Doing the Business
Making the Most of Studio Time
How To Get A Record Deal... Making Demos... Management... Publishing... Agents...PR.. Getting Gigs... What A&R Men Want - The business side of music baffles many players. Doing the business, a new occasional series from your IN TUNE team, sets out to answer the questions which you've been asking.
'In all things, success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure'. Thanks, Confucius; you may not have been referring to the vital yet costly business of making demo recordings, but your words are as true here as they are in all other aspects of life.
Preparation for making demo recordings should, ideally, begin with the answer to a simple question. What, and who, is this demo for? The time was when no band far removed from the absolute threshold of stardom set foot in a recording studio. What studios there were belonged to the record companies, and, to be considered for a recording deal, any artist or band was essentially judged on the quality of their live performances. Agents, managers, record company A&R men and concert promoters would see bands live before expressing interest, and it was often not until the very last step before a deal was signed that the musicians found themselves inside a studio undergoing a 'recording test'. If that went o.k. then your future was - almost - assured. In those days you began with the gig - the demo came much later.
It's largely the technological advances in recording during the past twenty years which have changed all that, and now it seems as if everyone from the record company doorman to the potential roadie wants to hear the ubiquitous 'demo' before they'll shift themselves to consider your music. But, of course, what they each need to hear isn't the same. Either way, like it or not the demo has now assumed a priority once reserved for the live performance - just witness the alarming number of bands appearing on radio and television these days who've never even played live before an audience!
As a simple fact of the musician's life in 1985, the process of demo recording has become of paramount importance. Get it right and you're on your way - get it wrong, and you'll be back on the streets again. So what constitutes a good demo? Is it recording quality, the strength of your performance, the quality of the songs, or all three that count? The answer is, of course, that every element in a demo matters - but the degree to which they matter varies with what you want your demo to achieve; which is where good old Confucius and his preparation comes in.
If you're demo-ing songs which you've written for your band, then all you need to be able to do is get the idea of the song across to your fellow minstrels. Here, even the most unsophisticated equipment will suffice. Ideally, as your desire to dictate how the bass should sound, the keyboards should work, the solo come across etc. develop to Hitler-like proportions, then a more advanced home studio becomes increasingly necessary. For the song alone, however, even multitracking isn't vital.
The scale of escalation begins here. If your demo is destined to go to a prospective manager, gig promoter or agent then it has to be an accurate representation of not only the basic songs, but also the technical performance, delivery and so on. And the better you make the recording quality, the more impressive it will be; given that you've got the raw ingredients right. Plenty of A&R men will tell you that the recording quality doesn't matter - plenty of A&R men are liars! Don't assume that the A&R man, manager, promoter or whomever you send your tape to has any ability to deduce what your potential is from a basic stereo cassette recorded in your front room. Songwriters alone might just get away with lower quality demos, but even then the better the sound and the ideas on tape, the more likely you are to capture a prospective contact's imagination.
So, first of all, decide what your demo is designed to do. Work out who will be hearing it and exactly what it is that you're trying to sell them. Sell? Yes, that's the word! Demo recordings are sales devices, and if you think of the care and trouble which manufacturers of products take with their sales and promotion aids, then you'll see why taking a leaf out of their books isn't such a bad idea. And here we're back, once again, to preparation. Obviously, if you or any member of your band has a good home studio, then the time taking in recording your demo can be (more or less) unlimited. Likewise if you're borrowing a friend's set-up and they're good-natured enough to extend you unlimited time without grumbling. But what if you need all the advantages offered by a commercial demo studio? What's the best way for you to approach that situation?
Again, the first question to ask is, 'what is this demo for?'. Are you trying to impress agents or gig promoters who want an exciting live band? If that's the case, then the performance quality, the live appeal of your material and, most importantly, the way you put them across matters most. Here, fancy production will count for relatively little. Maybe you could even try a live tape of one of your gigs? A stereo cassette player stuck in a girlfriend's handbag at the back of the hall isn't the way to do this! But some small, local mobile studios can do a pretty good job of catching your live sound even at a fairly minimal cost. You can often 'do it yourself' if you've a decent P.A. mixer which will let you take a suitable feed direct into a good recorder. In fact (not that such things ever happen professionally - oh dear me, no!) you can even multitrack from a mixing desk and indulge in the 'cheat' overdub here and there - just to gild the lily a bit.
If it's a music publisher you're aiming your demo tape at, then you've got to capture the essence of the song whilst allowing them to see how another artist could arrange and record it. On the other hand, if a demo is to be directed at a local radio station or a record company, then for such prospective users of your recorded sound you have to demonstrate what you can do on tape - hence 'demo' - easy, isn't it?! So, now that you have in mind what sort of tape is needed (and assuming that you don't have the option of working in a good quality home studio or would prefer the full facilities of a small to medium commercial outfit), which studio do you choose?
Musicians (thankfully!) operate the best 'bush telegraph' this side of Africa, and not to make use of recommendations from friends is a bit like buying a secondhand car by sticking a pin in the 'For Sale' classifieds in Exchange & Mart. Ask around, and see which studio is recommended by other players in your area. Don't assume that the best equipment always produces the best sound, either. All equipment costs is money - experience and ability have to be acquired with time. Any rich man's son can set-up a studio which reads like a catalogue collector's dream - but can he use all that gear? I've heard demos from £12 per hour 8-track outfits which, albeit that they lacked something in terms of absolute technical quality, produced better sounding demos than 16-track outfits charging over twice that price. More important than the gear, in almost every case, is the man behind the desk - how well he can use what he's got, and how much in sympathy he is with the band's aims.
