Mike Senior answers some of the most common questions we receive about sending out demos, and helps you to make the kind of impression that will get your music heard.
No matter how many years you've spent perfecting your musical craft, you're unlikely to be able to exploit the full potential of your music without the help of others. For many musicians, financial help is what they need recording and publishing companies have been providing such help for years and there are a number of government and charitable grant-giving bodies. There are also several other places which provide help to the aspiring professional musician: performance venues, advertising agencies, radio stations and television production companies are only the tip of the iceberg.
However, though assistance in your campaign for megastardom can come from many sources, they'll all need convincing that they too have something to gain the recording companies will need to be convinced that they can make some money from distributing your music, the radio stations will need to be persuaded that your music is palatable to their listeners and advertisers, and the venues will need to be reassured that your sound will bring in the punters and sell drinks. This is where demos can come in really handy, providing your prospective collaborators with a small taster of what you do.
There is still a fair amount of confusion, though, as to what makes an effective demo, and as to how you ought best to present it to those concerned. Recording and production companies receive large numbers of unsolicited demos every week sometimes a hundred or more! so it's vital that you proceed in an informed manner if you're even going to get anyone to pick your demo up off the pile, let alone listen to it.
The extended listening sessions here at the SOS office in the wake of our two recent demo competitions showed there still to be many readers who were unsure how best to present their demos for consideration. With this in mind, here are a list of the most frequently asked questions regarding this topic, together with answers that should make sure you make the right impression.
Q Where should I send my demo?
One of the most common complaints from A&R people at record companies is that the senders of unsolicited demos often make little attempt to ensure that the style and format of their recordings match what the record company deals with. If you were the A&R representative for a country-and-western label, would you be likely to be interested in a speed garage remix of Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive'? Sending out demos can be a time-consuming business, especially if you mean to do it in a disciplined way, so don't waste everyone's time by sending out obviously unsuitable material.
Similarly, if you're looking to apply for a grant from some charitable or government institution, then save everyone's time and energy by doing a little bit of research about what the awards committee are after. Not only should you read carefully any information they provide, but you should also find out something about previous people and projects which have been sponsored in addition, you might find a way in which you can make your application more likely to succeed.
Q How do I get my demo to the right person?
Unfortunately, the most famous and influential people in the music business receive too many unsolicited demos for them to assess all of them directly, so anyone who's anyone has some sort of middleman. The big-name artists and producers have management companies through which all such correspondence must be channelled, the besuited decision-makers within record companies have A&R people to deal with the demo-sending public, and the owners of large venues have office staff who deal with vetting potential acts. It is to these people that you must initially pitch your demo recording unless you happen to know Madonna's personal stylist or Tommy Mottola's valet! So, for starters, forget about addressing your demo directly to the CEO of EMI, or to William Orbit himself, unless you or someone you know can play it to them personally. By all means say to yourself, 'I think that Dr.Dre ought to hear my demo,' but realise that you'll have to get it past a number of other people first.
My current favourite is the Showcase International Music Book, 550 pages of contact details for people in all areas of the music business. Particularly useful in this tome are the lists which match up artists and producers with their respective management companies (whose contact details are, of course, also provided elsewhere in the book). However, there are a number of other sources of printed information, such as the Music Week Directory and the Musician's Union's National Directory of Members. All of these publications will cost you, though you may find them in your public library if you're strapped for cash.
Of course, the web is a fantastic resource for exactly this kind of research, as most commercial music releases will have related official and unofficial sites where in-depth information can be found. However, in addition to this, there are also a couple of specific URLs which are particularly worth surfing along to: www.banditnewsletter.com and www.hitquarters.com. Both of these pages provide a lots of useful information for the demo sender the latter is particularly useful, because it allows you to search by artist, for example. I entered the name of the band Garbage, and it returned me the contact details of their A&R man and three of their management team.
Once you have transformed any high-profile names on your list into the details of their behind-the-scenes contacts, your next step will be to settle yourself into a comfortable seat by the phone. Phone all the people and companies on your list, either to ask who deals with new prospects and commissions, or to confirm that the contact name which you have already discovered is still current. Keep a notebook logging all the calls you have made, who you spoke to and what information you have amassed. The importance of keeping records of your progress cannot be overstated, so do make the effort getting a demo through to the right person can be a long and drawn-out process, so don't be tempted to just rely on your memory, even if you have only a few contacts to follow up.
Q Is there anything I should do before sending my demo?
