Running a recording studio for the past two decades, I’ve recorded songwriting demos for GRAMMY-winning songwriters, major music publishers all the way down to first-time songwriters. One of the things I’ve noticed is that for newer songwriters there’s often confusion about what a demo can be used for. Strictly speaking, your professional song demo is a “demonstration” of your song. This means it’s designed to show off your song to potentially interested parties. That being said, these days demos can be appropriately – or inappropriately – used in a variety of other situations. In this post, I’m going to describe a few of the acceptable uses for demos and some of the uses that require either additional permission or payment in order to be acceptable.

The Cans

1. Pitch your demo to publishers, record labels and artists

Pitching your demo as the above mentioned “demonstration” is the first and best use for your recording. The understanding here is that if your song is selected to be used by an artist, it will be re-recorded in the production style of the rest of the artist’s repertoire.

2. Put your demo on your website/social media for promotion

Again, promoting your demo on your own website or any social media service is a great – and acceptable – approach. You’ve paid good money to do a polished, professional recording to represent your song so it’s absolutely in your best interest to get it out there any way you can.

3. Use the instrumental mix of your demo to try a potentially interested artist’s vocal

One of the lesser known – but excellent – uses for a demo is to take the instrumental version (which any professional studio will provide for you at no extra charge while they’re doing your mixes) and allow a potentially interested artist to record their voice onto it. The rationale here is that at no additional expense to the artist, they’ll be able to hear their voice on a professionally recorded instrumental version of your song. This, sometimes, can be the difference in whether an artist will decide to cut your song or not.

The Can’ts

1. Pitch your demo to film/TV without additional permission

The moment you intend to use your demo as a potentially income-generating recording, a whole different set of rules applies. In other words, without the appropriate releases from the singer and musicians, you won’t have the necessary permission to submit your demo for placement in a film or TV show. That being said, asking the studio in advance if their singers/session musicians are willing to sign a release is the proper and professional way to handle this situation. Often the release is designed to allow the songwriter to pay demo scale to the singer/session musicians but if/when the song becomes a “master” (in other words it gets placed in a film/TV show) there will be some agreed upon additional compensation for those involved. Click here to download a free copy of the releases I use with my songwriting clients,  demo singers and session musicians.

2. Sell/stream your demo without additional permission/payments

Since selling or streaming your professional song demo – via any of the online download stores or streaming services – is using your demo to generate income, this puts your demo in a different tier of recording. Generally, this requires the express permission of and an additional payment to the demo vocalist as you’ll be using the specific recording of their voice to make money. As a side note, since most session singers have their own artist careers, it is standard practice to either not list the name of the singer at all or to use a pseudonym in order to keep the singer’s artist and demo-singing careers separate.

3. Pitch your demos too much

I’ll admit this is a tricky way to remind you what you can – and should – do but as a rule songwriters rarely take advantage of as many pitch opportunities as they should. Spending good money on a professional demo means you should investigate any and all chances to get your song out there and into the hands of the music business decision makers. I’m fully aware this is hard, unromantic work but I’m also aware that even the greatest song recorded beautifully doesn’t help you if you don’t show it to people.

Conclusion

Recording a professional demo is a big investment and should be treated with the respect and understanding it deserves. Use the “cans” in this article as motivation and the “can’ts” as indicators that you need to get the appropriate permissions and make the appropriate payments to move forward with your songwriting career and you’ll go a long way towards setting yourself up for success when it comes.

Good Luck!

Learn how to prepare for your song demos.

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19 responses to “What You Can-and Can’t-Do with Your Finished Song Demo”

  1. Hi, Cliff. Two clarifications:
    1) Does YouTube count as social media or as streaming? Does it make a difference whether the videos are “monetized” or not?
    2) Am I correctly interpreting “You can’t pitch too much” to mean that there’s no such thing as too much pitching? (As opposed to, “You’re not allowed to pitch excessively”?)

    • Hi Linda. Great questions!

      1. When YouTube isn’t monetized and counts more as social media, you’re fine. But, yes, if you’re monetizing your YouTube videos, then they’re generating income and the demo becomes a master.

      2. I mean “There’s no such thing as too much pitching.” The more the better!

      Best,
      Cliff

  2. Suzanne says:

    Hi Cliff,

    Can you clarify the circumstances under which you would use the releases you address here as opposed to Work for Hire agreements? Is it predicated solely on Demo vs. Master use?

