No matter how many years you've spent perfecting your musical craft, you are unlikely to be able to exploit the full potential of your music without the help of others. For many musicians, financial help is what they need; recording and publishing companies have been providing such help for years and there are a number of government and charitable grant-giving bodies. There are also several other places which provide help to the aspiring professional musician: performance venues, advertising agencies, radio stations and television production companies are only the tip of the iceberg. However, though assistance in your campaign for megastardom can come from many sources, they will all need convincing that they too have something to gain — the recording companies will need to be convinced that they can make some money from distributing your music, the radio stations will need to be persuaded that your music is palatable to their listeners and advertisers, and the venues will need to be reassured that your sound will bring in the punters and sell drinks. This is where demos can come in really handy, providing your prospective collaborators with a small taster of what you do. There is still a fair amount of confusion, though, as to what makes an effective demo, and as to how you ought best to present it to those concerned. Recording and production companies receive large numbers of unsolicited demos every week (sometimes a hundred or more!), so it's vital that you proceed in an informed manner if you're even going to get anyone to pick your demo up off the pile, let alone listen to it. Where to send your demo One of the most common complaints from people at record companies is that the senders of unsolicited demos often make little attempt to ensure that the style and format of their recordings match what the record company deals with. Sending out demos can be a time-consuming business, especially if you mean to do it in a disciplined way, so don't waste everyone's time by sending out obviously unsuitable material. There are a number of ways in which you can find out where you should be sending your demo. Firstly, look at the credits provided on the packaging of any productions which are similar to yours in style. A great deal of this information could be useful — not only the name of the recording or production company, but also the names of artists' management, the producers, the arrangers and the songwriters. Any of these people could provide the break that you're after, so make a note of them (preferably a written note, because you will be collecting a lot of information as your quest continues). Similarly, if you're looking to apply for a grant from some charitable or government institution, then save everyone's time and energy by doing a little bit of research about what the awards committee are after. Not only should you read carefully any information they provide, but you should also find out something about previous people and projects which have been sponsored — in addition, you might find a way in which you can make your application more likely to succeed. Getting your demo to the right person Unfortunately, the most famous and influential people in the music business receive too many unsolicited demos for them to assess all of them directly, so anyone who's anyone has some sort of middleman. The big-name artists and producers have management companies through which all such correspondence must be channelled, the besuited decision-makers within record companies have A&R people to deal with the demo-sending public, and the owners of large venues have office staff who deal with vetting potential acts. It is to these people that you must initially pitch your demo recording. So, for starters, forget about addressing your demo directly to the CEO unless you or someone you know can play it to them personally. By all means say to yourself, 'I think that Dr.Dre ought to hear my demo,' but realise that you'll have to get it past a number of other people first. Once you have a list of producers/artists/performers that you would like to hear your music, your next task will be to find out the middleman (or middlewoman) who represents the front line of their defences. If you're trying to reach an artist, producer or remixer, then this will almost certainly be someone at their management company. Often the name of the management company will be given in the credits of one of their CDs or videos, though all is not lost if it isn't because there are a number of incredibly useful resources which can help you on the internet. What you should do before sending your demo Even when you have found out to whom you ought to send your demo, it doesn't mean that all you have to do then is just sling a tape to them in the post. If you are propositioning a commercial institution, such as a record company, there are at least two good reasons why it is worth mailing a preliminary letter to the relevant person before sending them your demo. Note that a package from an unknown individual containing a tape or CD is immediately recognisable as a demo and will therefore usually be added to the large pile of similar packages without even being opened — whether it will ever be rescued from this pile is anyone's guess. A letter, however, will usually at least be opened before being consigned to such a pile, and this can steal you the chance to make a good impression — which leads me on to the second reason for sending a preparatory letter. In the most basic sense, sending anything to someone who hasn't asked you for it isn't really very considerate, so why should they feel inclined to want to work with you? The fact that it is now very much seen as the norm doesn't mean it's the right way to go about things. However, it does mean that you have a great way to stick out from the crowd! Sending a short, polite letter, indicating why you feel your music ought to interest the person concerned and asking if they would like a demo sent, will be such a breath of fresh air that you may well be afforded special attention. Just be sure to include a stamped, addressed response card — you don't seriously expect busy A&R people to get back to you unless you make it pathetically easy for them to do so, do you? I'm sure that the same effect might