Even when you have found out to whom you ought to send your demo, it doesn't mean that all you have to do then is just sling a tape to them in the post. If you are propositioning a commercial institution, such as a record company, there are at least two good reasons why it is worth mailing a preliminary letter to the relevant person before sending them your demo. Firstly, a package from an unknown individual containing a tape or CD is immediately recognisable as a demo, and will therefore usually be added to the large pile of similar packages without even being opened whether it will ever be rescued from this pile is anyone's guess. A letter, however, will usually at least be opened before being consigned to such a pile, and this can steal you the chance to make a good impression which leads me on to the second reason for sending a preparatory letter.
In the most basic sense, sending anything to someone who hasn't asked you for it isn't really very considerate, so why should they feel inclined to want to work with you? The fact that it is now very much seen as the norm doesn't mean it's the right way to go about things. However, it does mean that you have a great way to stick out from the crowd! Sending a short, polite letter, indicating why you feel your music ought to interest the person concerned and asking if they would like a demo sent, will be such a breath of fresh air that you may well be afforded special attention. Just be sure to include a stamped, addressed response card you don't seriously expect busy A&R people to get back to you unless you make it pathetically easy for them to do so, do you?
I'm sure that the same effect might also be achievable over email this is the Internet age, after all! However, bear in mind how easy it is to send an email, compared to writing a letter. Not only is your mail likely to be in amongst more other enquiries and junk than a letter would be, but the effort involved in writing and sending a letter may well also be more flattering to the recipient.
Q How high-quality does a demo recording need to be?
This all depends on what you're trying to achieve. If you're trying to sell your writing ability, then a simple arrangement with just a proficient vocal and a piano or guitar will usually do fine. However, if you're wanting to show someone what a good singer you are, then you'd better make sure that the vocal performance and sound are as good as you can get, even at the expense of the accompaniment. Whatever it is about the demo that you're trying to show off, make sure that you concentrate on getting that as good as possible, while getting everything else well out of the way.
An exception to this is where you feel that you need no help in recording and producing your music, where you feel that all you need is some kind of distribution and promotion network through which to present your work. In this case, the 'demo' should indeed be release-quality, preferably not only in your opinion, but also in the opinions of others.
Q How should I start my demo?
The important thing to remember when considering what to include on your demo tape is that many people who regularly receive demos will have very little time to listen to them. What's more, they will know that for every 100 demos, only 10 will even be acceptable, and only one will be likely to be exceptional enough to warrant any following up.
As a result of this, your demo is unlikely to be listened to for more than about 30 seconds, during which your musical talent must become obvious. So, most importantly of all, put something breath-taking within the first 10 seconds! If you are doing pop music then you'd be best advised to get the vocalist doing something pretty stunning right from the outset. If you're doing a house 'choon' then make that a jaw-droppingly catchy hook instead.
Remember what you're likely to be up against: it's Friday afternoon in the A&R office, and the staff are too tired, distracted and bored to do anything but trawl through demos using the boombox on the other side of the office. You've got to convince them that your music is not only better than the 100 demos which preceded it, but also better than most of whatever else they've had that boombox playing during the day. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by leaving your best song until the end of the demo or by having a 96-bar intro before the first verse.
Q How do I decide what and how much material to include?
For a start, it's worth helping the person seeking out your musical highlights by doing some of the work for them be brutal with yourself and select no more than about 10 minutes of music for demo purposes. Being concise is one of the best ways to get someone genuinely interested in your material, at which point they can ask to hear more. If you bundle everything you've ever recorded onto a C120, then the listener is unlikely to think well of you!
If you feel that three or four whole tracks cannot adequately represent the consistent quality of your music, then there is also the option to use the same space to provide a medley, built from the best sections of numerous tracks. This can work very well in some cases, but there is always the danger that it could make for a confusing listen, so tread very carefully, should you try this.
If you've done your research, you ought already to know the styles of music to which your listener is most partial, so bear that in mind when you're deciding what to include. Also, because many listeners will be wanting to find musicians with strong, marketable identities, it's often worth keeping the styles of your tracks as close to each other as possible. Finally, remember that many styles of music favour fast tempos over slow ones, and that you'll therefore have to be sure that any slower track is doubly impressive to make up for this.
Q What medium should I send my demo on? Cassette, CD, DAT, Minidisc, DCC...?
