Let’s begin at the beginning. You’ve written a song and, hopefully, you’re thrilled with it. So thrilled, in fact, that you want to record it right away and use every instrument in both the Western and Eastern musical traditions on the song demo. I don’t blame you one bit. There’s nothing more fun than dressing up your songs to go to town. But it might make sense to stop and ask yourself what your goals are for your demo.

Song Demos

Why Demo Your Song

If the answer is that you’re a recording artist in your own right and you’re putting together a collection of song demos that represent you and your sound, then, by all means, create a full-blown recording and best of luck. But if the answer is that you’re hoping to represent your song in a way that highlights what is unique in your melody and lyric and you’re hoping to pitch it to publishers or recording artists in order to get a cut, you might want to put on the brakes.

Budget

Let’s start with the elephant in the room…the money. Doing quality recordings of your songs is never inexpensive. As a matter of fact, doing a full band production of a song can be downright expensive. As a result, you should have VERY good reasons for doing a full production of your song. An example of a “very good reason” would be that you know a music supervisor who has come to you specifically looking for a song for a film or TV show and they’re looking for a full band production. Another good reason would be that you’re working with a young artist and you want to do a version of the song that highlights not only your song but the singer as an artist. However, if you’re hoping to have a long, successful career as a songwriter, you need to manage your demo budget carefully. In terms of pitching possibilities and placement opportunities for your songs, I firmly believe that it is better to have a catalog of ten great-sounding, professionally recorded guitar/vocal or piano/vocal demos than it is to have half that many full band recordings.

What Is A “Stripped Down” Demo?

A stripped down demo is generally a recording of a single instrument (either acoustic guitar or piano) and a vocal including vocal harmony. This is in contrast with what I’ll refer to as a full band demo which involves a rhythm section (drums and bass) as well as various “color” instruments like electric guitar, keyboards, fiddle (if it’s country) and any one of a variety of other instruments. The trick to a well-recorded, stripped down demo is that it implies something bigger without necessarily having to use a lot of instruments to do it. For example, a piano/vocal recording where the singer adds harmony vocals on top of their lead vocal gives the impression of the chorus getting bigger more dramatic without having to use a big drum fill or electric guitar power chords to do it. Stripped down demos are particularly effective on ballads but can also work well on uptempo songs. Sometimes, it’s as simple as including a shaker, tambourine or even foot-stomps and hand claps on a recording to give it a sense of drive and motion. Adding a slight percussive element like this still fits in the category of stripped down because it’s being done in exchange for what a full drum kit would do.

Song Demos

Stripped Down Does NOT Mean Low Quality

Let me be perfectly clear. Just because your demo is only one instrument and a vocal, this is not permission to do it yourself unless you’re an experienced audio engineer, studio musician and/or demo vocalist. When a demo is boiled down to a single instrument and vocal, it is doubly important that the recording and performances be of the highest quality because every element of the recording will be exposed. Most importantly, trained studio musicians and vocalists bring an emotion, precision and energy to a recording that will make it stand out in a way that is essential for branding you as a professional. I suspect I don’t have to remind you how intense the competition is out there. You’ve only got one chance to make a first impression with your music so make absolutely sure that your demos (whether stripped down or full band) are done by experts. In other words, save your money by using fewer instruments and scaling back your production, not by using inexperienced players, singers and engineers.

When Less Is More

Beyond being easier on your budget, there are several additional reasons to consider stripping down your demos. First of all, a simple guitar/vocal recording of a song shows that the song is strong in its most basic form. If you find yourself thinking that your song will only work if it’s got a full band production behind it, then you might want to re-investigate the song itself. Another advantage of scaled down production is that it leaves room for the artist or producer on a project to explore production options instead of pegging the song to a particular style of production. Along those same lines, a piano/vocal demo sung by a vocalist with a clean, contemporary sound would open up pitch opportunities across several genres. In other words, it might be possible to pitch the same piano/vocal demo to a pop artist as well as a country artist. If, however, you’ve created a full band recording of the same ballad, the session musicians would most likely have to commit to a particular style thus limiting your pitch opportunities.

Conclusion

Hopefully, your career as a songwriter will be a long and prosperous one. Having great songs is the first and – without a doubt – the most important place to put your time and effort. But, if you want to make a living as a songwriter, then creating quality demos and getting those recordings into the hands of those who can do something with them comes a close second. By stripping down your demos, you’ll be able to stretch your demo budget and highlight what’s unique in your songs without compromising on the non-negotiables like a quality recording studio, professional musicians and experienced demo singers.

Make the most of your studio demo experience.