also be achievable over email — this is the Internet age, after all! However, bear in mind how easy it is to send an email, compared to writing a letter. Not only is your mail likely to be in amongst more other enquiries and junk than a letter would be, but the effort involved in writing and sending a letter may well also be more flattering to the recipient. How high-quality does a demo recording need to be? This all depends on what you're trying to achieve. If you're trying to sell your writing ability, then a simple arrangement with just a proficient vocal and a piano or guitar will usually do fine. However, if you're wanting to show someone what a good singer you are, then you'd better make sure that the vocal performance and sound are as good as you can get, even at the expense of the accompaniment. Whatever it is about the demo that you're trying to show off, make sure that you concentrate on getting that as good as possible, while getting everything else well out of the way. This is not to say that a well-presented demo of release quality won't be impressive, it will. However, the production values of your music are often not what is most likely to excite someone's interest — there are a lot of people in the music business who can turn out a decent-sounding demo. The one thing that will make someone interested in your music is if it has something good about it that cannot be got from anywhere else. As a result, it's usually worth spending as much time as you can refining your musical raw material, rather than agonising about your reverb sound. An exception to this is where you feel that you need no help in recording and producing your music, where you feel that all you need is some kind of distribution and promotion network through which to present your work. In this case, the 'demo' should indeed be release-quality, preferably not only in your opinion, but also in the opinions of others. How you should start your demo The important thing to remember when considering what to include on your demo tape is that many people who regularly receive demos will have very little time to listen to them. What's more, they will know that for every 100 demos, only 10 will even be acceptable, and only one will be likely to be exceptional enough to warrant any following up. As a result of this, your demo is unlikely to be listened to for more than about 30 seconds, during which your musical talent must become obvious. So, most importantly of all, put something breath-taking within the first 10 seconds! If you are doing pop music then you'd be best advised to get the vocalist doing something pretty stunning right from the outset. Remember what you're likely to be up against: it's Friday afternoon in the A&R office, and the staff are too tired, distracted and bored to do anything but trawl through demos using the boombox on the other side of the office. You've got to convince them that your music is not only better than the 100 demos which preceded it, but also better than most of whatever else they've had that boombox playing during the day. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by leaving your best song until the end of the demo or by having a 96-bar intro before the first verse. How to decide what and how much material to include For a start, it's worth helping the person seeking out your musical highlights by doing some of the work for them — be brutal with yourself and select no more than about 10 minutes of music for demo purposes. Being concise is one of the best ways to get someone genuinely interested in your material, at which point they can ask to hear more. If you bundle everything you've ever recorded onto a C120, then the listener is unlikely to think well of you! If you feel that three or four whole tracks cannot adequately represent the consistent quality of your music, then there is also the option to use the same space to provide a medley, built from the best sections of numerous tracks. This can work very well in some cases, but there is always the danger that it could make for a confusing listen, so tread very carefully, should you try this. If you've done your research, you ought already to know the styles of music to which your listener is most partial, so bear that in mind when you're deciding what to include. Also, because many listeners will be wanting to find musicians with strong, marketable identities, it's often worth keeping the styles of your tracks as close to each other as possible. Finally, remember that many styles of music favour fast tempos over slow ones, and that you'll therefore have to be sure that any slower track is doubly impressive to make up for this. What medium to harness in sending your demo: Cassette, CD, DAT, Minidisc, DCC...? CD is pretty much the firm favourite, unless the intended recipient requests otherwise, and not only for its sound-quality. There is a CD player in almost every hi-fi and desktop computer nowadays, so it ought be a no-brainer to play — the difficulty of playing back DCC and DAT, and even cassette and Minidisc in some cases, could mean that a demo submitted in these formats never gets a listen. The only objection to this is that many people listen to demos when they're in the car, which gives cassette an advantage, seeing as CD players are still in the minority here. CD also scores over the other formats in that it is a write-once medium which therefore cannot be recorded over, unintentionally or otherwise. Does sending out demos compromise your copyright? It is very rare that demo material is used unscrupulously, though that's not to say that it doesn't happen. Meanwhile, the next vital ingredient in any demo package is information about you and your music. If nothing else, make sure that absolutely everything in that envelope has your name and contact details on it. However, also aim to provide concise biographical information, a picture and some description of your music — the person holding your demo recording needs to know not only that you are offering them something in which they might be interested, but also that you have been savvy enough to do some research. And, of course, don't forget to tell them exactly what it is you might want from them! Written by: Azeez Sanusi
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