CD is pretty much the firm favourite, unless the intended recipient requests otherwise, and not only for its sound-quality. There is a CD player in almost every hi-fi and desktop computer nowadays, so it ought be a no-brainer to play the difficulty of playing back DCC and DAT, and even cassette and Minidisc in some cases, could mean that a demo submitted in these formats never gets a listen. The only objection to this is that many people listen to demos when they're in the car, which gives cassette an advantage, seeing as CD players are still in the minority here. CD also scores over the other formats in that it is a write-once medium which therefore cannot be recorded over, unintentionally or otherwise.
In short, if you want to be sure that your demo is playable, send copies both on cassette and CD. Make sure there is enough level on the tape to ensure that there isn't distracting hiss when it's played, and avoid using any noise reduction. Also, remove the copy-protect tabs from the tape to discourage anyone recording over it. And above all, check that it and the CD work properly! We had several competition entries which fell at this first hurdle: unreadable Minidiscs, CDs full of data tracks (either that or they were experimental compositions that were all meant to sound like a modem) and cassettes which were left completely blank...
Q Does sending out demos compromise my copyright?
It is very rare that demo material is used unscrupulously, though that's not to say that it doesn't happen. If you wish to provide yourself with a certain amount of protection, then you would do well to follow the old trick of sending a copy of any material to yourself by recorded mail, then locking it away, unopened, somewhere secure many banks rent safety-deposit space for a small annual charge. This can be used for evidence that you owned a recording at the date at which you sent it to yourself. This can be useful if anyone else claims to have ownership of that material at a later date.
Another wise precaution is to put a small copyright notice onto each of your demo recordings: "OP OC Mervin Irwin 2000" should do the trick, indicating to the reader who owns both the writing and recording copyrights.
Q What should I send with my demo and how should I package it?
If you work on the basis that you should be trying to make the best impression from the moment your demo hits the doormat of its recipient, then you shouldn't go far wrong. Imagine, if you will, that you are the A&R person in question...
A neat padded envelope, sized appropriately for its contents, arrives by first-class post. It has been neatly and legibly labelled with your correct name (Mr. J. Shmoe), title (Group Co-ordinator for Artists and Repertoire) and address (Everyman Recordings, Gold Disc Row, London W67 8XY), along with the return address of the sender. Recognising the return addressee as the sender of that nice letter you replied to earlier in the week, you decide to have a quick look inside while you drink your first coffee of the day.
The envelope opens easily, presenting you with a carefully folded typewritten letter, a picture and neatly labelled demos on cassette and CD. Your eye falls upon the photograph, and it's stylish enough to have you reaching for the one-page letter. A 30-second scan through informs you of the band's name, fills you in on their major biographical details and musical influences (most of which seem just the sort of thing you're into, as it happens), as well as quoting some praise from a local radio DJ. Then, impressed at the effort that appears to have gone into their presentation, and intrigued at how exactly one can combine bluegrass and acid house, you reach for the tape, noticing that both the cassette box and the tape itself bear a three-track listing as well as full contact details...
A chain of events like this is really not that far-fetched, and leads to your demo reaching the correct ears and being listened to with perhaps even an air of anticipation. In fact, it's because so few people make it this easy for the recipient of their demo that you have such a good chance of making it work for you. So let's go over the general points hinted at above.
Firstly, it is important that you pay attention to detail: there's nothing like misspelling someone's name, or using their old job title to get things off to a bad start. If you don't take care, the addressee will become distracted from the package's content and will be much more likely to leave it to 'pend', possibly indefinitely. What's more, if you make it look like being observant, careful and organised is in your nature then that immediately offers the possibility that your music might also have benefited from such qualities. Some people try using eye-catching or gimmicky packaging to draw attention to their demos, but good old-fashioned care and attention are much more unusual, and are all you really need to make an impression. If in doubt, get a critical friend to check everything over for you if only to avoid embarrassing spelling mistakes...
The next vital ingredient in any demo package is information about you and your music. If nothing else, make sure that absolutely everything in that envelope has your name and contact details on it. However, also aim to provide concise biographical information, a picture and some description of your music the person holding your demo recording needs to know not only that you are offering them something in which they might be interested, but also that you have been savvy enough to do some research. And, of course, don't forget to tell them exactly what it is you might want from them!
Finally, the magic ingredient is an element of intrigue which will prompt the recipient to reach for that tape or CD. Our fictional A&R person not only wonders what sort of music comes in such a dapper package, but also how you'll combine your particular set of musical influences, whether the local DJ's faith is well-founded, and whether you sound as stylish as you look in the photo. Only once you've convinced someone to actually listen to your demo, can you finally let your music do the talking.