, until it is realized in some sort of indisputable, mutually perceivable form.

I can’t even begin to guess how many demos I’ve made in my life—for my own music, for bands I’ve been in, and for hire for clients. Sadly, in my experience, many of these demos have ended in rejection. Nevertheless, no matter how great your ideas, if you don’t have palpable evidence of how great they are, there’s no way for them to be accepted or rejected—they’ll simply be unheard. The focus of this article is on how to make demos that are appropriate for the person or organization receiving them.


Plan your attack

The need for demos is ubiquitous in all aspects of music-related business, whether you’re trying to get local gigs for your band, shopping your band to record companies, trying to sell your songs to an artist or publisher, trying to place your music into film or TV, or trying to sell musical arrangements. Advances in technology have made the making of demos increasingly easier and more affordable; as a result, just about anyone who is in the position of seriously contemplating buying your music will expect them from you.

The availability of high-quality home or project studio production tools has also enabled a really important improvement in the evolution of the demo process. Prior to the introduction of the Alesis ADAT in 1991, not many project studios could afford recording devices of comparable fidelity to those found in professional recording studios. This usually meant that a demo recording would be limited to serving only an interim purpose—it would be created to develop interest, then would eventually almost always have to be re-performed (and re-recorded) to be of high enough fidelity to be competitive in the marketplace.

In the current era, if your tools and skills are good enough, this interim step can often be unnecessary—carefully recorded demos can be of such high fidelity that they often either stand on their own completely, or possibly later need only to be embellished and reworked (if they need any further work at all!) to create master recordings.

The reason this is such a profound development is due to the level of excitement inherent in the first-ever recording of an idea. Most of the producers I’ve worked with share my feeling that the first time a piece of music is successfully performed, there’s an excitement/edge/ groove/vibe/magic, whatever you want to call it, that will never be repeated in subsequent performances. If you’re a performing musician, you’ll probably know exactly what I mean—even if you’re playing music that you wrote, playing the song for the thousandth time just isn’t the same experience as playing it the first time. This is often at the root of concertgoers’ dissatisfaction with a show in which an artist with a long history of success refuses to play one of his or her past hits.

There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” demo. Demos should be made expressly for the person, type of person, or type of organization that will ultimately be making the decision as to whether or not to buy your idea. In the remainder of this article, let’s consider a number of different possible scenarios.

At the outset of creating a demo, you’ll need to consider: Why are you making the demo? To whom or to what kind of organization will you be sending it? What purpose do you want the demo to serve? When these questions are answered, you can make a plan and work as efficiently as possible toward the goal of every demo maker in the universe—total world domination.


Scenario I—attempting to get live gigs

You’re either a solo performer or you’re in a band. You already know that your act is the greatest of its generation. You just need to convince a local club owner or maybe a regional impresario of this, so that they’ll give you a chance in their venue. Maybe if one of the band members has had some past success, they’ll take a chance on your act without going to see you, without listening to a demo, or without some other sort of creative finagling. Maybe.

In most scenarios in which you are a newcomer submitting your work to a stranger, you have to realize that you are one of dozens or maybe hundreds or even thousands of acts this person will consider in a given period of time. It’s nearly a foregone conclusion they won’t have time to come see you play. In some rare cases, perhaps you’ll be able to talk your way into a gig of this sort, but in most cases, a demo will be required. For this demo you need to be honest—you must present the reviewer with a reasonable facsimile of your live performance. Nothing has the potential to derail your ability to get future gigs faster than submitting a demo that isn’t relevant to your live show! Think about it—it’s essentially false advertising.

To make this kind of demo, it seems to me that the best possible method is to make a bona fide live recording. I know it’s putting the cart before the horse, but if possible, find a venue somewhere, where there’s a reasonably good sound system and the possibility of dragging your friends and relatives out to a show. Beg, plead or otherwise cajole the person booking the venue to give you a slot on an off-night or in a timeslot where they won’t be taking much of a chance. The best way to convince a non-believer is to promise them that you’ll put butts in the seats/dollars in their pocket—pack the place with your supporters and beg them to order lots of drinks and applaud wildly after each song.

Encourage someone you know who has a good portable recorder and mics to come and record the show. Ask the house sound engineer to make a “board” recording. Between these two recordings, you may be able to capture a good enough version of the show to use some of it as your demo. I think this approach is best because it won’t leave any questions in the mind of the person listening to it—it’s an honest portrayal of exactly what you do, in a real venue, with no studio trickery. It won’t take forever to make, and you won’t have to pay a studio or go out and buy shopping carts full of recording gear, then spend months learning how to use what you’ve purchased, in order to make it happen.

