Demos and the fine art of getting it down on tape………

About a month ago I ran a posting asking people to send in their demos. As I mentioned in that posting the idea was for me to criticize the demos in an effort to teach you, the reader, something about songwriting and recording. I got quite few submissions and, in general, there was some good stuff. Nonetheless I intend to kick the stuffing out of the songs I have picked. I am not doin’ this to discourage the musicians that were brave enough to go through this process. Instead I am going to give you an idea of how tapes are torn up by label people and producers.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs almost everyone in the music business can come up with one solid criticism of anything they hear and that is that whatever it is, no matter how good or bad, it would have benefited greatly if the person doing the talking had been involved in its creation.  The music business is full of people who are firmly convinced that they know everything there is to know about writing songs, recording music and turning that music into a mega popular world-wide hit.  In the few cases were I have seen this actually happen it usually results in something like “The Witch Doctor Song” as sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks or the Macarena. It is useful to remember that very few of these people actually have any talent. If they did they would be musicians. During the Golden Age of record companies there were A & R people who really knew their stuff. There are even a few of them alive now. ( I’ll mention Joe McEwan and leave it at that…Hi Joe..How’s the wife?)( I should also admit that this whole blog is based on the premise that I know something about writing songs, recording songs and creating hits. At least I have succeeded in all three activities so there is a chance I am qualified)

Sadly, if you are determined to be involved with a large label then you will end up dealing with dullards, power mad gay hobbits, Human version of Jabba the Hut and slimey limey Simon Cowell types. You may even get lucky and find yourself attached to one of the people in the business that understand that it is a business but at its heart it’s about music. Good luck.

Tonight’s blog is not going to actually get around to presenting some music and then pulling it apart. In order to reach that point I must talk about what demos do and don’t do for a band. I must also address some of the stupid misconceptions about demos.

The first grand misconception..”In order for a demo to be effective you’ve gotta break the bank and spend as much as you can on recording and producing it”. This is completely untrue. I suspect that this fallacy is kept alive by studio owners and indy producers that make serious coin when they run into a band with a rich daddy that will pay the bills. The truth is that the value of a demo is determined by the quality of the songwriting and the fire in the belly of the band that cuts the track. It’s that simple. Good recording, bad recording, 24 track digital, two-track kids cassette deck it doesn’t matter.  If you can’t hear the song, if you can’t really hear the band then that’s a lousy demo. If the band spends lots of money and time recording a demo they will get nothing other than a lesson. The lesson will end up being that it was a waste of time and money.

Second misconception “The formula for a demo is ____________. ” I’ve heard many things used to fill in the blank. “It’s gotta be just three songs” “It should be two upbeat songs and a ballad” “It needs to have a hundred-dollar bill and a gram of coke tucked into the CD sleeve” . This last one might actually get you the attention of the kind of record executive that will spend your whole recording budget on coke.  Truth is there is no formula. Demos shouldn’t be really long since it will never get listened to all the way through.  Demos should consist of a few great songs with enough material to show exactly what a band sounds like.

Third Misconception – ” A great demo will start a bidding war and land a deal overnight” I’ve heard this one ever since I entered the music business in 1978. That’s …hmm let me think…32 years ago. In all of that time I have never met a band signed as a result of a demo. I think that ends that rumor.  The way that a band gets signed is a result of many factors adding up. This has to be matched by having contacts and interested people working for you. When you put great shows, great songs, great demos, popularity (the most important factor), buzz, press attention together with a network of people who know about you , you end up with a recording contract.

In short your demo can have things about it that sucks but if the band is great that should shine through. If, as is usually the case, the band is just OK, perhaps good in some ways and not so good in others, then you will not get a deal due to those factors and the demo will just show other people the band’s weaknesses.

So now we reach the question “What do record companies do with demos? Who listens to them? How do I get them listened to?” These are all part of the same subject.

All of the major record labels do not accept unsolicited demos. Why do they do this? Why are they so mean? It’s simple really. They believe that any band that is worth listening to will have people promoting them. They will have a manager or a lawyer or they will have devoted fan that IS IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS. They believe this because it is true.  Promoters, agents, managers, producers, lawyers, road managers, film makers, DJs, studio engineers etc. all have their ears open for a great band. These people insulate the major labels from the mountain of demos that are not worth listening to. All of these characters have their ears open in an effort to find the band first and get onboard to make some money as the band succeeds.  Many musicians have a problem with this concept. They view all of these people as parasites. This is a stupid, self-destructive attitude. These people are not parasites they are symbiotes. What does that mean? It means that they do not feed off of the band and bleed the band and weaken the band, no, instead they work alongside the band and help them succeed. They teach the band the craft of being rock stars and the tricks of the trade. They produce and promote records. In general the further a person is from the major labels the greater the native talent they need to survive. An independent producer must search out and discover band after band and then convince them to let him produce a record. Then promote this recording. These are all valuable services for the band.

