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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.