Songwriting Part 7 - The Songwriter Demo

by SaskMusic

July 30, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

There are three basic steps to getting your song into the marketplace.

1) The song is written. If you have a certain market in mind - i.e. if you’re trying to break into the country market, it should fit the current top 40 sound or have a fresh new angle to the current trend.

2) A demo version of the song is recorded.

3) A finished recording is made, either by you (the songwriter) for presentation to music publishers or for your own release, or by the artist who has chosen your song for their album.
Each step must be handled with care if your song is going to be successful (and by that I mean commercially). We’ve already covered "Step 1" in previous issues.

So…Step 2: The Songwriter Demo
(Please note - a recording article - not specific to songwriter demoing - will appear in a future issue!)

Demo = "demonstration," which means it is just a sample or starting point. Determine the song’s key attributes - and zoom in on those in your demo.

A demo should present your song in the best way possible. Before you go anywhere near a recording studio or 4-track, you should have a clear idea of what you want the finished demo to represent. For example, if you’re a hip-hop writer, your song will likely not cut it with a simple 2-track keyboard/vocal demo - you will need bass and drums to impart the groove. If your song is laid-back roots, then guitar and vocal might be all it needs. If you have decided on a simple recording, your musicianship and vocals had better be solid. In any case, it must be clean, with no tape hiss or noises going on in the background.

You want to give the listener the basic elements of what you heard in your head when you wrote the song, while leaving room for them to imagine changes here and there. If you’re layering horns and strings all over your song, it’ll be harder for a publisher to picture what a particular artist would do with it. And you don’t want fancy overdubs to detract from the power of song itself.

(This is where a producer comes in handy. You may feel it’s not necessary to use a producer when it’s "just a demo", but it’s as important here as on a release. You usually get just one shot - if there’s no potential heard, you’ve blown it. Put the effort in to make it an attention-grabbing song. A good producer can help with more than just getting a technically good sound - they can find studio players and singers, suggest what should and shouldn’t be incorporated - do you really need that cowbell? - and help you focus on the end result. More on producers in a future issue.)

To sing, or not to sing: Few people can be both great songwriters and great singers. If you feel you are the only one who can deliver the "heart" needed to capture your song, go for it. Think objectively about your vocal chops - and don’t just take into consideration the comments of your supportive friends and family. Using a skilled vocalist is critical to the demo process. I have heard demos where the vocals are so off-key the tape is stopped 15 seconds into it. The song doesn’t have a chance, no matter how great it might be. There are a couple of things you want from your vocalist:

a) Emotional delivery. If the vocalist sounds bored to death with the song, the whole song will collapse. They should be comfortable with the song and able to relate to the lyric.

b) Tone and style: You want someone who matches the voice in your head when you wrote the song. Often you have a certain artist in mind when you’re writing, so if you’ve written a song for Pam Tillis, find a singer who has similar inflection. Be careful, though - tailoring a demo precisely to one artist (e.g. using Shania Twain vocals and full Twain-esque production) will limit the song’s potential for shopping around if Shania Twain doesn’t grab it.

c) Proper vocal range. If you’re targetting your song to a particular artist, try and demo it in a key that artist would realistically sing in. Conversely, don’t make your demo singer reach beyond their range just because you stubbornly want to keep it in the key you wrote it in.

Now that you’ve got a capable vocalist, LET GO! The singer will probably need to change the phrasing and pronunciation around a bit, within reason. If you make her sing it JUST LIKE YOU DO it will sound contrived. The same goes for musicians: give direction if you like, then let them make it their own.

Now down to the recording itself. Most songs have an instrumental intro. KEEP IT SHORT!! The intro is NOT a good place to bore your listener! It should give an immediate sense of the mood and style of the music, and then get right down to business with the lyrics.

If you must use a drum machine, vary patterns within the song. At least use a different variation for separate segments - verse, chorus, bridge. If there’s a full stop, don’t get lazy and keep the drum machine streamrolling right through it.

If you’re incorporating fills between vocal phrases or musical sections, make sure they don’t overpower the lyric. Remember that the purpose of the song is to show what a great lyric and melody you’ve written (not to get the guitar player more work). To that end, NEVER record fills until the vocals are in place.

Harmony vocals can be a very important part of an effective demo. Selecting the right harmonies can make or break a chorus - and very creative ones can even become the hook of the song. Many vocalists can improvise their own harmonies on the spot, but make sure you clarify this with them before you go into the studio, and give them enough preparation time. If you’re marketing your song to a certain artist, do they have signature harmonies in their songs? For example, Shania Twain uses the Mutt Lange "group of guys" style on most of her tracks.

Mixing: The rule is "never mix on the day you record". In most cases you spend multiple hours in the studio listening to the same track over and over again as retakes and overdubs are completed, and after a while your ability to pick out details goes down the tubes. Mixing is not the place to rush things or settle for "close enough". While many things could be noted about getting a good mix, the most important in songwriting demos is to PUT THE VOCALS OUT FRONT! There is nothing more frustrating than a songwriter demo in which you can’t make out what the vocalist is singing.

After you’ve done the "first mix", take it home and live with it for a day or two. Play it on several different stereos and see if it sounds good on all. I have a fairly crappy stereo in my car, so I know if I can hear everything clearly in there, it’s a pretty good mix.

Some people like to keep a mix minus the vocals on DAT. Then if you ever decide you don’t like the lyric or how the vocals sound, you can go back and record new ones. You might also want to record a different vocalist (if you want to switch from a female to a male lead, for example).

Getting money

FACTOR’s Professional Publishers and Songwriters Demo Award Program is tailored for songwriters who are not trying to sell themselves as performers. You can apply for up to half of your budget, to a maximum award amount of $1000. It’s a non-repayable grant.

Applicants to the program submit one song which is judged on songwriting alone - lyrics, structure, etc., so a fancy 24 track demo is not required with the application. If you are approved for funding, you will be able to do a professional studio demo with hired musicians, a good producer, and so on, and you can usually record 2-5 songs within the allotted budget.

Besides the obvious bonus of getting $, the program is good because even if you AREN’T approved you can ask for an evaluation form, which will tell you what went wrong so you can fix it. And you can keep reapplying with new songs if you are turned down initially.

For forms or guidance in applying, please call SaskMusic.

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published December 1999.

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