  3. David says:

    Good info, Cliff. How does this apply to the performing singer-songwriter or artist performing and releasing their own material for revenue? Would this be considered a master from the beginning?

    • Hi David,

      Good question. Your songs – with you as the artist – are not demos. They fit under the heading of “limited pressing” and you have every right to sell them and exploit them any way you wish.

      If you were to sell over 10,000 copies (a problem I wish for you) then there would be a discussion about an additional “master payment” for the players involved.

  4. Bernice Souleyrette says:

    Hi Cliff,
    Very helpful information.

  5. This is a fantastic resource. I have a question – what about entering a demo into a songwriting contest?

  6. Thanks Carol! No problem entering a demo in a contest as far as I know…

  7. Kelley says:

    Hi, Cliff—-Great article!

    So, I should not list any musicians/singers who are on the demos. I thought they would want any publicity but I see now about keeping the 2 careers separate.

    I didn’t know about the streaming—good to know!

    Let’s say a demo turns master for a tv show—is it common to revisit the payment plan afterward, i.e., don’t worry about it until it actually happens? If you have the signed agreement, you’re essentially off to a good start?
    Thanks!

  8. Kelley says:

    One last followup—If a songwriter hasn’t received all of the signed Letters, should they go ahead and contact, say, the musicians when (keeping it positive) it turns master?
    Thanks again!

  9. Cliff says:

    No. I’d be very careful not to pitch to film/TV if you don’t already have releases. You don’t want anything to hold you up if the music supervisor wants to move forward because music supervisors hate to wait. Hope that helps!

  10. Kelley says:

    Thank you!

  11. Tony Rexhouse says:

    Cliff, this information is really valuable. However, I’m confused about a few things and I have a couple of questions:

    Hi Tony! I’m going to answer these questions inside of your comment so that people can read them together.

    Q: As I read it, If I am just putting the demo out on social media for people to listen to I do not owe any additional payment to the musicians but if I generate revenue from the demo in any way I would have to pay the musicians. Is that correct?

    A: Yes. Once a demo is used for anything other than to “demonstrate” the song, there will be additional payment (often small) due to each of the players who were only paid for playing on a demo.

    Q: If I do decide to monetize the demo I would have to compensate the musicians. Would that be a one-time payment and how can I go about getting an idea of how much that would cost? I think that would be an important consideration in determining whether to use the specific demo recording for income purposes (i.e., you don’t want to lose money on your recording).

    A: The short answer is that, yes, it’s a one time payment and it would be a small percentage of the “master fee” that you’d receive. For example, if you received $1000 master payment, you’d pay each of the musicians an additional $50.

    Q: You reference use of the demo in a film or TV show and indicate that would make the recording a master. Is this also true if you release the recording on a social media platform or website to generate revenue?

    A: Yes. If you’re generating income, then it is no longer a demonstration of the song but, rather, a “master.” But it’s rare that songs on social media generate income so it would have to be a special case. Selling copies/downloads from your website is more common as an income source.

    Q: This is going to sound worse than I mean it but in the event I was to have the song re-recorded by other musicians in the style of the original demo recording, would I need to compensate the original musicians for utilizing their ideas in the second demo?

    A: No. That kind of thing isn’t something you have to pay for but if you’re doing it to get out of paying a master fee to the original musicians, you’d most likely end up spending more bringing in a new group of musicians to re-record similar parts.

    Thanks. I know this is a lot but I am seriously considering using your services and I’m doing my due diligence.

    My pleasure, Tony, hope that helps!

  12. Cheri says:

    I have a demo of an original song I wrote and all parties are work for hire. Because of the lyrics and who I wrote this for, I wanted to share a link in the description area for a non-profit organization. I get no money and collect no money. No downloads, etc., simply a reminder to give during the holidays. I’m not affiliated with the chairity. I want to pitch my song on YouTube with a video showing lyrics. Any feedback?

  13. Chris says:

    Greetings Cliff!

    If you’re hoping to build a career as a songwriter, then possibly as an artist later, would it be beneficial to stream (Spotify, etc) a new demo you’ve had produced and performed by a session vocalist, thus requiring the artist on the work to be listed as the production company only, with no mention of your name as the songwriter on the various streaming sites?

    • Hi Chris. My instinct is that if you’re considering an artist career, why not put your versions out there first? That being said, if you’re not ready to pursue the artist side of things, just be sure you have the demo singer’s approval to firstly, not list their name and, secondly, generate potential streaming income using their voice. Hope that helps!

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