Find out what you need to do — and avoid doing — if you want your demo to stand out from the crowd.
Ever since the dawn of rock & roll, and probably before that too, musicians have been shuffling into budget studios or borrowing recording equipment to produce demos, in the hope that they can capture on tape their playing skills, vocal talents, or songwriting abilities. Although a demo is not the same as a commercial recording, it still requires a great deal of thought and care, because it is often the one chance a person has to sell themselves and their work to its recipient.
The archetypal demo is a short recording made specifically for record companies with the aim of securing a recording contract; however, there are several other main reasons for creating a demo. Songwriter demos are often just sent to publishers with the focus more on the songs than the presentation of a band's or artist's performance. Other demos are delivered to producers and managers by bands and artists who are hoping to involve a commercial production team in their project. At the very least, a demo is a good thing to take along to gigs in case someone shows interest, or to have available for the day you get talking to an important contact in the pub.
While I worked in the SOS office, we ran a number of big competitions offering readers the chance to win recording time with a top producer in a professional studio. From wading through the hundreds of submissions we received then, and from subsequently putting together the Business End column, I've not only seen how the best demos stand out, but I've also seen many of the same mistakes being made again and again. In fact, most of the many hundred demos I've listened to over the years were clearly compromised by some aspect of their presentation — while the different Business End panelists often disagreed about what was good or bad, there were certain things which always managed to wind everyone up!
In this feature, I'll be looking at the most common areas where demos are let down by poor presentation. Plus I'll suggest ways to improve the demo package so that it delivers the music and all the important information about its creator as successfully and directly as possible.
It has been known for people to become very exasperated when they realise that their demo has not received a printed review after it's been sent to SOS, and they then begin showering the magazine with phone calls and emails rudely demanding an explanation. However, far from having a positive effect, abusive emails or phone calls tend only to reduce the chances of getting a review. Even those famously 'difficult to work with' pop stars probably spent years being nice and subservient before they got to the position where they could afford to behave like a rotter. By the same token, you might not like the fact that the A&R person has been sent one or two of your demos and hasn't called you back, but bombarding them with angry mail telling them how aggrieved you feel is not the best way forward.
All demos should ship with a covering letter, preferably addressed personally to each recipient. In general, all the necessary information can be conveyed on a single page of A4, which should include some basic information about the artists, writers, and/or musicians, their immediate aspirations, and, most importantly of all, their contact details.
The letter is the vehicle through which the demo's creator can directly speak to the listener and, as such, it is an important first point of contact. Nevertheless, many people use their covering letter as some sort of advert through which they hype their demo and themselves as much as possible. Texts of this kind often go on to explain how the artist's brilliance has been confirmed by the crowd reaction at gigs, or by some other respected critic. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your view), this kind of self-publicising is likely to have a negative effect on the seasoned pro, who will be reading the letter to get some basic useful information and not to hear the reported opinions of a stranger. They will also be intending to use their own ears to assess the music as they find it.
- 'This had really better blow me away!'
- 'Full of pop hits?! Demos that say that sort of thing are invariably crap!' (Which they do tend to be, for some reason...)
- 'This person sounds very arrogant. I don't think I like them already.'
- 'So this upstart thinks they can tell me what I should like? How dare they!'
We've all seen television and newspaper adverts for new releases which include value statements telling us how everyone who is anyone thinks the record is wonderful, so it's not really surprising that people try to emulate advertising strategies in their demo notes. But adverts use the opinions of famous people because they are targeting the general consumer market, in which music, at least partly, functions as a signifier of taste and social acceptance. Most adverts are merely trying to convince someone it's worth buying a CD, whereas the covering letter of a demo will be read by people who are looking for a project genuinely worthy of the investment of huge sums of money, so the stakes are much larger.
A brief, straightforward, polite, and informative letter is infinitely more attractive than an arrogantly boastful one, and it also shows the listener that you are respectful of their position and their opinion.
Artwork is something which is often a cause for debate. Some people believe that it is best to leave a demo's design as simple as possible, so that the artwork does not affect the perception of the music. Others stress that its aesthetic appearance can help a demo stand out from the pile of other demos which inevitably litter the listener's desk. It is certainly true that demos with no artwork are easily overlooked in favour of more interesting designs. However, sometimes great demos are left to one side just because they look terrible!
Thanks to domestic CD printers, software programs like Adobe Photoshop, and digital photography, it's now pretty easy and quick to produce artwork at home. However, such technology has encouraged people with absolutely no artistic aptitude or graphic-design skill to have a go, and the results are sometimes pretty bad. Particular bugbears of mine are badly pixelated images that have been shot with a low-resolution digital camera before being enlarged, and the common use of Photoshop-style preset effects which require no effort to apply. If you even suspect that your artistic talents lag behind your musical ones, then it's probably very wise to keep things simple, or find a friend who is artistically inclined.