If the above method is impractical or impossible for whatever reason, then in my humble opinion, the next-best way to make a relevant demo is to book a day in a local recording studio that is well enough equipped so that you can perform live. If your act is well-honed, other than setup time, this should go really quickly. Keep overdubs to an absolute minimum, if you have to do any! In this scenario, even backing vocalists should track live. Dynamic mics would most likely be what you would use to make a live recording at a real venue—they can help enable a mock-live recording in a real studio by taking advantage of their reduced sensitivity, allowing vocal mics to be used among the din of other instrumentation. Anything you can do to help the live vibe will help the demo.

At most, do three or four songs three or four times each, then choose or even composite the best performance of each song. If your songs are four minutes long each, this equates with a maximum of a little more than an hour’s worth of elapsed playing time. Spend enough time on mixing to make it sound good (enough). Even in a fairly pricey studio, there’s no reason you’d need to spend more than one day making this demo, from start to finish! If the studio is well equipped, take my word for it, the $1,000 (or likely less) this will cost you will be entirely worth it.

Compare this to the way a small home studio could handle it… Most small home studios won’t have enough gear to do a whole band all at one time. In my humble opinion there is no quicker way to make a lousy recording than to ask the drummer and bass player to play by themselves, then add one player and singer at a time. This method sucks all the life out of a performance and will turn what should be less than one day’s worth of work into days and days of overdubbing and editing. And the kicker is that in the long run, the people booking the live gigs don’t care one little bit about your production chops. They really just want to know how you sound in live performance.


Scenario II—artist attempting to get signed

Getting “signed” used to be the ultimate goal of most aspiring musicians, and I’d certainly count myself among them. So much has changed in the past decade or two! The proliferation of high-quality home and project studio equipment has certainly changed the world of production, and the Internet has certainly changed the world of promotion, marketing and distribution. Whereas bands used to make “demos” to “shop” themselves to record companies, more and more bands have come to realize the potential for futility in such a career path.

Business-savvy musicians realize that even when dealing with a totally honest record company (assuming there is such a thing), at best, only 15% of the net profit will end up in their hands. Business-savvy bands that call their own shots, by creating their own record company and distributing their own product, can sell just 20% of what the record company would and still end up with the same profit. Now of course this means being in business and spending at least some of one’s time conducting that business—it’s a serious undertaking that requires acumen and persistence.

Even if a band aspires to get signed, the demos it makes should be good enough to sell. Make the demos so that they serve the dual purpose of shopping and independent release. These days, the equipment is affordable enough that it’s possible to make demos of high enough quality so they’re ready for release. In the event that shopping fails to land a deal, this leaves the band with the fallback position of having a recording that it can release and sell. And in the long run, if you’re shopping to a major record label, you’d better have done the very best you can possibly do anyway, if you want a shot at the big time.

Although there are many examples of bands that sound the same live as they do on studio albums, most bands take advantage of the studio’s potential to create sounds and textures that are difficult if not impossible to re-create in a live performance, unless touring at the highest level of professionalism. If your band’s ultimate sonic aspiration is to sound like you do in live performance, then I’d suggest practice, practice and more practice, save up your money, then as in Scenario I, spend a few days in a bona fide studio.

If you have a home studio, take advantage of it for all your editing, compositing, overdubbing, and possibly even mixing. If your aspirations are to experiment and explore in an attempt to create your own sound, then it’s most likely that a combination of some or all band members playing together to record “basic tracks”, but leaving some aspects of the music to later overdubbing, is the answer. This method preserves a “band feel” for the structural components of the music, but allows experimentation in creating textures and other aspects of the arrangement.


Scenario III—singer/songwriter attempting to get signed

If you’re a singer/songwriter writing your own material that has its own sound, then you can avoid (to quote well-known producer Mitchell Froom) “the tyranny of the band.” You’re free to explore any production style you want, using any combination of instrumentation, additional players and techniques you want. With ever more versatile and inexpensive, yet high-quality products available for music production, with just a mic, a preamp, a set of headphones and either a computer or small standalone recorder, you can invent your own universe.

And the most compelling aspect of this way of working is that the sonic quality can rival that of any studio at any price range. Compare that with the amazingly recent era in which a 4-track cassette recorder was the singer/songwriter’s status quo recording tool, with its self-limiting level of sonic quality condemning nearly everything produced on it to demo status.


