STREET SMARTS: You Better Have Great Demos, But…!

These are strange times for professional songwriters. On one hand, the tech revolution allows for great home demos.  On the other hand, that dwindling number of producers, artists and A&R people who still listen to outside material just about demand that the demos sound like masters.  At the very least, when they’re steamrolling their way through a pile of demos on a hectic Wednesday afternoon, a simple demo can sound pretty wimpy when played against 30 or 40 master-powered tunes.

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Terry Wakefield, Senior Vice President-Creative at Sony/ATV Music Publishing, said the following about the importance of demos: “Demos are a very important piece of the puzzle in the evolution of a song from a newly written work to a master recording. However, there are several factors to take into consideration when deciding on whether a guitar/vocal will be sufficient or a full-blown demo is needed. Everything from the style of song, budget, to the ‘filters’ the song must pass through to get to the artist should be taken into consideration.”

So what’s a songwriter to do when he or she is trying to stretch his or her demo budget? I decided to talk to Paul Hart, a freelance engineer who is also chief technical consultant at Sony/ATV’s excellent studio. The first thing we did was agree that a simple writer’s tape with a little “star writer” power behind it is generally a superior pitch to a mediocre band demo. “There are two ways to get a song cut,” he says. “You can spend your money to get an amazing demo with amazing players, good engineers, good equipment [and] it will sound like a record.”

“Or, you need access,” says Paul. “Like, Dean Dillon can play George Strait a song on his guitar and get it cut.” Cost of demo: zero. “Of course, some songs lend themselves better to that kind of exposure than others.”

You can make decent demos at home. Paul pointed out that by today’s money standards, once you have a decent Mac computer, really good sound in your home office comes cheap. “For less than a thousand dollars,” he says, “you can have a virtual studio that can duplicate what Paula Abdul was doing in 1987. Another thousand dollars can double your quality.”

But then there are those professional studio demos that take a good song and make it into a powerful listening experience. “The Nashville demo industry is really trying to defy the two-out-of-three law,” he explains. The two-out-of-three law says that when you’re trying to make a demo good, fast and cheap, it’s not hard to give the customer two out of three of those qualities. Three out of three is much harder. Some would say that today it’s impossible to get a good studio demo cheap. Today it’s not at all unusual to pay $900 for just one song.

There are two ways of getting a great demo. Number one, several studios in Nashville feature house bands that specialize in good and fast. You can book into one of those studios for just one song. The product will be good to great, depending on the song, but as any songwriter will tell you, the greatest demo on your best song does not guarantee you a cut, and a cut does not guarantee you a place on the album. Still, that’s what this business is about: writing the song, taking it to a studio and listening to some of the best studio musicians in the world knowing how to turn that song into a great sound. The synergy is unbelievable. A good demo band can often track one song inside an hour, including instrumental overdubs. They really make it come alive.

On the other hand, when you’re building one track at a time with a one-man band, there is painstaking control. There are those lone studio geniuses who play everything and make it all sound good. Operating alone, they build one track after another, add the voices, and can come up with something as good as a good band demo. On a one-man demo, the player/engineer and the writer will work on tracking that one song for hours. It takes great patience, and the huge lift you get from watching a great studio band work together to conquer a song is missing.  Still, the results can be spectacular. Each way has its advantages.

“It’s scary the amount of talent you see every day,” says Hart, talking about the session musicians and engineers he works with in Music Row’s studios. Although he does plenty of work on masters, and enjoys the painstaking detail it takes to get everything just right, he has a special feeling about demo sessions. “I’m kind of passionate about demos,” he says, knowing that his efforts to make it fast, good and cheap can play a big role in the ultimate success of that song.

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