Including a photo with the demo is also something which can work both ways. Some people like to see a picture of the artist, especially if the music is song based, or if there is a whole band involved. Unfortunately many pictures end up looking like a bit of a cliché. Common 'classics' are the 'working-class band hanging out in an alley' image, the 'sole songwriter clutching the neck of a guitar' studio shot, and the 'attractive girl, gazing into the camera from a silk-covered bed' photo. Any attempt to ape a hackneyed shot like one of these is bound to look like a cheap imitation, and you can guarantee that anyone in the industry will have seen it a hundred times before.
Whatever visual package you come up with, it is essential that you make sure your contact details are included on everything. Covering letters are easily separated from CD cases, and CD cases can get separated from CDs, so full contact details must go on all three. Also, some demos sit in the system for months or years before finding their way to the right person, so picking phone numbers and emails which have a long shelf life is vital. For example, make sure you don't rely on a web-based email contact which you end up closing down after a few months.
I've often found that numbers and addresses are often so hurriedly written that they are rendered unreadable, or have digits missing. Taking a little time to type text out accurately, and check it afterwards, may make all the difference between making an important contact or not. Using arty fonts is also a really bad idea, especially for contact information, as many are unreadable or have ambiguous digits and letters.
If you're having trouble paring down your intro, perhaps it would be worthwhile looking at some former hits which make their mark in just a few seconds. Most are classic three-minute hits, recorded in an era when a composer had to deliver all the elements of the song as directly and succinctly as possible.
'Wild Thing' by The Troggs starts with a single bending guitar note which instantly identifies the track. The song's main chords begin afterwards and the first lyrics are reached a mere eight seconds after the very start of the track.
Despite being quite a long track, the Beatles' 'Hey Jude' actually begins with the vocal. Even so, as soon as McCartney starts singing, the vocal is distinctive enough to be recognised by anyone who's heard it before.
'You Really Got Me' by The Kinks has a very simple but effective introduction which just repeats the same chord motif several times and then continues it into the verse. Despite the repetition, the song still gets to the vocals in nine seconds. 'All Day And All Of The Night' has a similar guitar-riff introduction, but takes just seven seconds to get to the lyric. Take a look at some of the Kink's other uniquely recognisable hits: 'Dedicated Follower Of Fashion' gets to the lyrics in seven seconds, 'Autumn Almanac' takes eight seconds and 'Days' manages it in six seconds.
Pick a few Elvis records and the same brevity can be observed. 'Hound Dog' begins with the vocal straight away, 'Jailhouse Rock', with its unmistakable guitar and piano chords, takes six seconds, and the epic 'Suspicious Minds' gets going in five seconds. 'Return To Sender' takes nine seconds for the lead vocals to start, but by then the song has already played a section of the chorus backing-vocal part!
Exactly how the CD, its box, and your letter are packaged is not particularly important, as long as they have adequate protection from the knocks they are likely to suffer in the post. Some CDs we've received at SOS arrive without a jewel case, probably because they were sold that way. However, it's worth remembering that shops like Maplin and catalogues like Studiospares (www.studiospares.com) do sell cases separately. Many demos are only protected by a thin plastic sleeve which is only just enough to stop scratches, but not enough to guard against a hard knocks. A jewel case is the safest option, and it is also a good holdall for artwork and information. Even the covering letter can be folded and stored inside the case. Furthermore, I've found that when a CD is one of many sat on my desk waiting to be heard, a hard case makes it stackable, and harder to lose than a sleeveless one.
Padded jiffy bags or cardboard CD wrappers are the best and most readily available packages for sending CDs, even though, ironically, it is often the CDs without cases which are sent in a plain envelope! Some people decide to decorate their Jiffy bags to help them stand out from the rest, and it's true that a little colour can certainly help a package get opened sooner rather than later. However, if time is short, it's much better spent on improving the package content, because the wrapping is the one thing which is sure to be thrown away straight after it has been opened.
Amazingly, it is not at all uncommon to receive CDs with no audio on them, or ones which don't seem to play properly. To avoid mixing recorded and unrecorded CD-Rs, it's essential to have a marker pen handy to label them as soon as they have been recorded, especially if you have a desk covered in disks! It's also important to check that each CD-R plays properly, and the only way to do that is to spend time listening to each one. Unfortunately, some CD players are more particular than others, and will refuse to play CD-Rs which play perfectly well in other machines. One way to lessen the chances of this problem occurring is to buy CD-Rs with recognised brand names, rather than their cheap alternatives. Even then, it's worth testing your recordings on a range of CD players.
