The Top Ten FAQs On The Business Of Songwriting #8

by Mary Dawson

QUESTION 8: How elaborate (and expensive) does a demo have to be in order to be seriously considered by music professionals?

You can always tell a songwriter when he/she is in the midst of composing a new song! There is an unmistakable glassy-eyed appearance on the face, as if the person isn't even "home" (if you know what I mean)! You may observe the writer's lips moving in wordless mumblings or the fingers tapping out syllables. Whatever the outward symptoms, they are definite signs that the songwriter is hearing something the rest of us aren't!

And therein lies the need for the demo! The demo lets the rest of the world hear the song that has been playing in the songwriter's mind for days or weeks. The demo helps the rest of us to get on the songwriter's wavelength and hopefully to share the emotions that inspired and created the song.

For many beginning (or even experienced) songwriters, the challenge of creating a demo is daunting, to say the least. What exactly is an adequate demo? Where do you start? How much do you have to spend?

It is at this point in the writing process that songwriters often become quite vulnerable to a myriad of "experts" whose suggestions range from one extreme to another. Many will say that if the song is strong enough, a simple guitar/vocal or piano/vocal should suffice -- that a publisher or producer will be able to imagine what the song will sound like when it is fully produced. Others will tell you that because of the highly competitive nature of the Music Industry, your demo must be fully produced and radio ready in order to receive a fair hearing.

It is my opinion that -- as with most things in life -- a balance between the two extremes is usually best. Most beginning songwriters don't have a ton of money to invest in demo production -- especially if they are prolific writers with many songs. With a little common sense and a lot of creativity (which songwriters have in abundance anyway), I am confident that you can create demos that will communicate your songs professionally and that will gain you an entrance to the ears of Music Industry professionals. The suggestions below are the guidelines I personally use in creating my own demos:

1) Be sure your song is really finished! -- What do I mean by that? Simply that you have considered every note and every word to be certain that it is exactly the way you want it. For me, personally, I like to make a very rough demo -- just a box recorder and the piano will do -- so that I can listen to my song repeatedly in the car, in my headset as I jog etc. It seems sort of strange to say it, but I find I have to learn my own song! As I become overly familiar with it, I begin to hear places where it might be changed and improved -- words or chords that can be re-worked to strengthen the overall effect.

At this point it is very helpful to pull in other listening ears, people who are objective and can hear past the roughness of the demo. (Probably not your mom or grandma who will love anything you do.) It isn't always necessary for the listener to be another songwriter or musician. In fact, sometimes it's almost better to ask a non-musical type what they think of your song. Remember...non-musical listeners comprise the great majority of music consumers whose purchases determine what songs become hits. Your Number One Goal is to make sure that your songs are communicating emotionally to the hearts of those people!

2) Consider the kind of song you have written -- A simple, straightforward ballad can often be very appropriately presented with a basic guitar/vocal or piano/vocal demo. Blues and folk music, too, can usually be adequately represented with a well-played guitar or piano and a great singer. A more uptempo song, on the other hand, may need percussion, background vocals and fuller production to represent it properly. Remember: the word "demo" is short for "demonstration." Your recording must adequately and accurately demonstrate the song you have written in a way that the listener can "get it."

3) Research your recording options -- Up until the last 10-15 years, it was almost mandatory to book a commercial studio in order to do a professional sounding demo. Thankfully, we now have many more options, due to the increase in high tech home studio systems and music software. You would be surprised at how many major label recordings are actually done in the artist's home...or even a garage studio. When the final product is finished, it is almost impossible to tell the difference in quality between the CD produced in a commercial studio and the one done in a much lower profile home studio.

If you are a prolific writer with a good musical ear and some sequencing and engineering skills, you may want to consider purchasing your own equipment so that you will be able to do as many demos as you desire without recurring studio costs. There are many affordable options these days -- from simple four-track "porta-studio" systems to more sophisticated digital home studios. You can add as many "bells and whistles" as you desire and as you grow in your recording requirements.

But perhaps, like me, you are just a simple songwriter with limited technical skills. Then what? Booking commercial studios (complete with engineer and producer) can be extremely expensive -- ranging from several hundred dollars to over a thousand. If you have only one song, or if you have a very rich uncle who is willing to pay all your studio costs, the pro studio may be an option. But, if you are a struggling, starving songwriter with far more great songs than money, you must find a more economical way.

Savvy songwriters know that the key to affordable demo production lies in researching your music community and the options that are available to you. Start hanging out where musicians hang out. Ask questions. Network to meet musicians who possess the skills you lack. Join your community's songwriters' club or association. Eventually, you will get to know your music community -- from the best music equipment suppliers to the "best kept secret" types of studios. Especially check out community colleges. Many have commercial music and media departments that operate sort of like beauty schools. Those who have ever had their hair cut or permed in a beauty school will know what I mean -- beauty school students perform the services under the watchful eye of the instructor. Great savings and usually very good results are the norm.

Remember, barter is a wonderful thing! As you get to know people in your music community, you will find that often you can trade services and thereby cut recording costs. For example, you may be able to sing backup for the demo of another writer who, in turn, will allow you to use his home recording equipment. Networking is profitable and fun! We musicians may be a little flaky, but we're a lot of fun to hang out with.

But -- you may object -- what if I live way, way out in the boondocks? What if there are no studios, songwriting associations or even music equipment stores near me? Fear not -- there are still options open to you. There are many reputable demo producers who can create a very professional demo from your rough tape and a couple of phone calls with you. Magazines such as American Songwriter, for example, contain dozens of classified ads from studios and musicians all around the country -- but especially in Nashville -- who specialize in demo production. However, be advised that many of these may be more expensive than the networking method described above.

5) Be sure the demo is clear and easy to hear -- The most important characteristic for any kind of demo is that the song is clear and easy to listen to. If the demo is fuzzy and the words are hard to hear, the message that is communicated to the listener is not the message of your song...but rather, the message that you are an amateur. Most publishers or music executives will not listen for more than a few seconds before turning off a poor quality demo.

It is precisely because clarity is so important that over the last several years CDs have become almost the exclusive medium for doing professional demos. CDs are much truer to the master recording than cassettes which can have hiss and background noise. Also, when copies are made of copies, cassettes become progressively less clear and more distorted, but CDs remain true to the original quality no matter how many copies are made because of their digital technology. Although CD duplication may be a bit expensive on the front end (purchasing a CD burner and the correct software), CDs are now much less expensive per unit than cassettes when bought in bulk, and since they are lighter in weight, they are also less expensive to mail.

6) Don't become obsessive -- No matter how experienced you become as a writer and no matter how many demos you have done, you will always be able to find fault with your own efforts. Be critical, but unless there is some glaring error, it may be much better to just learn from your effort and go on to the next song. Everyone's early demos are poorer in quality than those that are produced after years of practice and experience. That's why it's so important to remember that THE SONG IS EVERYTHING! If you have written a "killer song," it will be hard to ruin it with your demo. Think about The Beatles' early recordings in the 1960s. Technology and sound recording were simply not what we have today, so quality-wise, those early albums sound pretty rough. And yet, those very same recordings are still topping the charts -- why? Because The Beatles wrote GREAT SONGS!

Have fun doing your demo! Remember, this gig is about progress -- not perfection!

See you next month for FAQ #7.

**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.

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