Honesty. First and foremost be honest with yourself. Is this song good enough to spend your hard-earned money on and demo? No matter how successful the writer is, we still have to be brutally honest with this question. I typically demo about half of the songs I write and keep the other half to be worked on them and whenever I feel it is the right time, I approach them for turning into a demo. And to be frank, there had been countless songs that I just thrown in the bin and forgotten about them for good.
Type of Song. Typically, if you’ve written a big melodic ballad, you can do professional guitar/vocal or piano/vocal demo of your song. Because the melody and lyrics are the driving force to these songs, you don’t need to feature other elements in a full band demo. In many cases a full demo might take away from the personal intimacy of this type of song. Show off your melody and lyrics by keeping the demo sparse! On the other hand, if your song is an up-tempo groove thang, you will probably need a fuller production with drums, bass, and instruments to create the necessary groove feel of your creation. In this case, you can first experiment with computer and samplers to get a proper idea before turning it into a recorded band version. A simple piano/vocal may not capture the attitude of this type of song.
What artist are looking for material? If you have access to this type of information, it can be a very good deciding factor in whether you demo a song right now. If you believe you have written the latest Rascal Flatts smash and they just finished recording their new album and won’t record again for 18 months, then you might consider holding off on that demo until a year from now and move on to the next song.
Consider Your Budget. Songwriting should never add stress to your life. If you have 5 new songs and feel one is good enough to demo, then do one. If you feel 4 of them should be demo-d and can’t afford 4 full demos, then consider which ones can be presented well as guitar/vocal and which need full demo. And refer back to tip about “Type of Song” to see what is most pressing at the moment.
Who will be hearing your demo? If you have a contact who is handing your song to Adele’s producer and he will listen himself, simple may be better. Producers like to imagine all the bells and whistles they can add to a song, it makes their creativity engage. But if I’m playing a song for a 20-year-old intern or a newbie at a record label, I will most likely hand over a full demo that sounds like it can go on the radio tomorrow. Newbies may not have the developed ears to hear a song without production.
Style: Style is probably the most obvious factor in all of this. If you have written a folky country song, of course a guitar/vocal demo works great but a guitar/vocal of a song aimed at a dance club audience is not going to work. This call for a great track programmer who specializes in dance beats.
Keeping your finger on the Pulse: Trends change over time in the music business, and there are different for different markets. For example: in country music over the last 2 years there has been a trend for successful demos to be a little more stripped down, organic, and not sound polished. More and more demos are created by track programmers and less demos are big 6-piece bands. This has been the case in pop music for a while now but starting to appear more in country.
So here are some basic considerations that have served me well when deciding the type of demo record for my songs. Feel free to type any questions you have in the comments below.
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