For many musicians, their first stab at getting their music heard is sending a demo to a record company or producer. But what do the people who listen to demos every day want from your tape? Sue Sillitoe finds out.
Sue Sillitoe asks a selection of A&R executives and producers what they look for in a demo – and what makes them hit the stop button...
ALAN WINSTANLEY, PRODUCER
When I'm listening to a demo, my curiosity always gets the better of me, so even if it's awful I'll listen to as much as I can just in case there's a little gem in there. Sometimes the best track is the last track and it's great when you find it. Really I'm looking for a good song and a good voice.
Even if a demo is dreadful I don't switch it off, but I do flick through it. I tend to listen to demo tapes in the car, and I haven't got a CD in the car so I prefer to get tapes. I got a demo through last week and I picked it up just as I was leaving the studio but when I opened the package the damn thing was on DAT so I had to wait until I got home before I could play it — very annoying!
I don't get as many demo tapes as I used to and of those I suppose about 10 per cent are reasonable. I got two through recently that were very good and I passed them onto record companies.
I don't want over-produced demos. I expect demos to be rough and ready and really to give me an idea of whether the band are any good and if they are the sort of band I want to work with. If the production is awful it won't put me off because I can always sort that out, provided the song is good enough. I don't expect a demo to be 24-track but the band should be capable of getting the basic idea down as clearly as possible.
Biographies and photos are helpful, but what is really important is that the cassette is labelled as well as the box. I want to know who to contact and be given a phone number on the cassette so that if it gets separated from its box I know who's sent it. I must say I rarely send tapes back, though. Demos should only contain a band's best songs — three is usually enough. If there are more and they get progressively worse, it puts you off. If I'm really interested in a demo I always try to see the band play live.
STEPHEN STREET, PRODUCER
What interests me most in a demo tape? I suppose first of all it's the voice and the song. Technology has made it possible for anyone to come up with a great backing track but the voice is really the issue. That's where the real talent lies. The songs are important too.
What I hate is a demo that's over the top — so over-produced that it sounds like crap. I want to hear people playing together, not how good they are at putting on digital reverb, which there is generally too much of. For a while I was running my own record label, and as a result I received a lot of tapes. I was very disappointed because such a small percentage were any good.
With demos, production values and recording quality tend to overlap. It doesn't matter if something is roughly recorded but it's good to know when they want each instrument to come in. Roughly recorded demos can still have a good vibe. I suppose we all have different ideas about what we want to hear but in my opinion less is more. One thing I do find these days is that it's hard to impress a new band with all the equipment in the studio because they are so used to all the technology.
I don't need a CD from a band — they should concentrate on getting the demo right on a cassette rather than spending money on pressing CDs. Three or four tracks are sufficient and they should be varied. A slow one and an up-tempo one is a good idea. If I like a demo I always go and see the band live. There's no point in a bedroom band and there's no point in a great backing track when the song and vocals just don't stand up.
NICKY GRAHAM, PRODUCER AND FORMER A&R MAN
It takes a long time for a new band to learn how to structure their songs, so I'm never turned off a demo by the quality of the recording, the production or the arrangement, because I think it's my job to sort those elements out. That's why most bands need producers. What does turn me off, though, is poor musicianship. I'm looking for evidence of a good voice, interesting material and a reasonable level of musicianship — you need a combination of all those elements.
When the Producer's Guild was running its hunt for new talent I was listening to a lot of demos and I suppose one in every 50 was of interest. These days I get about three a week and I always listen to each one, although not always all the way through. Three tracks is sufficient and the band should always put their best track first. If they send me 15 tracks and put the best at the end, they're being bloody stupid because I won't listen beyond the third track unless the material is stunning — and that doesn't happen very often. If a song is good enough, it will stand up even when it is very simply put together. For some material, a piano and voice demo is fine, but it's horses for courses — obviously that wouldn't work for a dance track. I like to get a photo with the demo because I like to know what the artist looks like. I've wasted time in the past on demos that sound great but when you get to meet the band you find they are all 50 year old session players with no sex appeal whatsoever. The photo doesn't have to be brilliant — a holiday snap is good enough — and a bit of biographical information is useful too. But the packaging isn't really important — it's the music I'm interested in.
TONY SWAIN, PRODUCER
I look for good vocals, an interesting song and adequate production. What I don't want is a badly copied tape, bad vocals and a bland song. I doubt if more than one per cent of the demos I hear is any good. In terms of production, arrangement and performance, I listen for effort being put in so that the demo shows promise in all areas. Production values are not vital but a reasonably produced demo does help. I think the recording quality is quite important. With the equipment available, even the most modest 4-track can give good results, so there is no excuse for a band not to come out with something half decent.
A photo and biography of the band is essential and the introductory letter should be typed and contain relevant information and contact numbers. I prefer to get the demo on cassette because they can be played anywhere.
Three tracks are usually enough — at least to start with — and if there are more than three tracks I do switch off. The first track should whet your appetite for more and lead up to the best track. My main moan about demos is that I cannot believe the number of badly presented and poorly copied tapes I get.
