So you've worn out the ends of your fingers writing some killer songs and you're aching to have that all-important record contract. You've squirreled away for weeks at your buddy's home studio and scoured the internet for the addresses of all the record labels you can find. The snare drum sounds like a cookie tin, one of the guitars has extinction-level fret noise and your singer is somewhat flatter than southern Manitoba. The stereo's less balanced than a drunk on a roller coaster and there's distortion whenever "Thumper" hits more than one cymbal. Your buddy finished the recording using his cassette deck to get that analogue warmth back and so there's a slight hiss all the way through. Heck, you can always turn the bass up. But what does it matter? It's just a demo, after all. A&R people just want to hear the songs, right?
If only life were that simple - and there was a time when it was. Twenty-five or so years ago you could bang three songs roughly onto a C-60 and stand as much of a chance as anyone of getting a record deal. But those days came to an end the moment the first MIDI note was played and the first Digital Audio Workstation rolled a track. We live in sophisticated and financially aware times.
First of all, everyone has access to cheap and versatile recording technology these days. I wonder how many bankrupt recording studio owners have cursed the invention of the Portastudio? The advent of this sort of gear has levelled the playing field among musicians in a dramatic way and now everyone can - in theory - sound good using cheaper versions of the same cunning digital tools that professional studios have. Second, record labels' budgets are now tighter than ever. Without spewing unnecessary detail, in the time I've been doing this I have watched single advances shrink by as much as 94%. Why? Look around you; there's a great big internet out there from which you can grab any music you like, completely free of charge. Even before the 'net became popular, music piracy was massive and now it's growing faster than ever. Record sales are down and record companies have considerably less money to spend. Moreover, because of the arrival of affordable high-tech recording kits, labels are wise enough to know that passable results can be achieved for far less cash.
These two factors mean that (A) record labels expect to hear excellent recordings and (B) they're far more likely to bite when the material is good enough that they don't have to shell out for more recording time. And consider this: Your demo isn't just a demo. Right now, it's your only ambassador to a record label and if it sucks, naturally it'll go in the garbage. Would you consider sending out a resume with bad grammar and spelling mistakes? When a model sends out their portfolio, do they include bad photocopies of themselves with greasy hair, jeans, T-shirt and $5 Wal-Mart sneakers? Of course not; if you want your material to stand out from the rest, you've at least got to try to make it better than the rest.
Today, much as people still use the word, the era of the "demo" is history. Record labels are looking for a superior, saleable product that sounds fantastic and isn't going to cost them a tanker-load of money to get onto a finished CD. So what can you do to give your material that vital edge? Here are a few ideas that I've seen work over the last couple of decades.
Write great-sounding, memorable songs. If you can't do this, find a buddy who can. Want to get signed? Then write something commercial ; the record label isn't interested in your politics, beliefs or eclectic moments of inspired musical weirdness. They're interested in how much money they can make out of you.
Think carefully about your sound, your arrangements, your instrumentation. Are the guitar parts getting in the way of the vocals? Are the drums too busy or too sparse? Is the bass player too far up the neck? Go and listen to the material that inspired you and ask yourself how they did it. Then go and rehearse like mad.
Do an excellent recording. Either go away and learn the art yourself for a few years or book someone who really knows what they're doing and has an excellent track record. Listen closely to their work; does it sound great? Does it sound professional? Have they ever had their work signed by a label? And do they have a competent and well-maintained studio with all the facilities you're likely to need? Consider engaging the services of a producer, someone who's already had releases out and knows how to make good records in your style. Ask them about their work. Have they had records out on professional labels and have they had any chart success? Hint: If your producer already has good relationships with record labels, it puts you one big step closer than the next guy.
The vocals have to be fantastic, especially the lead. It's a major point: I can't stress this enough and believe me I have seen labels reject "otherwise great tracks" for one odd-sounding vocal note. The vocal quality is absolutely critical to the success, not only of your demo, but your commercial releases - which, if your demo sucks, will never happen. You need a great singer and a great performance.
Find record labels that are signing your kind of material. You know, a hip-hop label is never going to sign a metal band no matter how blindingly good they might be. So save yourself the trouble and put the effort into labels that are likely to be interested. Are they already releasing your style of music? Do they regularly release new bands? Are they a decent-sized label with good financial backing?
Finally, never say "it'll do". You must shoot for excellence in songwriting, performance, recording, design, photography, presentation and everything else. Remember, the aim of the game is to get yourself and your band signed and this must be your fully committed goal. Of course it's a huge challenge, but you never know what might come of it. You could be looking back in ten years' time and remarking how worthwhile everything was. Or not. Either way, I hope you're going to get serious and make your material stand out from the rest. And I hope that what I've written here helps you to achieve your dream. What are you waiting for?!
Views expressed in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of SaskMusic, its board, and/or staff.