I can picture the scene… You’ve just finished your song and you nailed it. Great melody, killer lyric and it’s got that magic “thing” that we all hope for when we write. Now it’s demo time. Nothing but the best will do. Why not put every instrument in the Western musical tradition on there and present your song in all its musical glory? Well, I’m going to give you six good reasons to temper your justifiable enthusiasm and to proceed responsibly and professionally with a scaled-down demo.
The reality is that with the exception of a few specific situations, fully produced demos aren’t necessary. The two exceptions that come to mind are one, if you’re pitching not just your song but also yourself as the artist or, two, if it’s a film/TV pitch where they need a full band sound. Otherwise, it’s often overkill to pitch your songs as fully finished master recordings. As a matter of fact, nothing brands a songwriter as an amateur faster than a poorly recorded and produced full-band demo. Simple and professional always wins that battle.
This may sound obvious but the price difference between a professionally recorded piano or guitar and vocal and a full band (e.g. drums, bass, electric guitars, keyboards) can be significant. If you’re planning on building a catalog of your demoed songs, it’s simply not cost-effective to blow out each song you write with a fully produced recording. A collection of beautifully recorded and performed single instrument and vocal demos will go a long way towards marking you as a pro when you pitch your songs to publishers or artists.
I think it’s worth remembering that the word “demo” is short for “demonstration.” The recording you’re creating is designed to demonstrate what’s unique and great about your melody and lyric. By keeping your instrumental work to well-played but tasteful minimum, the melody and lyric will get the attention they deserve and your song will be well-represented.
One thing I’ve noticed in looking back at my demos over the years is that full-band demos (specifically those done in the style/feel of the day) will tend to sound dated as trends come and go. By keeping your recordings limited to a simple acoustic guitar or piano, you’ll be much more likely to have a pitchable demo years – even decades – after your recording was made.
Another reality of fully produced demos is that they tend to place a song squarely in a certain genre. The moment you add a pedal steel on a song, it’s going to, most likely, be a country-only pitch, ditto for certain electric guitar sounds and their matching genres. However, a piano ballad, for example, sung by a vocalist with a relatively unaccented delivery could be pitched country, pop or even classical crossover. You’ll be spending good money on even a scaled-down demo, why not give yourself as many options as possible when it comes to pitching?
One thing to remember is that if your original scaled-down demo is professionally recorded (i.e. using a click track and an instrumentalist who can play in time and in tune), you can always go back to the song later and add additional instruments as the situation warrants. One thing to remember is to always ask your demo studio for a copy of the session files (which you should also confirm you own) in case you want to re-open the session at a later date to add additional musicians/production.
To acknowledge the elephant in the room, I know there are certain songwriting professionals who feel strongly that a full-band demo is the only way to go on any song worth pitching. This article isn’t designed to start an argument but, rather, to give you some things to consider before you potentially spend more money than you need to when you’re demoing your songs.