ROBIN MILLAR, PRODUCER
When I listen to a demo I want to hear originality — not bad ad-libs and Michael McDonald impersonations. I would say that of all the demos I receive, less than 10 per cent are any good.
With songwriting demos, I prefer it if the demo isn't oversung. Performance isn't vital, though it is if the demo is from an artist. I'm not too worried about the songs. If the singer is great we can always find alternative material. If the singer is quirky then the songs become more important because it's a combination of the voice and the songs.
Production values are not important at all, except in a negative sense. The recording quality should be good enough to allow you to hear everything, but beyond that it doesn't matter.
Personally I'm not interested in photos and biographies. Introductory letters should suggest why that person sent that particular song to me rather than just sending it as part of a Music Week Directory mail out.
CDs don't get more attention than cassettes and I don't want to hear more than two tracks. If they interest me I will ask for more. The first track is the one that makes or breaks the demo, so it should be the best, but if there are more than two tracks I get annoyed.
GUS DUDGEON, PRODUCER
The most important thing about any demo is the standard of the songs and the performance. As it happens, unless the song is dreadful, I always listen all the way through.
What I don't like is a demo that is obviously very amateur. My experience is that people who really have something to offer make well thought out tapes, even if their equipment is cheap. Sadly, though, very few of the demos I receive are any good.
Production values and recording quality are relatively unimportant and I don't mind if the demo is just a singer and piano or a fully produced and conceptualised performance. In fact very few of the tapes I receive are simple — I wish there were more of them.
It's useful to get some kind of biography and a photo, but it's not crucial. I prefer a letter that sticks to the point and although it's nice to hear that someone is a fan of my work it is in fact irrelevant. Receiving a demo as a CD rather than a cassette would impress me but only from the point of view that the band is taking the whole thing seriously enough to put money into their work.
The first track on the demo is important from the point of view that if it is exciting you are bound to continue listening. I don't really want to hear more than 10 tracks — and that's probably a lot more than most people — but I never turn a demo off halfway through because I have sometimes come across real gems buried in a tape. People often prioritise their material badly.
MIKE HOWLETT, PRODUCER
A unique voice, that's what I look for in a demo. Outstanding quality, a great song and above all a great voice. It doesn't have to be in tune — look at Morrissey — but it does have to be special. It's no good having a voice that's "just like Sting" or "just like George Michael", it has to be different and have a memorable quality about it.
I think there are very few demos that are actually any good — less than one per cent of the ones I get sent. These days I get about one a week because my management company tends to field tapes, but I wish they wouldn't because their decisions are based on business rather than creativity.
I prefer a rough demo to something that is overproduced. I look to see if the arrangement and structure is good and where I could improve it. With a track like 'Enola Gay', the structure was fine and all I had to do was embellish the sound, but with other tracks I have had to work out an entire structure from one verse and a nice hook and melody. My view though, is to only make changes that have to be made — if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Ideally I like to hear a bit more than just a vocal and guitar but it depends on the song. I need to know what the writer had in mind — is it a a dance record or a rock and roll song? The band should put enough on the demo to give you a feel for the way they see the material recorded.
A cassette is the best format for a demo. CDs are unnecessary — they may impress the record companies but not me I'm afraid. As for the number of tracks, well I prefer three and five is the limit. After three I tend to whizz through the tracks. I don't care about photos and biographies but I do like to get an SAE, especially if they want their tape back. As for the introductory letter, well the one with the £10 note attached is always interesting...
PAUL KINDER, A&R, VIRGIN
The first thing I look for in a demo is originality, style and a distinctive vocal approach. What I hate is anything derivative — and the old fool who sends in a tape of his or herself singing over a record. These are instant switch-offs. I would say that less than 0.5 percent of the unsolicited tapes we receive are any good.
I don't listen to the production or arrangement of the demo because the most important things are the vocals and the strength of the song. If it's a demo of a club record then obviously the production values are important, but usually it's the ideas and the songs that are important.
The quality of the recording on a demo doesn't really matter, unlike on a master tape, where quality of recording takes on a different aspect. The quality of a Simply Red record is just as valid as the quality of a Nirvana record — the sound on the Simply Red may be clean and pristine while the Nirvana sound may be harsh and abrasive, but the quality of the recordings are equally important.
Photographs and biographies are not essential but I like getting witty introductory letters. CDs don't get more attention than cassettes, and whatever I get sent I don't want it to contain more than three tracks. Unless I'm intrigued by the first three I will definitely switch off.
The first track is very important because it will determine the kind of reaction you will have to the next ones. Bands should always put their best song first if they want to capture the attention of the weary and cynical A&R man — which of course doesn't apply to me!
It is not often that a signing is made from an unsolicited demo. However, it does happen.
JOHN COXALL, THE HIT LABEL
We don't get a lot of unsolicited tapes because we are not seen as the sort of company that signs bands from demos. Most of the product we get involved with comes via publishers or managers or other contacts already in the music business.