Scenario IV—submitting songs to producers for other artists

When I’m producing a singer who doesn’t write, I’ll often solicit writers for material in the form of a demo. Without fail, what I find most useful for this type of demo, and what I’ll always ask for, is the absolutely simplest possible version of the song. Not only do I appreciate the simplest exposition of lyric, plus melody, plus chordal accompaniment, I actually find more developed arrangements to be counterproductive for my purposes. After all, as a producer, it’s my job to help the artist I’m producing to develop their own individual interpretation of the material we’ll produce.

When a writer challenges me to try to mentally turn off (hear past) their arrangement so I can just hear the song, there’s a distinct danger that I’ll end up hearing past some of the potential of their song. I don’t know if this desire for simplicity is true among other producers in the same position, and I don’t know if publishers feel the same way, but in my own experience it’s best to do as one of the very first engineers I ever worked with (Gradie O’Neal of Tiki Sound Studios in San Jose, CA) used to say: “KISS”—Keep It Simple, Stupid!


Scenario V—demos for film and TV soundtrack

Off the top of my head, I can think of two distinct reasons to create demos for film and TV soundtrack. The first would be in an attempt to procure work as an underscore composer; the second is for composers who have already gotten the gig, but in pre-production need to submit ideas for approval before producers open the money spigot for production.

Having a small number of film scores in my discography—and I emphasize the word small—I have no idea and no advice as to how to pursue my first reason for making a demo, namely to get noticed by directors, music supervisors, or producers. Every scoring job I’ve ever had came from having a good relationship with the right person at the right time.

The second reason to demo for film or TV soundtrack is extremely prevalent at all levels of this part of the music business, and it’s just pragmatic: Most producers (and for that matter probably directors) want an idea, or mockup, of how a particular cue is going to sound before committing to full-blown production. The most extreme example of this would be for a scene that requires a full-blown symphony orchestra. Using MIDI, high quality samples and good synths, for a mere fraction of what it costs to hire and record a real orchestra, the composer can demo his compositions to the committee of people who need to sign off on the artistic direction of the score before committing to the bucketfuls of money that will be spent when recording.

I’ve heard a rumor that one of the more successful scoring composers of the current era has, at his own expense, hired a noteworthy symphony orchestra in order to create his own private library of samples that he is only licensed to use for demo purposes!


Scenario VI—demoing arrangements for clients

This scenario is quite similar to Scenario V above, but in a somewhat different context. In my work as a producer, I often write small orchestral (usually string or horn) arrangements for my clients. I’ll demo these ideas in MIDI, using samples and/or synths.

Before I hand over to my client a rough mix including the MIDI  version of the arrangement, I try to explain that the MIDI version is only an approximation of what real players will bring to an arrangement. Until a client has actually experienced the transformation real players bring to an arrangement, my words only go so far. Nevertheless, this kind of demo is invaluable to me in my work.


Attack your plan

So now it is your job to sift and sort through these scenarios and to reconcile the concepts with your own needs. It will be rather rare that your plans will exactly correspond to just one of these scenarios—more often than not there will be an overlap, and you’ll need to be clear about that before you begin the project. Which is Priority Number One, hence which is the right way to go about it? And is there a need for a compromise?

Example: You hope to sell the CD you’re about to record at gigs, but you’re also really hoping to use it to get the attention of an agent or booker or A&R guy—someone whose job it is to listen to lots of submissions every day. When you wrote and rehearsed the song, it had this really cool long intro. When you perform the song live, everybody uses that long intro to settle down from the burner you usually perform just before. Not good—rearrange the song and shorten the intro massively, because an agent/ booker/A&R guy gives a song maybe 15–20 seconds, and if the verse or chorus, preferably the hook, hasn’t kicked in by then, his finger will already be hitting the Eject button. Whoever wrote the song with that cool long intro may hate the idea of shortening it, but you really have no choice!

I hope this article will help you see things in a realistic light when demo time comes around again. Compromises and purposeful artistic decisions, even tough ones, are all stepping stones on the ascent to—that’s right—total world domination!


Bruce Kaphan is a freelance producer/engineer/composer/musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. His pedal steel playing can be heard on the recordings of Sheryl Crow, R.E.M., Jewel, American Music Club, The Black Crowes, and others. He “adapted the underscore” to Bob Dylan’s Masked & Anonymous and has toured with David Byrne & American Music Club.

For Songwriters