This Article Originally Published in 2000


by Michael Laskow

Most music schools and books about the music business seem to concentrate on making music and doing deals.

While those subjects are very valuable indeed, it's equally important to arm one's self with the knowledge of the street — some practical advice that may be passed over in books and classrooms or passed down incorrectly through "generations" of musicians.

While I could probably write chapters on these subjects, I'll do what I can to give you a leg up in the next few pages. Think of this as the Cliff Notes version. If you don't know what Cliff Notes are, then you're probably too smart to be reading this article!

How Good Do Your Demos Really Have To Be?

"Good" is a subjective term. It can mean a couple of things when used in the context of making demo tapes. "Good" can mean the song (with a slant toward "hit" potential), or it can mean the engineering or production values on the tape. If the ultimate use of your demo is to land a record deal, then shut your eyes and imagine this scenario:

The vice-president of A&R of a major record label is sitting in his comfy leather chair in his corner office listening to tapes (which by the way is how they typically spend less than 10% of their time at work). The first thing he pops in to his CD player sounds great. The lead vocal cuts right through the mix. The guitars are warm, but edgy. The bass is round, fat and punchy. The kick drum gives you a heart attack with each beat. The snare pierces like a hollow point bullet. The mix is perfect. The musicianship is superb. The song is very good and the packaging is top-shelf. Four color artwork on the cover. Great liner notes. Very professional.

The next product is a cassette with a hand written label. A little sloppy on the presentation. The drums sound distant and a little muffled. The guitars are raunchy. The bass is okay. The musicianship is sub par, but it has some feel and emotion to it. The song however, is unlike anything this man has ever heard. It's truly unique, and very infectious. The lead vocal is captivating and the singer is sweating emotion from every pore.

Which of these demos will the A&R person sign? The latter. Why? Because it's a hit song. The first demo had everything going right for it but the song. Record companies are in business to make money. They bet a portion of the farm on every release. You can bet dollars to donuts that they would much rather bet on a hit song than a demo with great engineering, great production and a fancy cover. You can also bet that they would rather put their money on an artist who has "star quality" than one who obviously spent a small fortune on their demo.

What's the lesson here? Buy yourself a home studio system that you can afford, and learn to use it well. You'll spend a few (maybe several) thousand dollars in the process, but you would have to spend that on one round of demos anyway.

But remember, it's not important to become a gear junkie. Gear won't get you signed to a record deal. Great songwriting will. A unique artistic vision will. Star quality will. A zillion dollars worth of gear will not.

For your purpose, the use of your home studio requires that you get as familiar with it as you are with your car. Feel comfortable with it. Have a good command of it, but don't plan on driving it in the Indy 500. You only need the gear to make a good clean demo of your music.

Assuming you master your studio, there are some other things you'll need to know. First and foremost; songwriter demos don't need much production. A solid rhythm track with a great lead vocal is often all you'll need. A full production can often hurt a song pitch more than it can help. Leave some room for the listener's imagination to do it's thing. If a song demo is fully produced, it leaves the listener with only one way to hear it — your way.

The second rule of demo production for songwriters is to match the gender and basic style of the lead vocalist with the gender and style of the artist you want to pitch to. For song pitches, the lead vocal is crucial. No flat notes. No lackluster performances. Sell the song. Sing with your entire being, but don't go overboard and over sell. And please, don't be shy about mixing the lead vocal nice and hot in the mix. The lyrics are very important. The guitar part is not.

Artist or band demos should be a little more produced, but again, don't feel compelled to include the kitchen sink unless the kitchen sink is absolutely necessary to make the song's point. Record companies generally aren't looking for great guitar players or great drummers. Their looking for artists with a unique sound that makes you want to instantly rewind the tape for another listen.

What else should go in to a demo package? If it's a song pitch, all you need to include is a lyric sheet. Make sure the lyric sheet and the tape display the copyright symbol, the name the song is copyrighted under, and the year the copyright was registered.

For an artist or demo, it's always a good idea to include a photo and a bio. The reason the record company will want to see a photo is so they can see if you have that elusive "star quality." An 8 x 10 glossy has always been the standard for photo presentation, but it's much cheaper to scan your photo and print it on your bio page.

What does a record company want to see in a bio? Anything that will show them that you are successful in your own back yard. News clippings from successful shows. Proof of radio airplay. Better yet — proof that you've sold a few thousand tapes or CD's in your hometown or surrounding area is the best ammo you can have to snag a record deal. Mentioning that you were Mrs. McGillicutty's star pupil in your fourth grade music class won't help you snag anything but a few laughs. Leave it out.

