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Record Demo Don'ts

Is Your Demo Selling You Short?

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Young woman singing in recording studio
Tara Moore / Stone / Getty Images

Have you sent your demo to record labels more times than you can count, but you just can't seem to get a bite? Sometimes, you can do everything right when you send your demo to a label, and still nothing happens. However, that doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of things you could be doing wrong that are putting the brakes on your music career before it can even get started. If you can't even get the labels to pay attention to you long enough to turn you down, check and see if you have commmitted any of these deadly sins of demos. If so, repent and correct that dangerous demo behavior, and you may end up with that deal you've been after.

Homework? Uh, We Had Homework?:

When someone asks you what your band sounds like, you say Joy Division, but when you are sending out demos, you're addressing envelopes to Jay-Z. A label has to be into your kind of music to have any interest at all in releasing your record, so make sure you investigate the labels that you approach with your music. That doesn't mean that every label you like should get a demo, either. The right labels to start with are the ones who work with bands who have a similar sound to you.

The TMI Effect:

Does your promo package come with a band bio can only be described as a novella? Does your demo have 25 tracks on it? Then you are guilty of weighing down the record labels with too much information. Short and to the point is the golden rule of promo packages and demos. If your package looks like it will take a week to wade through, the label is likely to send it straight to the bin. How much info is too much? Here's a hint - if your band bio mentions your childhood, you've gone too far.

Track Listing Trials:

Somewhat related to the previous idea, your demo itself should be short and sweet - a couple of songs, ideally. Obviously, then, picking the best songs is crucial. Instead of thinking about the songs of which you are most proud, think of the songs that grab you instantly. You want to stack your demo with songs that have strong beginnings, because you only get a few seconds before someone pushes that "next" button. Don't pick the "growers" - the label is unlikely to take the time to let the growing occur. This idea holds true even if you insist on filling your demo with loads of material. Don't think that a label is going to take the time to listen to 15 songs just because you put them on there. You still need to front load your demo with the big bang songs if you want the listener to push on through the rest.

Rules Were (Not) Made to Be Broken:

Many labels have rules about demos that you absolutely have to follow if you want to make it through the door. In fact, many times these rules have to do with getting permission to send a demo in the first place. The labels are not trying to be mean to you - receiving unsolicitied demos can land labels in legal trouble if they're not careful, when someone who sent them a demo suddenly claims that the label ripped off their songs. Demo policies can usually be found on label websites. Respect the rules.

Is There a Song Here Somewhere?:

Don't, don't, don't fall into the trap of thinking that you need to shell out big bucks to have a demo professionally recorded before a record label will give you the time of day - not true. Your recording can be low-fi, but it does have to be audible. If your demo is more white noise than White Light/White Heat, try again. There are plenty of relatively inexpensive music recording software programs out there that can help you turn out a perfectly fine demo on a budget. And, of course, old school though it may be in this digital age, many a record deal has been signed off the back of a four track recording. Strike the right balance between spending wisely on your demo and turning out a recording that clearly contains some music.

You're Still in the "Development Stage":

You can't expect every song you write to be a home run, and when you are just getting started, you may be turning out a few stinkers while you're finding your voice. Hey, it happens. If you're having a hard time judging the label-readiness of your songs, grab a few of your most honest friends and get the lowdown from them. It helps to hold off on sending things out to record labels until you feel like you have some songs that are album ready. If you start slinging out demos every time you hum a few bars, the labels will start dreading your packages. However, that doesn't mean that you should let a few thumbs down messages from labels stop you from sending out demos in the future. Just be sure that you are putting your best foot forward on every demo you send to a label.

Getting the right demo to the right label at the right time takes a lot of hard work and even more luck. Finding that deal is a process, so settle in, and keep honing your skills while you're searching for that perfect label. In the meantime, however, you can increase your odds of getting label attention dramatically by avoiding these big time demo don'ts. Now that these don'ts are out of the way, get the scoop on some important demo dos.

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