On this point, if you can, it's a really helpful ploy to get your potential producer/engineer to see one of your gigs or hear what you're after before getting down to work in his studio. Let him understand what you're trying to get across, and it'll help him capture that on tape. Likewise, let him know who your tape is aimed at. Of course this isn't always possible, but that understanding of what you're aiming for is one of the key factors in getting a successful sound down on tape. If you can, try it.
Cost is, naturally, a major worry for nearly everyone. On top of the basic studio time, there are almost always 'extras' which can add up to a small fortune if you're not careful. So always make sure that you find out the end cost of your recording before embarking on it. If you really must have 1,000 cassettes run off, don't be surprised if the £X per hour quoted in an advert doesn't cover this 'little' bonus! Best of all, set an overall budget to include everything, tell the studio that this is your limit and see what they can do within that figure. If getting the engineer on your side is worth taking some trouble over, getting yourselves prepared for what's to come is even more so. Make sure that you know your material thoroughly before the session starts. Wasting costly studio time trying to re-arrange a song is both a thoroughly wasteful and a very boring business. If you know that you'll be needing any special instruments or equipment on the session, make sure the studio knows that too - and check your own gear over beforehand. If your amp has gradually developed an increasing hum ever since you dropped a pint down the back of it last year, then get it serviced, before you discover that it's too noisy to use in the studio. If your effects units make the wrong sort of din, be prepared either not to use them, or to get them fixed too, rather than spend valuable session time trying to cure the difficulties. Carry spares - new heads for your drums, sticks, strings, picks, batteries - never waste time in a studio; it costs you money! And, having prepared yourselves as best you can, not only will the session run smoother, the costs be lower and the whole experience happier, but the end-product will sound better, too.
Try not to over-achieve, either. The strains of recording (especially when you're not used to it) can make that solo which you're only half sure of sound devastatingly weak on tape. That's back to pre-session rehearsals, of course, and I can't stress too much how important it is that you should have every single note off by heart before finding out that your sub-Jaco bass line doesn't actually sound very good against the lead guitar, once it's on tape.
So, work out your overall budget, look at how long you can buy for that amount of hard-earned mazooma, and never forget that the recipient of your tape will probably only spend a thousandth of the time listening to it that you took recording it!
The final result must be immediately compelling making the listener want to hear more, rather than extract your tape from their player and go on to the next one in their pile of 300 potentials for that week!
Regrettably, there's even more to getting your message across to an A&R person, promoter, radio D.J. etc. than the quality of your tape alone. Even having got all that right, there's still the need to show them that your tape contains a better prospect than the dozens of rival tapes lying in the pile they've received on their desk that week. Whoever you send your tape to, send them some decent photos of yourselves, a gig list, cuttings of any reviews you've received from the Press (yes, even the Pigsnorton Advertiser's coverage of your county-wide mega-tour!). Give the person to whom you're trying to sell yourself every possible chance to catch-on. Image - that horrible word - counts for a great deal more than many musicians care to admit. But never forget that we're all, one way or another, in the entertainment business - and image matters.
Back, then, to demo tapes. Forget the days of sending in spools of reel-to-reel tape, superior though they may be to cassettes in theory. Get good quality copies on common, commercially available tapes (TDK, Maxell, Sony and the like). Don't Dolby noise-reduce them - every different cassette machine seems to have different Dolby calibration levels, and having your tape played in a machine with the worst possible Dolby level for your tape will leave it sounding like it's being played through either a blanket or a tin speaker. Don't use metal tapes, either! Just use a good quality, high-bias (CR02 position) cassette, and get the sound as clean as you can, with plenty of level on it to cut down hiss. And though it might seem a very obvious thing to say, don't EVER send your one and only tape to anyone! The most efficient organisations in the world can still have their off days, and the thought of all your hard work being mislaid somewhere in the post or in someone's office doesn't bear thinking about.
Finally, what to put on the tape? It'd be a fine world if you could rely on every demo recipient listening all the way through both sides of a C90, but life isn't like that. To my knowledge, no one's done a study showing how long the average A&R man spends listening to each tape he receives, but I'd guess it was countable in periods of two or three minutes per complete tape.
Accordingly, lead with your strongest card. Stick to two or three songs - short ones if possible - and make them your most immediately accessible (though that doesn't have to mean your most commercial if you're not that sort of band or artist). Above all, ask yourself who your tape is intended for, and be prepared to give them what they need to hear.
Hawking demo tapes round the music business is possibly second only to door to door evangelising as a thankless task. You can make it easier by following some of the guidelines I've outlined above, but it's never going to be an enjoyable process. The music business is hardhearted, relentlessly disappointing callous, cynical - sometimes crooked - but, in the end, if it's what you want to be a part of, you'll never take 'no' for an answer. Just now and then the breaks come (usually when you least expect them), and when they do, past problems evaporate and success tastes that much sweeter. The very best you can do is make things as easy for yourself as you can, and with demos that means being prepared. Back to the Boy Scouts, really, isn't it?
Feature by Gary Cooper
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