Record company public-relations agencies seem to be very good at sending out promotional CDs and press releases without doing any research to find out the requirements of the companies they are sending them to. SOS, for example, doesn't review commercial CDs, yet the magazine is constantly being sent commercial CDs for review! However, just because those people, who should know better, don't do their research, it doesn't mean that you can afford to be so careless when sending out your demo.
If you are sending a demo to a magazine, find out what sort of thing they typically feature by getting the latest copy and reading the reviews that already exist. Adhering accurately to any printed entry instructions will further your cause greatly too. If you are contacting a record company A&R department, publisher, or producer, then it probably isn't going to be quite so obvious what kind of package they'd like to see. However, with a bit of research you can find out if they have any specifications, and then you can tailor your submission accordingly. The simplest method is to ring the record company or publisher and ask for the address of the correct department and the name of the person to whom you should send your work. And at this point you can ask if they offer any submission guidelines. These days, many companies place all the necessary contact information and A&R details on their web sites, so those with a phone phobia don't miss out.
So far, we've talked about the non-musical elements of a demo package, as these are the things which are most commonly neglected or dealt with hastily after the music has been finished. However, changes can be made to the presentation of the tracks themselves, without overtly tampering with their musical integrity.
Keeping your introductions as short as possible is something worth doing, regardless of the type of music you are creating. It is easy to feel that your song's dramatic intro is an essential precursor to the rest of the song, especially if you are in the habit of listening to it with the stereo pumping, atmospheric lighting overhead, and a half-drunk beer in the hand. Unfortunately, it's very likely that the majesty of your intro, as experienced by you at home, will be totally lost on your listener who will, no doubt, be playing it either in their car on the way to work, in a busy and noisy office, or on a small stereo in the corner of their kitchen. Many people try to get round this problem by writing in their covering letter things like 'Please play loud' or 'Please listen with the lights down low', but it's wise to assume that people are going to be far too busy to do anything other than fit their listening sessions around their daily routine.
Long intros also take up too much time. No matter how well orchestrated the intro, it is often expendable in terms of the song's overall composition, especially if it is repeating the main chords of the song a number of times. You can safely assume that the listener will have lots of other demos to get through and other work to do, so they will really want the song to start quickly, especially as the previous 100 demos they listened to almost certainly suffered from long intros too!
It's often said that a typical A&R guy will listen to the first 30 seconds of a demo, and if the song hasn't started happening in that time it will be consigned to the reject pile. Some people refuse to believe that a responsible industry professional would spend so little time listening to a track, but, as you will find out if you ever try listening to a large number of demos one after another, even the most enthusiastic and caring music fan can comfortably settle into such a ruthless state of mind in a very short period of time! All styles of music follow rules and use common compositional cues to speak to the listener, so it's unsurprising that people in the business develop an uncanny ability to predict exactly what a track is going to do, just from hearing its first few notes. Long intros just tend to prolong the inevitable, and often end up getting skipped over with a press of the fast-forward button.
A good way to test your demo tracks is to edit them into chunks to see exactly how much of your composition happens during any one block. If there is a minute-long section which contains all the best elements of the song then it may be wise to start the song at the beginning of that section and indicate that you have edited it as such on the sleeve notes. Bear in mind that a demo does not have to provide complete tracks — it is primarily a taster of your work.
It's always difficult to choose which songs to include on your demo and which to leave off, especially when you have a personal affection for them all. For this reason it is often best to seek a few different opinions. Asking family and friends is not always a good idea however. Indeed, TV shows like Pop Idol and Fame Academy have proved that, no matter how bland or how out of tune the contestant appears to be, their nearest and dearest usually think that they are wonderful, and are prepared to boo and hiss anyone who says otherwise. It's much better, then, to find people who have no vested interest in your music, and ask them which tracks they find most compelling.
Some people try to avoid the issue altogether by putting all their songs on the demo, usually together with a written disclaimer saying something like 'we think all our songs are great, so we couldn't leave any out.' Taking the easy way out like this is actually a very bad idea. If the recipient of your demo has only a few spare minutes to listen to each artist's work, then they are not going to welcome a CD full of music. The chances are that they will listen to the first part of the first song, and maybe a little of song two, and if these early tracks do not cut the mustard, they probably won't listen any further. What's more, presenting an album's worth of material as a demo demonstrates a lack of focus and awareness, and may annoy some A&R personnel.
Three tracks is almost certainly the maximum number you should include. Some people even restrict themselves to a single track, although it is likely that an interested party will want to be able to check out a second track if there is one available, so two is probably a more sensible minimum. Of course, if your demo does garner some interest there will be ample opportunity to showcase more of your work later on.
Many of the mistakes mentioned in this article are very easily avoided, but, because a demo is a very personal thing, most people find it hard to stay objective and business-like when presenting their work. There's certainly no way to guarantee that your music will be liked or accepted, but at least by showing some discipline and care you can ensure it stands the best possible chance of meeting its mark.