The short answer to whether or not you need a professionally recorded demo is: no, no, no! It's easy to see why a lot of people make this mistake - and why many people can hear over and over again that they don't need to go to a studio to record a demo and do it anyway. After all, demos are pretty important. Just a few of the things you may use them for include:
- Get a record deal
- Get a promoter to book your show
- Get a manager to represent you
- Get an agent to represent you
People expect your demo to be rough. It's a taste of your music and your songs, and it's definitely not intended to be a finished product. Everyone who gets a demo from you is well aware of how expensive recording is and that you're an artist trying to get started - they don't expect you to have invested thousands and thousands of dollars into producing a professional recording. Absolutely no one in the entire history of music ever has (and I would wager, ever will) sent a demo to a record label and been told, "we love your music and would love to work with you - except this demo is way too rough, so deal off." You're simply not going to be turned down based on the recording quality of a demo. And in fact, that swish, professional demo could actually hurt you.
It may seem like spending a lot of money on a professionally recorded demo sends a message that you're serious about your music, and you're confident enough to invest in yourself. In reality, when a label receives a demo with 15 studio recorded songs and a 16-page full color booklet, the reaction is eye-rolls all round. It's a bad investment, and it says that you're naive about the way the music industry works. Even with the best intentions in the world on your part, it also opens up the question as to whether or not you're ready to undertake the humbling process of trying to get a music career off the ground, which involves much more cramming in the back of a stinky van for an 8 hour drive to play for 5 people than it does kicking back in posh studios. If you're "too good" to even record your demo on the cheap, how are you going to feel when you're trying to split the $4 you made on your show between the six people in the band? Almost certainly this is not the impression you are trying to create, but it is the impression you will give.
There are some instances in which the demo/promo is blurred and professional recording can enter the picture. This happens most often when:
- You're planning on self releasing your album, at least on a small scale, while you're shopping it to labels.
- You're trying to get signed to a very small label that you know doesn't help out with recording costs and you want to show them that you're ready to deliver a finished product.
- Neither of these reasons apply very well to a band just getting started. Taking a gamble on paying for recording can be worth it if you are already established to some extent - you've had interest from labels, you've had a lot of good press, you've toured a lot - and so on. You need to be in the position to exploit your album so you can make the expense of recording it worthwhile.
- Showing that you can deliver the finished goods is one thing - but it's smart to have some idea that a label is actually interested in the finished goods first. Even with a small label, there's no need for your first interaction with them to be a professionally recorded album.
- You can pull off some pretty professional sounding recordings at home, so you straddle the rough demo/release-ready recording easily while still staying within a budget.
The bottom line? Music is EXTREMELY expensive, and unless you have very deep pockets, spending your money wisely is important. You have better things to spend your money on when you're trying to get your music career off the ground than a slick demo.
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