How good should your demo sound?


I have encountered heaps of confusion about what a demo really is.  Should it be release quality or just piano and a voice?  Should you have a producer do it in Studio 301 or do it home with a Zoom recorder?

My information here is only a general guide and you should get advice from an experienced manager on your specific situation.


If it is a demo for a record company the only thing they are interested in is a demonstrated ability to sell music, even if the music is horrible, if you have a great vibe and can sell it they will love you.  So when you are approaching a record company having a good manager to put together a compelling business plan is more useful than a recording.


The bigger the label the less complete the music can be.  The record label will employ a producer to make a commercially viable record with you so they don’t need to hear production.  Even if you are going to a small label and will end up paying for production yourself it is better to get the record label on board first so they can have input to the production.

So what they want is something that shows the basics of the song.  It needs to be a clear recording of the words and melody, if you are promoting yourself as a singer it needs to be a compelling vocal performance, you need to be able to hear the chords that accompany the melody (but the producer may suggest some changes to the chords), the accompaniment could just be a piano or guitar.  It also needs to convey the groove of the song – is it syncopated 16th funk or a blues or straight 8 rock or whatever.

What they are looking is a great song with strong melody, lyrics and emotional impact that they can see fitting a particular demographic.  From a singer they are looking for a good pitching, a voice that suits the music and emotional impact.

If you are really ready to do business with a record company you will probably have your last, independently released album to show them; together with its sales figures and a business case to show how working with them will give you that leg up to massively increased sales.  (HINT.  “Because the record company will promote you.”  is NOT the answer.)


You are self produced dance or rock act going to a small label.  They usually want a mostly finished product but the label may want input about which songs you put on the album and to get involved in a mixing and mastering so don’t spend a lot of money on finishing it.  Include a note:  “Unmastered trial mix.”

If in doubt ring, the record company and find out.  Perhaps you can speak the the A&R Manager or his/her assistant.  Just ask them what there are expecting to hear in a demo and how producer and polished it should be.  


They will be taking your demo and promoting it to artists, who don’t write songs, who will record it for final release.  They want to hear something that sounds mostly finished.  Not a polished production.  You don’t need to record live drums through a Neve console with Neumann and AKG microphones.  Well programmed drums will do for this task.  You can probably DI your bass and guitars through a Line 6 Pod or similar.  Any strings or horns can just be keyboard samples.  This will give you a good representation of what the finished thing could be.  The artist and their record company will spend the big money on a polished product.


You are a solo artist going into a studio with session musicians to record an album.  There will be a session drummer, bass player, guitarist and keyboard player there.  How are they going to know what to play?  You and your producer or arranger have produced charts showing the songs structure and chords.  Your demo will be helpful to them in understanding what you sound like, the groove and how the arrangement fits.  This should be a simple home recording or a ‘quickie’ done with your producer.

A band doing pre-production demos do them to finalise the song structure and hear what the songs sound like when recorded.  It also helps you understand the songs better and reduce the surprises in the studio.  The experience of playing music is very different to the experience of listening to music.  It will also give you the chance to hear things through small speakers rather than live at 120dB through a Marshall stack and 1200W Ampeg bass amp.  You might go through several phases of demos for the same songs before you are ready to go into the studio and record it properly.


This is not a demo.  Work with a producer to create the best product you can within your budget.  Remember it is the producer’s responsibility to produce a commercially viable product on time and on budget.  If you are trying to produce a finished album for $2,000 a producer should tell you this is not realistic.  If you can hardly hold a tune and only know 3 chords the producer should give you an expectation that he/she can’t produce an commercially viable album.  Please note an engineer is not a producer. 


It is always a mistake to send an expensively produced demo to a record company.

I  recently heard a demo from a girl of five songs, only two of the songs had been written by the girl, three were written by her producer, thousands of dollars had been spent on its production.  The product sounded quite good.  If the record company A&R Manager and loved it – who is he going to call?  The girl who paid for it or the producer?  I think the producer has a better chance of a call.


If you want to promote your material to managers, publishers, record companies and others you might send them a CD via snail mail.  You may be better off to put the material on a web site and post them a link to it, like this one:  so they can just click on it and play it.  Really impress them and attach your business plan to the e-mail.

You won’t make friends quickly if you send a dozen MP3 files to people especially if they have a restricted Internet link.  Just send links to each of your songs.  It is always important to be respectful of the people you do business with and maintain good business manners.

Just mailing your stuff is a cop out, it must be followed up.  Get on the phone and call people like managers who look after similar acts to your self.  Get out there and meet people.  Get your demo in the hands of artists who have a similar sound to yourself as they can open doors from the inside for you.   Other artists can be among your best alleys.  You can meet anyone.  For example if you wanted to get your stuff to Elton John and he is doing shows in Australia; take it to the hotel he is staying at.  Don't know which one?  In Sydney it will be one of a dozen around the City and Eastern Suburbs.  Go to each of them and ask some of the junior staff if they know which hotel he is at, you will find someone who knows.


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