Demo Tapes: A view from the other side of the mailbox.
By Ronan Chris Murphy
This article was originally written for the Just Plain Folks, songwriter newsletter. www.jpfolks.com
I have seen many sides of the music industry over the years. I started as a struggling touring musician and later went on to work in college radio, nightclubs, for a few small labels and eventually settling into producing and mixing records for the last decade for indie and major label acts. As I moved "up" the industry food chain, I found it comic how little I actually knew when I was a struggling musician, about the life of people in other parts of the industry. One area where this was true for me, and is true for countless musicians is the lack of understanding of what life is like on the other side of the mailbox when you send out demo tapes. Hopefully the information here will help musicians learn a little bit more about the actual "business" of demo tapes.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that, for people who actually work in music, a demo tape is an offer to engage in business. When an artist sends a label, or manager, or a producer a demo tape, they are usually hoping that the person receiving the tape can help them in some way. What they fail to realize is that the person receiving the demo tape is hoping the same thing. Demo tapes are about business opportunities for both parties.
When someone in the industry opens a demo package, they do not think to themselves "I hope the person that sent this package is someone that I can help." But rather "I hope the person that sent this package can in some way help the goals of my business." It is important to keep this in mind when you are preparing a demo package to send out into the world that, just like you, the people on the other side of the mailbox have goals and needs that need to be met.
Here are some guidelines that might help make better use of your efforts when sending out demo tapes. They might sound a little crass, but we are talking here about the "business" of demos:
1) Be specific about the reason you are sending the tape. Some examples are: "I am sending this tape because my band is looking for a record label to sign with. I think we would be a good fit with you company", "I am sending this demo because my band is about to record a CD and we are trying to find a producer for the project. Are you interested?", "I am sending this tape because I am an artist looking for a manager", "My band is in the studio and we are interested in hiring you to mix the album", "I will be touring your area in September and would like to play your club at the end of the month". Even this is a good example: "I am not sending this for any specific reason other than the fact that I thought you might enjoy my music." All of these give the receiver a clear understanding of why you are sending the tape and what your hopes and intentions are.
The problem with packages that simply state "Hey check out my music" or "can you help me?" is that they do not really let the receiver know what the artist's specific needs are, or what the artist has to offer. If you are not sure why you are sending out a demo, perhaps it is not the right time to do so.
2) Include enough information to give a clear idea of what the artist is about both aesthetically and professionally. Having information about the artist's image and professional development is often the difference of getting a call back or not. A demo tape for a dance/pop artist that might be borderline could be worth exploring if the artist has a charismatic look. A rock band that might be questionable could be worth learning more about if the band has been touring extensively and already built up a strong regional following. Do not go into extreme detail, but provide enough that the person receiving the demo has an idea of what the artist is about and if that artist might fit their needs artistically and professionally. A demo package should give a clear picture of an artists style or artistic vision. A demo that has a heavy metal song, a polka and a country ballad does not give a clear picture of the artist unless it is a novelty act or someone who is only looking to succeed as a songwriter and not as an "artist."
3) Be realistic about the time restraints of industry professionals and don't expect them to do charity work for an artist. A&R people get demo tapes by the bushel basket (daily!!!), and producers and managers and club bookers get huge piles of demos. Most of these come from artists that they do not have prior relationships with. Checking out new acts is only a small part of what music industry professionals do (even A&R people), and evaluating and analyzing music is part of a job description, just like making food is for a chef, or fixing a car's transmission is for a mechanic. You would not expect a mechanic to fix your car for free. So it is not really realistic to expect an A&R person or a producer to spend a lot of time providing detailed feedback about music, to an artist that they do not have a relationship with. For artists that I do not have business relationships with and want me to provide detailed evaluations of their music, my company offers this as a professional service. Valuable evaluation and feed back beyond, "Yeah, its pretty cool" or "it sucks" requires a serious time investment on the part of the person doing it.
4) Accept the sad truth that many demos get evaluated in about 30 seconds. This is disappointing for an artist that has spent lots of time and money on a demo, but if you consider the life of an A&R person that has 2 hours in the day to listen to new demos and gets 25 demos or more a day; its pretty easy math. Find ways to make your demo stand out from the pack and capture the listener immediately. Also do not send things out just because you have recorded it. Make sure that what you send out is really exciting. Different people in the industry will have different needs for the quality of the recording, but make sure that what ever you send shows what is special about you as an artist. Make sure that special thing shines in the first 30 seconds.
Remember that your direct competitors are the artists already out there on the radio and big concert halls. Industry people are looking for artists that are of that caliber. If you send out something that is sub-par, it may hurt your chances of getting people to pay attention when you have something really good to show.
5) Make people's life easy. Do everything you can to make the life of the person receiving your demo easy. If you want your material returned, include a self addressed stamped envelope. Make your contact info easy to find. Put it on the CD or tape itself as well as the cover and any other materials you send. If possible, find out what format is the easiest for that person. Many busy people only get a chance to check out new music while driving. If their car does not have the format you sent, you may have missed a chance. As stated in #1, be specific about what you are trying to achieve by sending the demo. Don't make the person receiving the demo try and guess why they have received it.
6) I was tempted not to include this last one, but it is a harsh reality. A very large percentage of unsolicited demos that industry people receive are absolutely terrible. I say this only to make you aware that if you send an unsolicited demo out to an industry professional, you are part of group that has a very bad average for quality. You are starting at a disadvantage. If you are sending material out to major labels or managers, or producers, make sure you have what it takes to compete with their biggest acts. Find ways to make your material stand out from the pack. Many labels no longer accept unsolicited materials and part of that reason is because it takes to much work to sort out the good from the bad in the sea of demos.
So remember, your demo package should give a clear idea of who you are as an artist and a clear idea of why you are sending the package. It should get straight to the point and be easy to check out. While most of us are in this for the love of music, it is important to remember that when you start sending out demos you are now dealing with the "business" of music and the more you keep that in mind, the better your chances of success.
-- Ronan Chris Murphy works internationally as a recording producer and mixer. His credits include: Chucho Valdes y groupo Irakere, Steve Morse, Terry Bozzio, and several albums by King Crimson. For more info, check out www.venetowest.com Please do not duplicate this material without requesting permission (which is easily obtained)
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