By T. Perry Bowers
If you’re a regular reader of my blog you’ll know I run a recording studio in Minneapolis. Every couple of weeks I get a call from somebody asking if they can send me a demo. Apart from the fact it’s 2018 and no one sends physical demos anymore (it’s all done digitally), there are other important reasons not to “send a demo” to a record company.
Back in the nineties (when I was trying to “make it” with my bands), it was common practice to send demos to record companies — usually a cassette demo slid into a bubble wrap envelope and a little cover letter or “One Sheet” with all your band’s details. Naively, I spent hours researching record company contacts, packing and sending off these little ships to nowhere.
Every once in a while, I’d get a rejection letter. I still have one from Columbia Records. It makes me laugh. I know a few bands did get signed by sending out these unsolicited demos, but you could probably count them on one hand.
The reason bands get signed now is because they are creating a buzz. They might be getting radio airplay or packing out clubs. Often it’s nepotistic. The vice president’s son has a band or the A&R guy’s girlfriend is in a band. However even the idea of “getting signed” is now outdated. If your goal is to get signed, you should reconsider your musical career all together.
The fact is most record companies won’t listen to your demo for fear of being sued for copyright infringement. Imagine this scenario. You send Sony a demo and they pop it on their CD player to listen (yeah right, that happens!). Anyway, they take a listen and reject it. A couple of months down the road they release a song from one of their artists and it has a similar hook to one on your demo. Now, you sue them for copyright infringement. Record companies hate it when that happens. They hate it so much they don’t accept unsolicited material. If you really want to send your demos to record companies, you need a lawyer to do it — a lawyer well known in the entertainment field with direct connections to the record company — they need to know and trust him. And, your copyright and publishing needs to be locked down tight.
However even if you pay a well-established entertainment lawyer three hundred dollars per hour (and up), you still have a slim-to-nothing chance that any record company will actually listen to your demo. Even if they do listen to it, and they love it, they probably won’t sign you because their roster is full of bands who have impressed them with the sales they’ve made and the revenue they’ve created (without any assistance).
However this doesn’t mean you don’t need a demo. It is very helpful to have a demo for booking agents and club managers. I’ve been working with a few bands lately who are trying to get better paying gigs. Some are creating four song EPs. Some are creating a short promo video to go along with their EPs.
If you’re trying to impress a club or booking agent, demos are invaluable to get in the door. I recommend a short (two-minute) promo reel that includes a medley of your songs with interesting visuals, some live and in-studio shots. A good promo also includes quotes from fans, audience members and press (if you have any). It should be a fast moving piece that gets to the heart of what your band looks like, sounds like and what people think of you.
I’ve spent time booking a small venue and when I was accepting promo material, I needed to get an idea of the band in the first minute. So try to put your best material in the first twenty seconds of the demo. You want a hooky intro, verse and chorus to happen right out of the gate. Industry people are impatient. They already have enough people they already know (friends, family, acquaintances) bugging them for favors. If they are going to entertain an unsolicited piece of promo it better get to the point quickly and be exceptional.
In closing, getting your foot in the door of a club, booking agent, manager or, the unlikely record company, is just the beginning of the work. These people all have connections and a business formula, but that doesn’t mean it will work for you. You’re still going to have to be creative. You’re still going to need to motivate people on your team to help you accomplish your goals as an artist.
It’s a great feeling when you land a good gig in an established venue, but at a certain point it hits you that you need to draw people to the gig. It doesn’t matter how prestigious the venue is if there are no people there to see you in it.
Never send a demo to a record company expecting them to make something happen for you. Industry people should be so impressed by your draw at clubs, your creative output and your work ethic that they solicit you. When the industry sees that you are making money, they’ll come and help you scale your business. But until you’re making money, you’re an unproven, risky investment in an even riskier business. Smart business people only bet on a sure thing. Be the sure thing.