Now I can hear a certain number of you out there saying “Not me, I’m the next demigod of rock and no one knows it. All I need to do is walk on stage and the world will crawl to my feet.” Gee I hope that is true, for your sake. Even if you are Loki, the god of the underworld, you need to learn how to put on a great show and how to arrange your songs. You need to learn how to record. You need to learn how to talk to a writer and how to do a radio interview without sounding like Bozo the Clown.

So now that you know that you can’t just send in your demo – why should you make a demo? Well, you need the demo to get the other characters interested. You need to make a cheap, dirty beginners demo to turn on a producer or engineer. This allows you to make a better demo that ends up getting you a lawyer and catches the ear of a booking agent that will pick you up as your audience starts to grow.  This gets you to a label that finances some development demos that lands you a publishing deal….Are you starting to see the sequence?

So let’s go back to demos and the major labels. I will take the time to answer a few basic questions just to get them out of the way.

“How do I get them listened to?” Demos that make it to an A & R department of a major label get there by being passed on by an established manager, lawyer, producer or booking agent.  They are the gatekeepers. The status of the person that submits the demo determines who will listen to it.  For example I managed three different acts on Columbia records at one time. The PResident of Columbia was (and I think still is) Don Ienner. Don and I have met professionally many times. We’ve met to discuss promoting my acts, releasing various items from these acts, coordinating tours of these acts etc. If I were to call him he would pick up the phone. He would do this for two reasons. First he knows me professionally and respects the fact that I manage bands that have enough clout and status to be signed to Columbia. Second he knows from his experience with me that I only call people when I have something concrete to talk to them about. He also knows that whatever I want to talk to him about WILL LIKELY BE ADVANTAGEOUS TO HIM AND COLUMBIA. This is an important point. Always call people with something that might help them. This will make your phone calls wanted rather than an annoyance.

If I were to call Don Ienner and ask him to listen to a tape he would tell the VP of A & R to listen to the tape and give him his opinion. Then, if that opinion was favorable he would listen to it and call me up with a reaction.  If the music seemed like something Columbia might want he would suggest a showcase and ask questions like “Are you planning on managing or producing?” You might be surprised to know that, although I have known Don Ienner since 1988 I have only called him about a tape twice.  Why? Because I have only found two occasions where I was in the position to pitch him a tape that fit with Columbia’s interests and I had the job of pitching the band. In both cases Columbia did not offer the band a deal. Since one of the bands was the band Phish and they went on to be one of the biggest bands of the 1990’s I expect that the next time I call him he will listen to whatever I send him.

Let us compare that scenario with a different, fictional one to help explain how the system works. Let’s say that a junior lawyer at an Entertainment Law Firm in Minneapolis,MN calls Columbia to pitch a tape.  Columbia will take him seriously since he is a professional and is in the business. They will probably tell him that someone will call him back. This call will get routed to an A & R co-ordinator. This is a person in the A & R department that works out all kinds of things like flights for A & R staff, showcase arrangements and, as in this case, calls from unknown law firms and managers. They won’t ignore the call. What if this band turns out to be the next Phish? Every major label is haunted by stories of how they turned down an artist that went on to fame. As a result they try to at least chalk up a rejection for everything that someone in the business shops to them.

In this case the A & R co-ordinator will pass on the contact to a junior A & R guy. He will call the lawyer, listen to the pitch and tell the lawyer to send in the tape. He then lists the tape in the incoming demo log. He is supposed to listen to the tape shortly after it arrives. Unfortunately he may make ten calls like this every day. The stack of unlistened to tapes grows and grows. As it does he pushes his boss to let him hire a “listener”. This is a person, usually an intern that gets cheap wages to listen to mountains of tapes. For each tape he writes a little blurb and rates it. He may get to pick out three or four as his favorites which the Junior A & R guy will then listen to.

So, it’s obvious that your chances of getting a deal through the junior lawyer in Minneapolis are slim. Even if the tape does get someone interested this is just the beginning of a long process with showcases, various demos and finally the word that they are gonna pass.  During that time you can grow old and die. NEVER WAIT TO GET SIGNED!!! It’s fine to pursue getting a deal but  never put of making records and playing live while waiting to get signed. This is a common and deadly mistake.

Next blog I will post two demos, one from the band Spiral Jetty Club and the other from the ever-present reader Oliver from Australia. I will then pull them apart and tell you how a label would view them, how a manager might view them and how a producer would hear them so stay tuned…………………………………………….


2 thoughts on “Demos and the fine art of getting it down on tape………

  1. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get three emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thank you!

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