Recording a Demo Part 1: Why Do It?

As a songwriter, always looking to expand your horizons, recording your songs and ideas can be a very useful tool. In Recording a Demo Part 2, next week, we’ll look into building a cheap digital studio. For now, though, I’ll try to show you why you should record your songs.

The guitar’s great, but…

Learn another instrument or three. Although the guitar is probably the most versatile instrument ever invented (on what other instrument can you plan an Am twenty different ways?), it’s useful to learn other instruments. It also helps if you’re in a period of lack of inspiration. You’re picking on the strings and no ideas are coming? Bang the keys of a keyboard! Learning the basics of the keyboard is simple enough. The white keys are setup in a series of 3, then a series of 4. All the series of 3 are C-D-E. All the series of 4 are F-G-A-B. All the black keys are sharps/flats. (Note: the logic of starting at C becomes obvious when you use the scale as it should be used with sounds rather than letters: Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti: Do is C.)

Becoming very good on the keyboard is another matter altogether, but as long as you can play it basically, you’ll be able to use it for writing and recording. If you go out and buy a synthesizer, try and find an old analog one. They sound so much better than digitals. More about that next week.

As for playing the bass, I’ve found that with a good equalizer, you can make your guitar sound like a bass. It may not be ideal, but it works.

To finish a song

Often enough when you have an incomplete song, putting it on tape or computer will help you to complete it. Record what you already have, even if it’s only a minute or so. Add the other instruments and you start getting ideas to complete it.

The reason for this is that you have to start looking at your song from a different angle. If you were writing the music by just strumming it, you may find that you don’t like that anymore. So you have to rethink the main guitar part. Same chords, just played differently. Or you may decide to keep the strumming as is, but to add on to it. Perhaps a second guitar playing a melodic lead, perhaps another guitar picking the chords. Your imagination is the only limit.

Then you have to think in terms of other instruments. Perhaps using the keyboard as the main background instrument. Bass lines will come naturally, once you practice with the instrument a little. As with keyboards, being a great bass player is another thing. But you’re not supposed to be a one-man band. Or at least not a very virtuoso one.

Once you have that partial song recorded and you start listening to it, you’ll find that it starts taking on a life of its own. A life that, quite often, you never suspected. If you want to try an interesting experiment, lend one of your songs that you’ve never arranged to a band, let them play with it for a while, then go and hear them perform it. You’ll most likely be blown away.

I’d like to give you some direction as far as how to arrange your songs, but I don’t think I’d be doing you a favor. There are some basics, but if you head into that direction, you won’t get your own original sound. If you ever want to turn professional, you want to be unique.

If you don’t sound unique, you can only have limited success. If even that. The way record companies think is that once something original happens, they have to copy it to death. When Suzanne Vega started making (very good) albums in the 80’s it surprised the suits in the rec companies that a woman could make money singing. That there were actually talented women out there (I could’ve told them that a long time ago…).

So then they started this wave of women singers. Giving them a harder edge. Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette… Only one the last of those three actually has any talent. Of course, Alanis has enough talent for three. At least.

These women get signed up because the record companies want to sell an image. A raunchy woman. Talent is completely disregarded: They made a star with Celine Dion, didn’t they?

Demystifying the demo

Once you start recording, you may want to look into recording a demo. I have heard of only two demos that were made into albums. One was from the ex-singer of a band called Offenbach (they had some success in Canada and the US in the seventies). When he died of cancer in 1990, he left a demo, piano and voice of his next album. It was given to a producer who had to add an awful lot of instruments and voices to make it into an album. The second case I’ve heard of was Aldo Nova’s first album. Most of that album is the actual demo. However, the demo was recorded with professional musicians in a professional studio.

Nowadays, almost everyone who records an album must record a demo first. David Bowie is a notable exception because in his case it doesn’t matter: The record companies still don’t know what to make of his music…

When the Counting Crows want to record an album, they must first make a demo of it, turn it over to the rec company execs who’ll listen to it and decide to finance it or not. If they don’t like a song, they’ll ask the band to replace it. If they refuse to do so, they’ll have to find themselves a new contract. It’s that simple, the rec companies run the show, not the artists.

Of course, the band won’t spend a lot of money on the demo, they’ll just jam the songs together. Once in the studio, it’ll be the producer’s job to record this in a suitable manner.

Thinking your demo

You want a record company to sign you. As a solo artist and not a band, your recordings must reflect your songwriting style. The people listening to your demo don’t care whether you can sing well or not, they know what can be done to a voice in studio. And they can force you to take singing lessons if it pleases them. They also don’t care whether you’re a good musician. They have long lists of session musicians. There’s too much reverb, the balance is off, the mixing could be improved? You won’t produce your first album. Record companies won’t trust you with that.

What they want to hear are the songs. They want to find out if they can make money off your writing style.

Some people submit demos that are nothing but an acoustic guitar and voice in front of a tape recorder. Others spend thousands of dollars on a recording that will have to be redone anyway if they get signed.

