One of the most important activities for an artist is recording a hot demo tape. Your demo is your calling card for everything from booking shows, to getting press and reviews, and generating label interest. From my experience as an A&R guy at a major label, there are a few basic tips that you should consider for fine-tuning your demo submission.
Step One – Song Selection
Your first demo should have no more than three songs. While you might have a catalogue of hundreds of “great” songs, it is important to select the best three. I recommend no more than three tunes because A&R people or club bookers don’t have time to listen to volumes of music that is submitted to them. Imagine that you are sitting in their place and have one tape with ten songs and one with two, which one do you think you will listen to first?
Make sure that they are all in fact great tunes. One of the first things that you must do as an artist is learn to be truthful with yourself. Every artist knows when they have truly created something great and when they have just pumped out a mediocre song that lacks soul. Don’t send the bullshit. There’s too much of it already and no need for more. The three tunes should be organized beginning with the strongest. And if you only have one great tune, then just send the one. If you don’t have any, wait until you do. You are building a reputation at this point. And if you become known for sending out bad songs, people will stop accepting and listening to your music.
The tempo doesn’t matter. If the tunes are all ballads because that is your specialty, fine. If they’re all dance tunes, fine too. If you have strong dynamics with varied tempos, that can work as well.
The genre also doesn’t matter. If you are considering mixing-genres – for example putting a rap, country and pop tune on the same tape – don’t! It is highly unlikely for one A&R person to be an expert in these three varied genres. If you write music in many different styles, do separate demo tapes for each genre. Pick three pop tunes and send them to the pop A&R person. Pick three country tunes and get them to the country A&R person. But don’t send them all to the same guy.
Step Two – Quality of Demos
Now that you’ve chosen what three songs you want to record. Make sure that you get clean clear copies of them on tape, DAT or CD. With technology moving so rapidly, you can create great demos in your bedroom, even on a four-track, if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, go to someone who does and have them record the tracks and vocals for you. It is not necessary to have 24 or 48 track master quality demos but know that many of your competitors do. So you want to have your demo sounding as close to a finished record as possible. Unfortunately, except for a few rare pop A&R men and most of Nashville, the idea of getting a song heard, placed, and cut on an artist from a guitar or piano vocal are long gone.
Today’s demos need to sound like songs on the radio. So if you don’t have your own equipment, get to know engineers at recording studios and see if they will work on your demos in the studios’ downtimes. This will save you money, as the studio rental rates are cheaper during these hours. Many of today’s engineers and studio interns will be tomorrow’s great producers. Doing an internship at a recording studio is one way to get in the door and possibly get some free off-peak studio time. Also, try to get a mastering studio that will adjust the volume, compression, tone and other quality aspects of your demo. (See CD-Demo Master Svc)
Step Three – Package
Forget about the bells and whistles and glossy black folders and photos to include with your “demo package.” No one cares. All the A&R person cares about is hearing a hit when he or she pushes the play button. So keep it simple. Just provide a clearly labeled tape with the song titles, your name and telephone numbers. Make sure the tape or CD quality is clean and not muddy or muffled. If they’ve listened to the tape and they love the songs, they will call you. Trust me.
All the bells and whistles in the world are not going to make them listen any quicker and they certainly won’t make them love the music any more. You should include a brief bio with your demo submission. Some A&R guys must have lyrics when they listen to songs. Some might also require a photo. That stuff, however, is only valuable to me if the band is making some noise already, selling some records or doing something else notable. If you choose to include a photo, make sure that it represents where you are today as an artist and not some years ago. (See the bios in Band Row for examples)
Step Four – Process
It’s important to research label and A&R staff interests prior to submitting your demo. If you send your metal band to a soul A&R person, the recording will likely be discarded. Once you have developed a shortlist of potential labels, send your demo package. After sending in your demo, wait about two weeks and follow up with a phone call or email. If you submitted an MP3 or used another digital A&R process, you should also submit a full demo package with CD or tape.
Relationships are key and you should make friends with anyone who can get your submission heard. This means being polite to the assistant and receptionist and perhaps inviting them all to your band’s shows. Put the label on your mailing list and invite them to your shows, share press clippings, announce CD releases, etc.
Getting a good lawyer with experience doing deals with record labels will help to get your demo heard. A lawyer’s involvement, like having a manager, will validate your seriousness and lets the A&R person know that your demo has been pre-screened.