The best musicians spend years mastering their instruments and perfecting their composition chops. But that's often not enough to guarantee success in the music business. As in any other business, you need some sort of promotional device to get the recognition and earnings you deserve in return for your skills and services. In many instances, your most important promo is your demo recording.
Demos can be used effectively in the pursuit of many goals, including securing club and concert gigs, a music-publishing contract, and a record-label deal and producing music for film or television. But depending on which objectives you're shooting for, you might need to take a different approach in producing your demo. How much instrumentation do you need for your demo to be effective? Is the recording quality crucial to your demo getting favorable notice? Should you mix your demo to sound like a commercially distributed record or soundtrack, or should you goose the levels on important tracks, such as the vocal, to get your point across? Can you produce a winning demo on a tight budget, or must you outspend the competition? Where can you cut corners to save money without killing your chances of success?
To learn the answers to those and other critical questions, I asked top decision makers — producers, record-label A&R reps, and music publishers — what they want to hear in a demo. I also queried successful soundtrack composers for film and TV about how they produce demos to find work in those mediums. In addition, I drew upon my decades of experience as a studio owner and engineer to offer my own perspective on producing an attention-getting yet cost-effective demo for securing club and concert gigs. (For additional background about the pros I interviewed, see the sidebar, “To Their Credit.”)
I won't discuss how to effectively pitch your demo after it's been produced; that's a subject worthy of its own article (see “Working Musician: Here Comes the Pitch” on p. 108). My sole focus is on what you need to do to produce a demo that will get noticed and propel your career forward. I'll start with how to record a demo to get gigs and then examine how to produce song, artist, and soundtrack demos.
CLUB AND CONCERT DEMOS
Many musicians mistakenly assume that even a roughshod demo will get them work performing in local nightclubs. Although that's sometimes the case, the bar was raised by the digital-recording revolution that began about a decade ago. It's not hard to produce a great-sounding demo these days, and if you don't produce a quality demo, the next band will. With every kind of demo (including song and artist types), it pays to always put your best foot forward.
That doesn't necessarily mean you should produce an ultraslick studio recording for your gigging demo. Most nightclub owners want to hear something that sounds slightly live and raw. If the recording sounds too polished, they'll probably assume (in most cases, rightfully so) that you won't be able to pull off the same sound live. That leaves the nightclub manager back at square one, wondering how you will perform in a live setting.
But another misconception is that a raw, live sound equates to sloppy performances. You will never be penalized for being a tight band or flawless solo performer. On the other hand, derelict grooves and out-of-tune guitars might cost you the gig.
LET IT BLEED
The key to getting a rougher sound while maintaining professionalism lies in your microphone-placement choices and the types and amounts of reverbs you use in the final mix. For a full-band recording, consider having some instruments playing in the same room (as opposed to playing in separate isolation booths) to add a little mic bleed to tracks. If you're recording in a pleasant-sounding room, placing one or two additional room microphones several feet back from the drums will add some natural ambience to the recording. Just make sure that the amount of mic bleed and ambience you add are subtle, or your recording might sound as though it was made in someone's unfinished basement.
To add a sense of realism to your productions, restrict your choice of reverbs to plates, springs, small chambers, and small rooms (whether digital emulations or the real things). Unless you're already performing concerts, large concert-hall settings tend to sound fabricated. Add enough reverb at mixdown to create a sense of depth, but not enough to be readily noticed by nonmusicians. With a moderate amount of natural ambience and signal processing added to your tracks, you can fool most nightclub owners into thinking they're listening to a well-made live recording, in spite of the numerous clean punch-ins you might have done. That will make them confident that you can pull off a live show in their club.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Never forget your purpose for recording your gigging demo. Unless you aim to release the recording for general distribution and sale, skip the temptation to triple-track the background vocals and add a tambourine overdub during the choruses. Such frills will have no material effect on whether you get the gig at a local nightclub, and most likely, the club owner won't even notice them.
Limit the number of songs on your demo to no more than three or four. Those who listen to your demo will probably make up their minds whether to hire you by the time they've heard the first couple of songs.
