I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Professional demos aren’t cheap. Part of the business of songwriting has been – and always will be – presenting your songs in the best possible light for the music industry decision makers. These folks are used to hearing – and expect to hear – high quality recordings of the songs they’re considering for their various projects. While I understand the temptation to try to do it yourself or cut corners in the interest of just getting the song out there in “good enough” form, I’m here to tell you this is a mistake. The problem is that any short term money you save from this approach has long term, costly ramifications. See below to find out how cheap can become expensive when it comes to your song demos.
This is the first and most obvious problem with an poorly recorded or performed demo. After you’ve heard from a few industry pros that your demo isn’t up to par, any money you’ve already spent will be lost when you have to start from scratch on a properly recorded version of your song. In other words, what good is saving money on a demo that you not only can’t use but also will have to spend good money after bad to re-record?
The one truly finite resources we have as human beings is our time. Using an amateur studio where things take longer than expected or sessions keep getting delayed ultimately sets you back in your pursuit of generating income with your songs. Professional studios take pride in delivering not only a great-sounding product but one that comes in on time as promised.
Something I’ve heard consistently from my studio clients who have come from “less than reputable” and inexpensive studios is that there’s never a clear explanation of the costs. The danger here is that as songwriters in the early stages of your careers, you don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, if you don’t know to ask if you’ll own the session files of your recordings then if you ever want to take your recordings to work on in another studio there may be an extra charge. Also, if a studio doesn’t provide you with instrumental mixes of your songs (a four minute effort if you’re in the studio and already mixing), they might charge you again to bring up the session and print additional mixes assuming they’re organized enough to still have your original session files to begin with. All this to say, working with inexpensive amateurs can result in extra charges that would have made a professional demo seem reasonable in the long run.
Please don’t kill the messenger here but writing a great song simply isn’t enough if you’re hoping to make a dent in the music business. If your demo is poorly recorded or badly performed (e.g. a singer who isn’t on key or a musician who can’t play in time), the likelihood is that your song – no matter how well-written – will be dismissed out of hand. The opportunity costs here will be significant even if the demo cost wasn’t.
One of the most valuable assets you can develop in your musical career is your reputation as a pro. Everything from writing great songs to showing up to meetings on time to the quality of your demos counts. If the first meeting you have with a music publisher or record label exec consists of you playing a sub par recording for them (again, no matter how good the song may be), they will brand you as an amateur. Whether this is fair or not is less the point than the fact that this is the reality of our business. That first impression counts and it’s a long, long road back if that impression isn’t a good one.
I want to be clear. A professional demo doesn’t mean a full-band, every instrument but the kitchen sink recording. It simply means a broadcast quality recording with a studio singer and at least one session musician. Most of my cuts have come from scaled-down, professional demos with a vocalist singing harmony with themselves and a single instrumentalist (either guitar or piano). My recommendation would be to consider the cost of a professional demo an investment in your career and think twice before cutting corners.