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16 responses to “The Benefits of Stripping Down Your Song Demos”

  1. jon says:

    Good article!! Makes a lot of sense! quick question… should you copyright your songs before you get them into the hands of those that can do something with them?
    thank you!

  2. Frank Aimetti says:

    The problem is that we continually hear that basic “guitar/vocal” or “piano/vocal” demos don’t cut it anymore. Artists, producers and records labels want to hear a full fledged version of the song, not a simple demo. I belong to TAXI and they almost always ask for fleshed out recordings, not basic demos. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard or read about how demos must be developed recordings and not the basic guitar or piano/vocal demos that were acceptable in the 60s and 70s.

    • Hi Frank. In my experience, it has everything to do with the intended use of your demo. Guitar and piano vocals are designed to highlight the melody and lyric in the hope that your song will be re-cut. Fully produced recordings are designed to be pitched “as is” for film and TV which is a lot of what TAXI does. You will certainly hear arguments to the contrary but I’ve had plenty of cuts from pitches using demos that are simple, professionally recorded guitar and piano vocals. Hope that helps!

  3. Rick Erhart says:

    I was recently chastised by my son for trying to put too much of just about everything into the songs that I work on. He took one of my jam-packed full songs and layed down a beautiful acoustic rhythm to replace all of my busyness. Not only did he better capture the essence of the song, he also set me on a new course of trying to leave room inside of the arrangements. This actually accelerated my song writing timeline giving me more time to come up with new material. I feel that with my old way of thinking I might never have been ready to put my music out in the market plus, as the article mentions, I risked pigeonholing my songs. I still have a lot of building to do on my portfolio and reading this article relieves me of the notion that I have to create a final cast in stone definition for each of my songs. That’s a big relief! The idea that 10 open demos could have more value than 5 full band demos might not make sense for a band but it seems to make a lot of sense for a songwriter. Thanks Cliff!

  4. Shannon Voykin says:

    Thank you Cliff for your wonderful article. I am working on a song right now and I keep thinking that I have to record all these instruments to make it sound good. I like your statement that a good song will carry itself. Thanks again and happy songwriting!

  5. Norman Allan Crew says:

    Excellent article as per usual. Thank you

  6. Ducklin Markey says:

    Cool article and some good perspectives.

    Just my opinion, but this is a little one sided. Perhaps this has been the authors experience, but in 2019 you usually need full production. Assuming – your track is a banger. And most aren’t; the amount of guitar/piano/vox demos flying around on email every day is quite large. Writers have quotas and deadlines, and often run with any hunch of melody they sort of like…but honestly don’t feel in their own bones. And that just makes everyone’s ears jaded by Friday 1pm…not to mention solidify your reputation as very mediocre. Throw it at the wall and hope it sticks is a bad policy, but where most end up.

    Also, many in the music industry end up in the business side because…they’re just that. They love music, but they are business brained, not creative. They can’t often hear the potential, like a strong producer could, based just on a vocal melody and chunked out chords. Some if not most need spoon-fed. Just the way it is.

    Of course full blown is more expensive. No one said it was easy, and no one will hold your hand. How badly do you want it. And most importantly, how much conviction do you have behind your songs? Are you just crossing your fingers, working off forced co-writes, not patient inspiration at each turn? Or… does your work get stuck in your own head, give you goosebumps, watery eyes? Then very likely it will with others as well.

    Welcome to the music biz 🙂

  7. BillPresse says:

    Thanks Cliff, loved the article! Will take on board your advice. Cheers

  8. Gary Reems says:

    Do these scale down rules apply to instrumental music, if the goal is to submit the songs for commercial use?

  9. Ramona says:

    From what I’ve heard, most songs have a better chance of getting picked up and recorded when people understand the song and the song stands on its own.
    No fillers just a basic guitar or piano is the best.
    Less is more in this case.

  10. Rick says:

    Fantastic article and just what I need to hear. I’m getting stressed about making everything all out records while at the same time wanting more productivity from myself.

    Trusting the lyric and melody to sell itself sans bells and whistles is daring but stronger

  11. Xave Ryan says:

    @Ducklin Markey : Agree with you 100%
    I do home recording and always give my songs full treatment. No one hears a stripped down song and tries to imagine how good it could be if given the bells and whistles. For example, The Eagles “life in the Fast Lane” and Van Halens “Hot for Teacher” rely so much on the guitar lick at the intro. I do agree with the points made about budget though. If you’re not able to record at home then yes…dont spend a fortune on studio time.

  12. Edward Adzima says:

    I use an online mastering site that is reasonably good. The only problem is the virtual instruments I have available are not the best. Some are pretty good though. And my recording capabilities are limited in regards to EQ, compression, etc.

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