Plan your budget and your time in the studio to allow for getting great mixes. If possible, reserve 30 to 50 percent of your budget for mixdown. Trust me: you need that much time to get great mixes, especially if you're mixing more than 16 tracks. Most club owners cannot discern the difference between horrible mixes and poor performances. A wretched mix of great performances won't impress anyone. Great mixes of killer performances will get you enough gigs that you'll recoup your mixdown expenses in no time.
If you are trying to win concerts, consider producing some clean recordings of your live shows. Wild audience reaction garners instant credibility for your performance abilities. Just make sure any microphones intended to capture the crowd are far out into the seating area. If the mics are too close to the stage, your performance might overpower the audience reaction, making those mics worthless or even detrimental to the overall sound.
You might need to add a short delay to stage mics to get their signals in phase with the audience mics. If you don't align the phase of the stage and audience mics, the overall sound will likely suffer comb-filtering effects that thin out your sound as well as confusing slapback echoes that ruin the music's groove.
Unlike demos that purposely promote the abilities of the musicians involved, the sole goal of a song demo is to sell the song itself. However, that doesn't mean that the musicians' performances aren't critical to the song demo's success. Always seek out the best singers and musicians to perform on your demo so that the song is represented in the best possible light.
Country-music producer Byron Gallimore advises most songwriters not to sing their own demos unless they are really great singers. “If the vocal isn't up to snuff,” he says, “there's a danger that [the person you're pitching the demo to] may focus on the singing and miss the song.”
Jim Vellutato, creative director for Sony/ATV Music, agrees with Gallimore. “I believe having the best vocal you can get increases the chance of you getting a record deal,” he says. “On every song, but especially on ballads, the vocal has to be exceptional.”
That advice runs contrary to an urban legend that a great vocal is the kiss of death for a song demo. The theory behind the myth is that an artist might shy away from singing a song that the demo singer does better. “I haven't found that to be true,” Gallimore says. “Most artists believe in themselves. Nobody I've ever worked with has been afraid to sing a song because a great demo singer sang it, and we have some great demo singers in Nashville, too.”
Vellutato sheds further light on the subject: “If you're sending your demo to Celine Dion, she's definitely going to want to hear a great vocal. If, on the other hand, you're sending a song to a weak vocal artist, sure, a great vocal could scare him or her away. But it's probably not the type of song that person would do anyway.”
Before beginning production on a demo, a songwriter must decide whether to use a male or female vocalist to sing the song. That can be a difficult choice if you know you'll be pitching the song to artists of both genders. According to Vellutato, the dilemma is that “if you're pitching to Celine Dion, for example, it's really difficult to use a male vocalist and have her ‘hear’ that song.”
Vellutato suggests making two versions, male and female, of the same song so that you can pitch it to both sexes. That approach can be expensive, but Vellutato maintains that it's a justifiable strategy for producing a special song that you think has great potential. “One song can make your career,” he says. “A lot of writers are making a ton of money based on one hit.” That one hit often leads to other deals down the road.
If you're planning to pitch your song to a specific artist, you might be tempted to have your demo singer mimic that artist. That approach can help artists hear themselves singing a song, but it has one potentially huge pitfall.
“Michael Jackson likes to hear everything demoed by someone who sounds like him,” Vellutato says. “But the problem is that if you do a demo that sounds like Michael Jackson, it's really difficult to get anyone else interested in the song. I think you should realistically think about who would do the song and lean the vocal toward that artist, but I wouldn't try to make it sound identical.”
Mike Whelan, director of Creative Services for Acuff-Rose, says the stylized-vocal approach can be expensive. “If you stylize the vocal too much for one artist,” Whelan says, “once you have pitched your demo to them and they've passed, then you have to put another vocalist on it. Unless we're going for a certain pitch, we try to have demo singers put the vocal right down the middle of the road. [That lets us make] a broad pitch on a song, hitting a bunch of artists with it.”
If pigeonholing the vocal's style is often not advised, nailing the song's style for a particular artist is most definitely recommended. “In the majority of cases,” Vellutato says, “I try to send something that's almost identical to what the artist recorded on his or her last album.” The reason is that artists tend to stick with a winning formula, because it's in the style that won fans over.
