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The Song Demo<BR>Part Two: Audience and Arrangement

Written by songwriting  |  13. January 2001

In the last article, I began discussing the process of making a demo. If you missed it, or would like a quick refresher, you can get to Part One of this series by clicking on the 'view archived articles' link near the bottom of this page. Don't worry, we'll wait for you. ;-)
Remember the Audience
The content of a demo should be dictated by the audience. Ask yourself who will be listening to it, and what you want them to think when they hear it. If you're a band or an artist looking for a record deal, you'll probably be shopping your demo to A&R, managers, producers, etc.. To minimize any chance of them misinterpreting your artistry, your demo should reflect your musical vision at the highest level you can muster. The more it sounds like the album you're hearing in your head, the better.
Singer/songwriters may also be shopping to that crowd (A&R, managers, producers), and can follow a similar line of thinking. However, they can also get away with a live performance demo (in fact, a recording from a live gig can be quite effective, especially if the crowd is going nuts for your material).
Not sure which way to go? Well, think of it this way: nobody goes to see James Taylor, Shawn Colvin, or Mary Chapin Carpenter to hear the band. They go to hear the singer/songwriter. Now, imagine Mary Chapin singing "Passionate Kisses" without the rest of the band. Kinda loses its punch a bit, right? It all depends on the material. The trick is knowing when to dress up a song and when to let it be. Not sure? Too close to the material? That's okay. Consult with a producer, and get some professional input. Very, very few of the great singer/songwriters I've met are also great producers. Don't make the mistake of thinking that one person can do everything. There's just not enough time to hone all those skills.
Where does that leave us? Ah, yes -- songwriters who aren't performers. Heck, we're the worst of the bunch. We don't even sing or play our own stuff most of the time. Songwriting demos sometimes go to producers, sometimes directly to artists, but mostly they go to publishers. Every publisher is different, but most of them "just want to hear the song." That means that the lyrics have to be clear and the musical accompaniment should be on target for whatever market you're shopping it to. Don't send an R&B version of your latest song to a publisher in Nashville, and don't send your newest bluegrass tune to New York. Simple enough, right? For the non-performing songwriter, a network of musicians, producers, and studio contacts is even more important than for the other types of songwriters.
Tips on the Arrangement of a Demo Song
Here are some things to keep in mind when you're putting your demo together:

If you're shopping for a record deal:
  • Showcase your talents. If you've got a killer vocalist and guitar player in the band, make sure they shine on the first cut. Don't wait to wow your listeners. Put your best foot forward.
  • Present a consistent image. Don't shop musical schizophrenia. 90% of the labels out there need to describe you with a simile ("They're great! They sound like Hootie and the Blowfish meets Ozzy Osbourne"). Unless diversity is your trademark and you've built a huge following because of it, don't try to fool anyone into thinking you can do everything.
  • Have strong material. If your musical chops are considerably better than your writing chops, do something about it! Talk with other writers and let people know you're on the lookout for material for your demo. Many songwriters will offer you their best stuff in exchange for a copy of the demo (so they can shop it as well) and the hope that the cut will be the one that gets the band signed.
  • Avoid longer songs. There's a time when every great musician wants to make a 13 minute song. This is not that time. Four minutes is plenty long in most genres.
  • Shop 'til you drop. Once you've got your demo together, don't just send it to record companies. Use it to get gigs! Send copies out to clubs and local venues, and don't forget to follow up. Sometimes club owners are even worse than record companies are about calling back.

    If you're shopping for a publishing deal:
  • Match what you're shopping to wherever you're shopping it. Like I said before, don't send your R&B demos to Nashville.
  • Get the most out of your hired guns. If you've got the time, cross some genre lines and get down multiple versions of a song while you've got the performers in the studio. A versatile piano player and vocalist could very likely lay down country, pop, blues, and gospel versions of a song all in the same session. You can always overdub additional parts with other players later to make the alternate versions even stronger.
  • Ease up on intros and solos. Publishers in particular don't want or need to hear long intros or solos. They want to hear the song. Most will give you less than 10 seconds to get their attention. Making them wait 32 bars to hear the first lyric is likely to get your media dropped right in the trash.
  • Really avoid longer songs. If you're shopping to publishers, you're probably shopping to radio. Anything over 3:30 is getting long in the tooth, especially if you've already followed the "Ease up. . ." guideline above.

    How Many Songs?
    That's probably the third most venerable question in the industry (Right behind, "Where's my check?" and "How big of an advance can I get?"). There are many different schools of thought on this. I recommend that you treat each demo recipient as an individual. It's like every other step in the demo process: find out what they want and give it to them. Call and ask before you send something out. Write a letter. Ask them what they're looking for so you don't waste their time, your time and your postage. If you can't get an answer and still want (or need) to send something, send your best two or three songs. They can always ask for more; you can't take back anything you've sent.
    Next month we'll cover some of the studio challenges of making demos, and offer some tips to help save you money and keep things running smoothly.


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