How many songs should be on your tape? Just one if your pitching your material to another artist. If you have more than one song to pitch, put them on separate tapes. Nobody likes to search a tape for the song they want to hear. If they don't like song number one, they'll hate you every time they have to search the tape for song number two.

If you are pitching yourself as an artist or band, three songs is plenty. Many people are compelled to slip in a fourth or fifth song. Not a good idea. It makes you look like you don't know the rules the industry likes to see you play by. Ultimately, it makes you look unprofessional. Stick to three songs, and always put you best song first. The theory is, if they don't hear a hit when they listen to the first song, they won't be motivated to listen to the second and third songs. Good theory.

Some people believe that you should present your listener with your strongest song last. Last song, best impression. Yeah, right! What makes you think they'll make it to the last song? Best song first. No argument.

Remember, the single most important aspect of any demo package is the song or songs. All the bells and whistles won't do you any good if the music isn't great.

But, what good is a great demo and a great package if the companies you want to submit to don't accept unsolicited material?

Make Them Beg To Sign You

I think it's a pretty safe assumption that nearly every person reading this (let alone every songwriter, band and artist on the planet) would love to know how to make themselves instantly signable. Better yet, how about a way to make record companies hunt you down? That's right, I know the secret that will make them seek you out — stalk you, and then offer you a deal.

Sounds ideal doesn't it? And, it's absolutely achievable. The problem is, not that many people can pull it off.

Some artists have, and you know them well. Hootie and the Blowfish for one. Dave Matthews for another. So what do they know that you don't? What's the secret formula? It's hard work! What? Did you think this was going to be easy?!

Record companies used to "develop" new artists. Development meant that they would sign an artist or band, pair them up with the right producer, make a record, release the record, promote the record to radio stations (beg them to play it, or give them payola), and hype it to the record stores. If the record stiffed, that was okay. At least some people heard about the record. The hope (and to some extent the reality) was that the few people who did buy the record would tell their friends about it and the next record would sell more copies.

If the second record sold more units than the first, but still wasn't a hit, that was okay too. Record companies realized that it was a process to break new artists, and that it often took three records and lots of touring to make a new act a household word.

A good example that dates back to the heyday of artist development is James Taylor. Most people became aware of him when they heard his "first" album, Sweet Baby James. Guess what? It wasn't his first. If memory serves correct (and my memory ain't what it used to be), it was his third album. It took three attempts before radio and the American public caught on.

Today, most labels talk a good game when it comes to development, but few actually do it. What that means is that you have to do it yourself. That's the hard part. But it can be done. Look at Ani DiFranco. Record companies are begging her to sign with them.

Here's the formula (sshhhhh . . . don't tell anybody). Make your own record. If you have a good home studio, it'll be a cheap thrill. If you don't, not so cheap. Next step, press up a couple thousand CDs. Still not a big ticket item. Maybe a few thousand bucks.

Now for the hard part; sell those CDs. Do you have a marketing plan? Better get one. Why would anybody buy a CD from an unknown band whose CD they can't find in a record store? And, they've never heard it on the radio.

Oh, I see. You got it played one time on a local radio station during their local talent hour. Yeah, but wasn't that on Sunday night when nobody was listening? Better than not getting played, but hardly enough airplay to attract any attention.

You could beg a couple of local record stores to take some units on consignment. Good idea. Now, how's anybody going to know that your record is buried in the generic bin under the letter "J"? How will they know it's even been released? Good questions both. Without a lot of press, some advertising and lots of airplay, your CD is invisible.

Sounds like your going to need to go on the road and build a following. That's how it's done. Hootie and Dave Matthews spent about three hundred days a year on the road to build their fan bases. Most baby bands signed to major labels spend about two grand a week to stay on the road, and I'm not talking Lear Jets and luxury hotels. Plan on spending some nights sleeping in the van, and if your lucky, maybe some Motel 6, four people to a room nights. Remember, most gigs will only pay about a hundred bucks a night.

But look at the bright side. You'll be able to sell your CDs at the gig. Figure about ten units a night if you're lucky. But after a while, word will begin to spread. You'll begin to build a following. More money per gig. More units sold at each gig.

Oh yeah, I forgot one little detail. While you're out playing road warrior, who's going to pay your rent at home? You could always move your stuff in to your parents' house. Then again, maybe your wife or girlfriend (or husband or boyfriend) won't mind picking up the tab while your gone. Hopefully that's the only thing they're picking up while you're gone.

Assuming everything goes as planned, after a year or so, you should be selling enough CDs at gigs and making enough of a name for yourself that you can start moving some units in record stores in the towns you play in. Cool. You've got yourself a distributor, they're stocking the stores. Radio stations begin to hear about you. Now, they'll play your record. Bam! It's a hit. Units begin to fly out of the stores.