Gallimore concurs, advising songwriters to “listen to the last two or three albums, and try to see the thread that runs through those.”
Adhering too closely to what an artist has already done can put you behind the curve when an artist breaks new ground. But how can a songwriter know beforehand that an artist is about to change his or her style? In many cases, publishers tip their staff writers off to the upcoming change in direction.
“I think this is where a publisher is very important to songwriters,” Whelan says. “Part of a publisher's job is to communicate daily, weekly, and monthly with the producers and record label of an artist to find out what the artist is looking for. Then we relay that information back to our songwriters.” Having current information on what types of songs are needed is an advantage that staff songwriters have over the unsigned songwriter who makes broad, uninformed pitches.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
Compared with the guitar-and-vocal or piano-and-vocal offerings that were common 10 or 15 years ago, many recent song demos feature full productions. Still, opinions vary as to how much production is necessary for a song demo to be effective.
“As long as the production does an adequate job of presenting the song,” says Gallimore, “I don't think [the amount of instrumentation] really matters. You don't have to have 5,000 parts on these things. What you want to sell on a song is a vibe. If you are selling the vibe of the song with adequate instrumentation and a great singer, that pretty much does it.” On an up-tempo song demo, Gallimore feels strongly that “adequate instrumentation” includes drums.
Gallimore's credits attest to his stature as someone with the ability to recognize great songs, even in stripped-down form. “But those guys are few and far between,” says Whelan. “Usually, we tell our staff writers that they're going to have to make a record in order for producers and artists to hear it.”
What if you're not pitching your song demo directly to a producer or an artist? Songwriters who present material to publishers need not be so thorough in their productions, according to Whelan. He notes that publishers typically have more time to dissect an undeveloped song demo than artists and producers do. As a result, he says that publishers can more readily hear a potential hit behind an undeveloped demo. “If you have a good guitar-vocal demo, most publishing companies can hear the talent,” Whelan says. “If we hear a writer that we really like, we'll probably spend our money to do a [more fully developed] demo here in Nashville.”
Whelan cautions songwriters not to submit outdated productions of their unplaced songs. “You probably need to update anything that sounds dated production-wise,” he says. “You want to sound like you're on the cutting edge. When we get a song that we know was demoed in the '80s, we conclude that the songwriter probably hasn't written anything since the '80s and is still pitching back-catalog songs that he or she wrote 20 years ago. That sends up a red flag.”
Vellutato says that the level of production a song demo needs depends on the style of music you're producing. “If you're writing a ballad,” Vellutato says, “you can have a simple demo, perhaps consisting of only keyboard, drum machine, and vocal. R&B music is dictated by the track; if you don't have a great musical track, a lot of people aren't interested in listening to the song. A rock demo, on the other hand, doesn't have to be incredible, but it has to be a great song that the band can't write itself. But rarely do I have a rock song cut by a band, because bands are mostly self-contained.”
Opinions differ concerning the level of recording quality needed to have your song demo succeed. Gallimore indicates that he often picks up poorly recorded songs; he considers the song's vibe to be far more important to a demo's success. Whelan's view, from a publisher's perspective, is that recording quality is more important.
Whelan recommends that you produce your song demo in a quality studio, even if the studio's rates and your budget constrain you to keeping the production simple. He explains that an unprofessional recording will not favorably distinguish itself from the huge volume of other song demos that the publisher hears. “You have to present your demo in a professional way,” he says. “The music business is a music business.”
Vellutato concurs. He recommends hiring an engineer or going to a quality studio if you can't get great results in your own studio. “It would be really difficult for me to rerecord a song,” Vellutato says. “It would be up to the writer. Part of getting a publishing deal is being able to present sellable material. It's just like any other business. There's a certain level of quality that you have to attain in order to sell your product.”
MIX IT UP!
Okay, you've recorded all of your tracks, and now is the time to mix your song demo. Considering that the vocal track delivers the two most essential ingredients of a song, melody and lyrics, how loud should it be in the mix? Should you goose the vocal's level more than usual or marry it to the instrumental tracks as you would if you were mixing a record bound for commercial distribution and airplay?
