Are You Ready To Do A Demo?
OK, you've written a great song. The next step is to get that potential hit out of your head and onto a CD. Once it's in a form where the world can hear it you'll finally be able to a) land that record deal, b) impress that cute blonde at Starbuck's, c) justify all the money you spent on that new guitar, d) all of the above. Right?
That's why to do a demo---pretty easy. What's not as easy a question is how, or even when. "When?!" I can hear you saying, "I want it now". Here's what I mean: we started by saying you've written a great song. Well, "great" is a pretty subjective term. You may think your song is going to revolutionize popular music, but have you gotten any feedback from your peers? I realize that this can be a bit of a catch-22...how can I play it for people if I don't have a demo to play? Well, if possible, try to get some sense of how the song is being received, whether it means just showing your lyrics to someone or croaking out a melody accompanied by spoons. (Mothers' opinions are highly suspect.) If your new masterpiece elicits responses like uncontrolled fidgeting, repeated trips to the bathroom, or "gee, it's really, um... different!", then perhaps some rewriting is in order.
A professional demo can entail a fair amount of work and money, so it's wise to make sure your song is the best it can be before going into the recording studio. Very rarely does a song emerge fully realized. Usually it takes some tinkering, so it makes sense to tinker first, record second. While I'm always happy to help my clients improve the writing of their songs, time is money. Any polishing you can do on your own will lower the cost of the recording, and lower the odds of having to go back and record a rewrite.
All right, you've pestered your friends for their input, you've rewritten accordingly, and you're convinced the song is record-ready. You can hear it now: screaming guitar solo, dramatic string section in the chorus, angelic choir for the big finale...Whoa, hold on, we don't need all that! More and more I hear the sentiment that a stripped-down arrangement is frequently more to one's advantage. Here's why:
• Cost-- That's an obvious one. A simple piano/vocal or guitar/vocal version of your song is going to be a lot cheaper than a full production with drums, bass, multiple keyboards, and who-knows-what-else. Save your money for more demos.
• Imagination & possible turnoffs-- Ideally, your piano/vocal version can be all things to all people. That is, a listener can mentally fill in a dance groove, country fiddle, or whatever window dressing they'd like to hear in the final product, whereas, if they're turned off by a particular drum sound, keyboard patch or your creative choice to use bagpipes in the bridge they're not really judging the song itself on its merits. Less is more.
• Publishers (the people you're most likely to be targeting with your demo)--they are less likely to speak freely with any constructive criticism if it's evident that you went all out and spent $2000 on a mega-production. For that matter, you're certainly not going to be in a welcoming frame of mind for any of his/her suggestions after spending a small fortune either.
All good, practical reasons for doing a basic, simple song demo.
Now, an opposing opinion goes like this: If the ultimate goal is to get a record cut of your song, the more you can make your presentation sound like something that's on the radio, the better its chances. The "gatekeepers" claim they can hear a good song in any form no matter how stripped down, but some can't, so why not take the guesswork out of it? And, some would say, in the case of more groove-oriented music, it's ludicrous to think that a guy with one acoustic guitar can really put across the song.
Here's another angle to the "more is more" way of thinking. Perhaps the demo you want isn't really a "song" demo per se, but an "artist" demo. In other words, maybe your goal is not to interest a publisher in your song as much as it is to demonstrate to the world that you're a singer/producer/artist/phenom to be reckoned with. Chances are your genre-bending, jaw-dropping, world-changing ubersound is not going to come across with one vocal and a 6-string Martin.
As you can see, the options are anything but clearcut. If you're finding yourself a bit confused as to the most appropriate path for you, let me assure you that there's one deciding factor that often takes precedent. I see it whenever a client comes to me and says, "I have $100, what do you recommend?" I say,"First, let's lose the bagpipes in the bridge and the choir in the big finale." When in doubt, keep it simple.