The Art of the Demo: When to Quit

I recently had the opportunity to submit some of the songs I have written to an artist of high acclaim, in the hope that he might use one or more of them on one of his many musical projects. The mailer was a ‘solicited’ package, which indicates that the artist has asked for the songs. This is the best way to assure that the recipient will listen to the songs and the goal is to obtain a publishing deal through the artist’s contacts.

I immediately set out to record the three songs I intended to send out. I determined that what I needed was a ‘publishing demo’. What this entails are relatively minimalist renditions of the songs with very few (if any) accoutrements and overdubs. Then the artist receiving the songs will be free to interpret them any way that they see fit. If the demo is obscured by a plethora of overdubs and arrangements, it becomes difficult for the listener to hear the songs in any way other than the way they received it and most artists want to put their own ‘brand’ on it.

Since my three songs were composed with only an acoustic guitar and voice, it seemed appropriate to keep the guitar and voice clearly out front and center in the mix, minimize the arrangement and mix elements to a simple rhythm section and avoid any distraction from the melody and lyric. I could have sent just an acoustic guitar and vocal track, however, we chose to elaborate on the rhythm section to tightly seat the groove because we have our own studio and because, the recipient, in this case, is a producer and perfectly capable of understanding the crucial elements of the song. Nevertheless, we kept the arrangement to a minimum.

So, what is a demo and how does it differ from a finished CD? The word ’Demo’ often denotes an unfinished or lesser quality version of a recorded product. From my perspective, a demo is simply an unfinished CD project. There is no reason why the recording quality should be inferior, and, in fact, the demo can and often is the backbone of a finished CD, with other tracks added to it later, if it was properly tracked in the first place. Finishing it only requires a bit more time to be spent on overdubs, minor edits, EQing, compressing, mixing and mastering. Thus, if that is all that is necessary to secure a gig or a publishing deal, the demo can be sent in a raw form to publishers, artists or promoters.

When sent to a promoter, for example, a brief explanation that the finished CD will follow is often more than sufficient if there are deadlines for the receipt of packages. A publisher whose specialty is placing songs in movies and television shows usually requires a finished CD so that they may immediately place the songs with clients – in that their clients are seeking finished, mastered CD’s. The movie and TV clients do not want the expense nor will they spend the time to mix or master audio CD’s.

However, with a publishing demo, the composer is seeking out other artists to perform and record their songs. When sending a group of songs to this type of publisher, the song itself must be clear and concise so that the artist can cover and interpret the song in any way that they see fit. The simpler the arrangement the better it is for this type of publisher. A single voice and accompanying instrument are often all that are required, for example, just guitar and voice or piano and voice.

When sending out a demo, these are a few common mistakes that are made by composers. I have heard of instances where the recipient received a blank CD! The sender did not listen to the burn (the copy) to hear if it burned properly with no digital errors and was ‘finalized’. The digital finalizing process enables the CD to play on other CD players. Another common mistake is not to label the CD itself. Once the CD is out of its’ case and has mingled with the mountain of CD’s on the recipient’s desk, there is no way to track down the sender. Always put your name and contact information on the CD itself. (I should also mention that writing on a CD should be done before the burn, otherwise, the writing can cause a shadow that prevents the disc from playing on other CD players. Also, on the CD case insert, be sure to repeat the contact information as well as the song titles, song lengths, names and tasks of the participants and copyright information.

Prior to sending out a CD package it is always advisable to send the copyright information to the performing rights organizations – SOCAN, ASCAP, or BMI. Also, if you’re insecure about sending your work off to strangers, you can simply send your demo and lyric sheets to yourself by registered mail, with the postal mark and a post office workers initials inside and outside of the package. When you receive the package, don’t open it until you are in court before the judge and this will act as witnessed proof of ownership, opened by the judge him/herself as evidence that the package has not been tampered with.

So let’s strap on our best ears and sell some of those songs and, above all, have fun.

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