“You want people to be able to hear the vocal,” Vellutato says, “but it shouldn't be blatantly out front.” That's good advice, but determining the right level for the vocal is sometimes difficult when studio time is whizzing by and your budget is being drained like water through a sieve. “It's difficult to perfectly set a demo's vocal against backing tracks like you would on a record,” says Gallimore. “If I were going to err on one side or the other, I'd give it a touch more vocal. Try to make sure [the vocal is loud enough that] you can understand the lyrics. I don't like to look at lyric sheets when I'm listening, because it takes me out of the listening zone. I really need to be in a zone to see if a song is doing much for me.”
Whelan takes no chances when it comes to setting vocal levels. “For country music,” he says, “we encourage our writers to mix the vocal out front on the demo. For the most part, vocals should be mixed higher on demos than they are on records. We also encourage our writers to bring up any instrumental lick that's going to help get the song cut.”
Vellutato agrees that instrumental hooks should be goosed. “Anything that you want to attract attention should be prominent in the demo,” he says.
Gallimore also concedes that key licks should be easily heard but cautions songwriters not to go overboard. “I don't think [instrumental] hooks have to be stupid loud,” he says.
The primary objective of an artist demo is to obtain a record deal for the artist performing on the demo. In many instances, the artist will also be the songwriter whose songs are featured on the demo. Artist and Repertoire representatives (A&R reps) are typically the people who screen artist demos at record labels.
When producing an artist demo, it's generally more important to make the completed product sound like a finished record than with a song demo. Presenting an A&R rep with a demo containing fully fleshed-out arrangements will often place you squarely ahead of the competition as long as your performances and songs are hot.
“The more music you include,” says Jojo Brim, producer and senior director of A&R for Def Jam/Def Soul Records, “the more it increases your chances of someone like myself being interested in you.”
Not everyone feels that full productions are always necessary, however. For Carole Ann Mobley, director of A&R for RCA Records Nashville, the amount of production you need on a country demo depends on the style of music you're doing. “For an Alan Jackson — style song,” Mobley says, “a guitar-vocal demo is great. It's definitely not necessary for you to produce [that type of song] like a full record.” On the other hand, Mobley notes that a more contemporary country song might need more production.
Brim and Mobley propose that an artist should submit at least three or four songs in a demo. “Three is a good number,” Mobley says, suggesting “a ballad, an up-tempo song, and something else.”
For those people who have the time and budget to produce an entire album, presenting such a package to an A&R rep is sure to raise some eyebrows. “If you have the savvy to put together an entire album,” says Brim, “by all means, do that. It definitely gives you a sweeter [record] deal because you've already saved me half a million dollars in recording.”
Brim recognizes that not everyone can deliver master-quality recordings, however. Although he appreciates a high-quality recording, he's also quick to say that a poorly recorded demo is not a deal breaker.
More important to Brim is that the artist's demo is fresh and real. He advises new talent not to mimic established artists and records. “Your work should be an extension of the deepest part of your personality,” Brim says. “If it's not honest and fresh and who you really are, then I'm not going to be interested in it. If you're not helping to push the culture forward, then why are you participating?”
If Mobley is relatively short on advice on producing an artist demo, it's for good reason. To her, country music is mostly about live performance. “The demo package per se is not really that important,” Mobley says. “There are lots of producers in town who can make a great-sounding recording. You can make anyone sound good nowadays. That doesn't tell me it's an artist we should sign. When we are presented with a new act that doesn't have a deal, we always have [the performer] come in and sing for us live. That's how we decide if it's worth moving forward.”
If a musician impresses Mobley and the other members of the RCA staff at the meeting, the record company will then cover the costs for that person to make a demo. RCA will decide whether to pass on the artist or give him or her a record deal based in part on how the label-sponsored demo turns out. Personal contacts and working relationships are absolutely essential for a new artist to go the distance from initial meeting to demo to record deal. Recognizing that, Mobley has blunt advice for anyone seeking a recording career in country music: move to Nashville.
FILM AND TV DEMOS
If you want to produce music for film or TV, your demos had better sound great. Full productions and high-quality recordings are critical to a demo's success in securing that type of work.
