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Thursday, March 10, 2011

There's No Such Thing As A Demo

Once upon a time a demonstration recording, or demo, was pretty much required in order to get a record deal. Today in our Music 3.0 world, the idea of a demo has pretty much become passe. Here's an excerpt from the band improvement book How To Make Your Band Sound Great that explains why every recording should always be your best.

By way, the picture on the left is Coldplay's original demo tape.

About the only thing that I would consider a “demo” is if you’re in a cover band and need a sample of the songs from your set list to prove to a promoter or club owner that you actually play acceptably well. If you record these songs too well (like in a professional studio), you run the risk of having the recording backfire on you, with the club owner thinking that you really don’t sound that good because everything was polished in the studio. That’s why I always felt that a controlled example of your set, like at a rehearsal, made a lot better sense for getting a gig. You don’t want to spend too much time or money on this, and luckily, you don’t have to.
If you’re recording some of your own songs, erase the word “demo” from your mind. A demo will always keep you in the “good enough” mindset. You have to approach each song as if it were a finished master because these days it’s easier than ever to  get some really excellent recordings without spending a huge amount of money. So forget about demos. They’re just an excuse for a recording that’s inadequate in some way.
The idea of the demo came out of practicality since up until about the year 2000, you just didn’t have the ability to make a record that sounded like a major release anywhere but in a real recording studio. Yes, it was done occasionally, but the vast majority of songs that you’d hear on the radio had real pros with real pro equipment involved. What would happen is that you’d make a “demo” that was just good enough to get a label or producer interested in taking you to the next level. Because studios were so expensive to record in (typically $100 to 250 an hour, plus engineer, tape, etc), it was usually impossible to spend enough time to make a recording that was up to snuff with a major label release. And if you weren’t located near a reasonably high-end studio, you were forced to use whatever was available, so as a result, almost everyone made a demo before moving on to a deal with a label where you got to make a real record in a real studio with some real pros who knew what to do.
Most of that has changed with the last few generations of affordable recording gear that are now readily available, and with the fact that the listening public doesn’t care as much about audio fidelity as they once did (maybe they never did but the record companies sure thought so).  So now it’s easy enough to record for not a lot of money and distribute it for next to nothing, people expect every recording to be as good as you can make it.

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Anonymous said...

At the same time, I have read a few interviews recently with big name acts who do use professional studios saying that they deliberately record extremely basic demos (eg just acoustic guitar & vocal). This is to avoid the syndrome where the studio recording never quite matches the sponteneity or 'vibe' of the demo.

sculley said...

I saw this ( interview recently where Dave Grohl was showing where the Foo Fighters recorded their upcoming album - in the garage at Grohl's house, and on tape rather than digital). Pretty interesting. (Dave likes his *language*.)

Bobby Owsinski said...

I think I posted the Dave Grohl piece here a month or so ago, Scully.

You're right, and it's a great policy if you're already a name act. This post was aimed at the band or artist who isn't in that category yet.

Vic Stathopoulos said...

In terms of audio quality its easier to make a demo that sounds really good due to technology advances. In old days I would do it all in midi and to go to a good studio to get that great sound. From my experience I still think listeners need a certain standard in sound quality, performance and mixing/mastering quality. Many people do not appreciate rough recordings unless they are mega fans.


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