What you should look at is producing something that will be halfway. If you have friends who play other instruments and that you can convince to help you out for free, do so.

What should a demo look like?

Your demo should have three or four songs. No more. Don’t even think of putting another on there, they’ll throw out the demo without even listening to it. As record companies want to make money, you should put your most commercial songs on it, not your best. It’s preferable if the songs do not exceed three to three and a half minutes.

It should be done well enough for them to get the gist of it, but when it’s done too well, it may also give the impression that this is what you want recorded and nothing else. They don’t care for hotheads. If possible (if you own a CD burner or know someone who does), submit your demo on a CD.

If you have to submit it on a tape, use a metal tape rather than the standard quality. All tapes are made of metals, but the “Metal” ones don’t degrade and are much more resistant to temperature variances. Don’t be afraid to spend money on the medium.

As for presentation, you’ve always been told that a nice presentation goes a long way. That is so true. If you present it in a way that is original, it will attract attention. Your demo might end up on the top of the pile to be listened to at the beginning of a session rather than at the end when nobody’s interested anymore. Don’t forget a presentation letter. Tell them who you are and where you come from. Which bands you’ve played with. If you’ve had some media coverage, include the clippings. And make sure to include a few photos. You can just scan them in and print them. It’s cheaper and the result is the same.

Don’t forget to include the lyrics to every song on the demo. This is crucial. They want to gauge you as a writer.

Where to send it

Now that’s a question that comes up a lot. You’ve just recorded a demo that you want a record company to hear. Where should you send it? Hint: Record Companies. Take a CD that was issued in your country and look behind it. Odds are that the address of the record company will be on it. That’s where you have to send it. Send it to record companies in your local market, not in another country. If you can’t find the address, do a search on record companies on the web. When I was looking for addresses in my local market, I found several sites that had complete listings, including contact people.

If you don’t have a contact person’s name, put a label on the envelope clearly indicating the word “Demo”. The person who receives it will know what to do with it. Record companies get these all the time, so they have policies in this matter. As for submitting it in person or by mail, it doesn’t really matter. Odds are you won’t meet the execs anyway. You’ll more than likely just hand it in to the receptionist. However, you are sure it will be in if you go in person.

Having a copy on your website is also a good idea. I’ve heard of one or two sites where you can post your demo and they claim that it will be listened to by rec company execs. DO NOT APPROACH THESE. They get enough demos mailed to them, do you really think they have the time to go on the web and find some more? I don’t know what’s behind these sites, but I don’t want to find out the hard way.

Don’t bother sending your demo to a producer. They don’t listen to demos.

Don’t forget to mail yourself a copy first for copyright protection. A friend who happens to be a Notary told me a few weeks ago that you can bring it over to a notary who’ll seal and stamp it and keep a record as absolute unrefutable proof that you did in fact write those songs. It will cost you a little, but it may be worth it in the long run.

However, times have changed and rec companies aren’t interested in wasting time being sued, so there are very little chances that your material will be stolen.

Independent vs Major

These days, there are two kinds of rec companies, the Independent Label and the Major Label. With Major Labels, they ask only one question when they listen to a demo: Will this sell three million copies? (Around the world.) If their answer is no, they’ll reject the demo.

Independent Labels are another issue altogether. They’re usually started by people who get tired of what the Major Labels put out. They want to hear real music, so they sign real artists. You probably won’t make as much money with an Independent as with a Major, you probably won’t have the same fame, but you’re much more likely to get a better deal.

Always watch out for the sharks

There are some people out there who pass themselves off as Independents but are just in it to rip you off. If you’re not sure, get an agent or talk to a lawyer.

The agent

Getting an agent is also a good idea. He’ll have better contacts and might be able to get you a contract faster than you can by yourself. Again, you need to present the demo and negotiate. Don’t forget, though, that if you’re not satisfied with the agent’s work, it’s hard to break the contract binding you with this person.

Rule of thumb

Submit all copies of your demo at the same time. NEVER accept the first offer. Tell them you’re expecting a call from someone else. If they really want to sign you, they’ll call back with a better offer: It’s all part of the game and they all play it. If you get one phone call, you’re more than likely going to get more calls. Then you start them bidding against one another. If you get the one phone call only and they haven’t called back a week later, call them back. Ask them to repeat the offer. Tell them what you would like, or tell them that you’ve been offered more somewhere else (you don’t have to give them any names). Don’t make any outrageous lies, though, they’ll know it. Don’t sign for the sake of signing.

Never sign for just one album. Look for at least two, but no more than three albums. By investing more in you, they’re more than likely going to back you up a lot more.

Worst case scenario

Even if nobody calls back, they’ll write back. They’ll send you a letter explaining what they liked and disliked about your demo.

Take all that advice into consideration and use it to record your second demo. Don’t even worry if the second demo is turned down, I know of one singer who was signed with his seventh demo. Persistence is the key!

Thanks to David Hodge for pointing out a few things I’d forgotten to mention.

Questions, comments, feel free to email!