“You should do as much as you can to make it sound as good as possible,” says TV and film composer Douglas Cuomo. “You have to realize that other people's stuff sounds really good, so yours had better, too. That sometimes means using live players [instead of using only sequenced synths].”
Film composer Carter Burwell agrees that quality is paramount in all aspects of demo production. “Let's face it,” Burwell says. “Film is a medium where form often triumphs over content. Your demos have to be as impressive as they can possibly be. The people listening to them can't necessarily distinguish between composition, arrangement, and production.”
THE RIGHT STUFF
Cuomo advises that you should provide a variety of material on your general demo reel (an anachronistic term, considering that demos are now usually presented on CD) to showcase your versatility. For example, the music might include a mix of underscoring (which can serve as background music) and thematic pieces.
Once you're considered for a project, Cuomo suggests that you talk with the producer or director to find out what kind of music he or she is looking for. Then create some music you think would be appropriate for the project and include it on your demo reel. But here's a hot tip: don't tell the producer or director that the resulting demo was made specifically for the project.
“Part of the danger of doing a demo is that you're saying, ‘This is my take on your project; this is what I would do,’” Cuomo says. “If they really like it, that's great. If they don't, then they might say, ‘Oh, well, that's what he would do; forget it.’ The hope is that you can engage them in some dialogue. If you do something and they say, ‘Oh, that's not right,’ you can then ask, ‘What is it about this that you don't like? What do you want it to do that it's not doing?’”
If you get the nod to score music for film or TV, expect the producer or director to ask you to make a lot of changes to the music throughout the life of the project. “You pretty much have to have your own recording gear,” Cuomo says, “because you'll regularly be going back and changing things. It's not really feasible to go back to an outside studio and spend money every time a change is requested.”
In a sense, the demo process never ends until the underlying project is finished. “Most composers will still be creating demos — synth sketches — once they're hired to illustrate their musical ideas to the director prior to recording the final score,” says Burwell. “My own view is that those demos don't need to be as well produced as the ones created to get a job, partly because you can count on more good will at this point. Also, time is of the essence [because of tight deadlines], and I don't want to waste it perfecting a synth demo [for instance, writing continuous controller data for every MIDI track] if it's all going to be replaced by real players. On the other hand, there is often a sales-pitch aspect to these demos. You may find that it pays to create one brilliantly produced synth suite to convince everyone of your genius, followed by more pedestrian sketches of the film cues.”
ONLY THE BEGINNING
No matter whether you're producing a demo to get nightclub gigs, to score music for film or TV, or to win a publishing or recording contract, you need to make a commitment to stay in the game for the long run if you want to succeed in the music industry.
“Be realistic with your goals,” Brim says, “and understand that the first few demos you make may not succeed.” Practice makes perfect, but persistence makes a career.
Michael Cooper has placed third in the Music City Song Festival and won first place in the Portland Music Association Songwriter's Contest.
TO THEIR CREDIT
The people interviewed for this article constitute some of the leading names in the music and entertainment industries.
When he's not in the studio producing leading R&B and hip-hop artists such as Mary J. Blige and Montell Jordan, Jojo Brim is discovering and developing talent as senior director of A&R at Def Jam/Def Soul Records in New York.
Carter Burwell has composed music for a multitude of feature films, including Being John Malkovich, Conspiracy Theory, Fargo, The General's Daughter, Gods and Monsters, Raising Arizona, and Rob Roy.
Douglas Cuomo's music credits include the hit TV series Sex and the City (HBO), Homicide (NBC), and Now and Again (CBS), as well as various film and theater projects.
At the time of this writing, Byron Gallimore has production credits for 8 of the top 60 singles on Billboard's “Hot Country Singles and Tracks” chart. Gallimore also claims several ACM and CMA awards for his productions.
Carole Ann Mobley is director of A&R for RCA Records in Nashville.
Jim Vellutato is the creative director for Sony/ATV Music Publishing in Santa Monica, California.
Mike Whelan is the director of Creative Services for Acuff-Rose, one of the most prominent publishing companies for country music.