But wait, the distributors are out of stock. They need another ten thousands units and they need them quick. Oops! I forgot to mention that the distributor hasn't paid you for the units sold yet, because they haven't been paid by the record stores yet.

Now you're beginning to realize why businesses have cash flow problems. They have to wait thirty, sixty, maybe even ninety days before they get paid. How will you order ten thousand more units, get them manufactured in time, and pay for them fast enough to get them in the stores while the radio stations are still hot on your record?

I'm not sure, but let's say that you solve that problem. All is good. Let's say for argument's sake that you sell ten thousand copies of your CD. Let's also assume that you were smart enough to put a UPC barcode on your CD so every time one is sold, it shows up on Soundscan's (they track actual record store sales numbers) computer. Now you're cooking with gas!

Now you can sit back and relax, because I'll bet you dollars to donuts that some beadie-eyed person with really thick glasses is sitting in a dimly lit office at a major record company looking at Soundscan reports. And when he sees that you've sold ten thousand units, he's going to start calling records stores and clubs along your tour route. He's going to find out that you've developed a following. In fact you've done what record companies rarely do these days. You've done artist development. You've shouldered all the risk. You've done their work for them. Now, you're on their radar screens and they're going to want to sign you! See? I told you it was easy.

Pretty exciting isn't it? Hey! Is that the phone I hear ringing? Gee, I'll bet it's an executive from a major record label. What should you say? Or . . .

What shouldn't you say to an A&R person?

Are you dying of curiosity? Want to know what the single most unintelligent thing you could possibly say to an A&R person is? Are you on the edge of your seat? Well then, here it is: "I write (or have songs) in many different styles." Seems innocuous enough, but it's very lethal.

Here's why. The music business is, as I said earlier, a business. Record companies are in business to make a profit. Records sell more units when they are played on the radio. Airplay is critical to the success of most records.

Radio stations are segregated by genre. There are Rock stations, Pop stations, R&B stations, Jazz stations, Alternative stations — all kinds of stations, and almost all are genre specific. They have a clearly defined format that draws a fairly well-defined audience, that buys a certain type or range of products, which brings in advertising dollars from companies that cater to the needs of those specific demographics. See, I told you it was all about business!

If you tell an A&R person that you write Rock, Pop and R&B, they'll run the other way. How could they effectively pitch you to a radio station. You're a Rock artist, kind of. You're an R&B artist, kind of. Oh yeah, you're a Pop artist . . . kind of. You get the idea.

Besides, you should know what genre you're in! I can't tell you how many times people have asked me or someone on my staff to tell them what genre their music is in. Do you think Garth Brooks knows what genre he's in? How about Aerosmith? Mariah Carey?

Okay, I admit that some artists aren't easily defined. There are gray areas like Adult Album Alternative, Alternative and Pop. These formats have become blurred because AAA has emerged as a testing ground for new artists and the better ones ultimately cross over to Pop radio.

But nonetheless, it's incumbent upon you to know what genre you are working in, and it's critical that you can articulate it a succinct sentence or two to an A&R person if you get the magical call. Here's how I would respond: "We're a classic R&B band with horns and a female singer. Kind of like Earth, Wind and Fire with a female lead."

Here's the wrong way to converse with an A&R person. "Hey man, how ya doin'? Glad you called. I was wondering how long it would take someone in the industry to figure out how amazing we are. Check it out dude, we've got over ninety songs demoed. We've got a bunch of R&B songs, some Rock — we really like doing the Rock stuff, but our drummer got arrested for drug possession last year so we quit doing the Rock stuff until he gets out of jail. We tried another drummer, but then he got in to a car accident and couldn't play for a while. We thought about using a drum machine . . . have you ever heard the Bonzai 626, it's amazing. We didn't like the sound of the cymbals, but the kick drum was awesome. Anyway, we don't really gig out much, but we will when Johnny gets out of jail. Till then, we've decided to try our hand at Jazz."

Don't laugh. This is not an over dramatization. This is one of the reasons A&R people don't often take calls from the public at large, and may be the primary reason they don't listen to unsolicited tapes. Art Linkletter may have been right about kids saying the darndest things, but he would drop his dentures if he were to spend a few minutes on the phone with some of the people I've spoken to. If you get a call from Clive Davis, tell him everything he needs to know in a couple of short sentences that are direct and to the point. He'll like you better for it.

So, there you have it. Now you know that your demos probably don't have to be nearly as elaborate as you thought they did. You have a concrete plan that will induce industry big wigs to track you down and beg you to sign with them, and I've demystified the music industry phone conversation. Are you ready to go out and hunt bear. That's up to you. Are you writing hit songs?


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