A good example of this is the Unitone Rockers single Children of the Revolution, I heard about that through a friend who picked up on the CD that Marco Perry and Dave Clayton had put out through their own label. The single was just one of the tracks on it and we liked it. We certainly don't have the problems that some of the major labels have with hundreds of tapes arriving each week. However, when we do get tapes sent in we will listen to them, although in my experience the chance of unearthing something really remarkable through an unsolicited tape is very rare. It can happen, but not often.
JOHN WILLIAMS, A&R DIRECTOR, CHRYSALIS
When I'm listening to a demo, the first thing I look for is a great song and a great singer — one who can hold a tune. The voice is what hits me straight away: if the voice is good and the song is good then I'll carry on listening.
I switch off if I hear poor playing, singing, and a poor song. I don't like it if the tape has more than six songs and I'm not impressed by fancy covers or silly writing. You can tell a lot by the way a tape is presented and really, at that stage, all I'm interested in is the music.
Less than one per cent of the demos I get are any good and I get between 30 and 40 tapes a day. My assistant listens to all of them before passing the best on to me. I can't possibly listen to them all, because that would be a full time job in itself.
I prefer demos to be simple. The band and singer should show an ability to express their musical ideas and be capable of singing clearly. Production and recording quality are unimportant because I just want to know about their ability to play and sing. If I'm switched off by the voice or the songs, I won't be impressed by the production or quality of the recordings. I'm also not interested in taking on someone whose voice I like but whose songs I hate — or vice versa — because it is such a long and time-consuming job to repackage someone and find new material for them. I'd rather work with people who not only have the talent but also have an idea of where they are going.
If the demo is from a band, I want to hear everyone play. If it is a solo performance then the vocals with a guitar or piano will do. I signed the Proclaimers on the strength of four songs. I flew them over to London and stuck them in the boardroom at Chrysalis where they played the four songs live and we signed them right away. Mind you, they were recommended by The House Martins and did not get signed as a result of sending in an unsolicited demo.
Photos and biographies — anything that gives more detail — are always good to have. People should also remember to send an SAE because it's amazing how many tapes we get that just don't have that.
Introductory letters should just contain information — no bullshit. State facts such as what gigs you have done, singles you have pressed yourself, your local fanbase, radio play in your own area, etc. These things will make a difference because they show serious commitment rather than just rushing off a demo in a bedroom when the band is only five minutes old.
There should be no more than three tracks on a tape and the best should be first, because I'll only go on listening if I'm interested in the first. I switch off as soon as I lose interest, no matter how many I've listened to. If I like the music I'll keep listening.
I've never signed a band on an unsolicited demo. I would always want to hear them play at least three or four times and get to know them. I have signed people on the strength of demos but they are usually ones I've received from managers. Cathy Dennis, for example, came through a demo of one track her manager sent me. I then met her and signed her soon afterwards to Polydor, really on the strength of that one song. A good manager is much more important to a new band.
DAVE BATES, HEAD OF A&R, PHONOGRAM
The voice is the first thing I listen for on a demo tape — it has to be unique. Then I listen for musical content and then I suppose it's the combination of the two. I don't really care how rough the demo sounds provided that combination is seductive enough to interest me. If the voice is awful I'll stop listening. But equally I don't like demos that sound so clinical and perfect that they have no spirit or soul to them. With technology as good as it is now, people can make demos that sound technically perfect but that's not what it's all about. I'd rather not listen to demos that are over-produced and arranged because that kind of treatment can be done here — that's my job.
There is no need for a band to go to the expense of pressing their own CD. A cassette is fine and I don't really want to hear more than three tracks. The best track should always be the first one, although it's surprising how many bands don't do that.
I have to say that I hardly ever listen to unsolicited demos now. I have a trusty A&R staff who listen to everything that comes in and weed out the good ones. We receive between 120 and 150 tapes a week and listening to them can be the most soul-destroying job in the world.
Every tape we get is listened to and logged in and out. We turn them round within three weeks so that we don't build up an enormous backlog. In fact, if I see that my A&R staff are building up a big pile of demos I send them home to listen to them and tell them not to come back until the backlog has been cleared.
I'd say that 99.9 per cent of the demos we get sent are poor. I have never signed a band on the strength of an unsolicited demo and I'd be surprised if anyone ever has. Most of the bands we sign come via managers or publishers or from the indie labels, because that way you have already built up a good vibe. I really don't think unsolicited demo tapes are the best way for a band to be discovered. You have to play live or even make your own indie record so that you can create your own market. It's the band that makes the band successful, not the record company. When record companies try to create a vibe for the band it just becomes soulless and corporate. It is much better for the band to do that for themselves.
CHRIS COOKE, A&R, ARISTA
It seems that the more successful a record label is, the more unsolicited tapes it gets sent — and right now, because Arista is doing so well, we are getting about 70 a week.
What people have to remember is that these tapes are unsolicited, and although we don't mind that, it can take us a while to respond to them. Unlike US record companies, where they won't even look at an unsolicited tape, we see it as a service we provide and we spend a fortune sending tapes back. The irony is that when the label is successful, we are also busier than usual dealing with the acts already on our roster, so we have less time to listen to unsolicited tapes.
When I'm listening to a demo, the most important thing is the quality of the songwriting and whether or not the voice is interesting. There are lots of people around who are technically great singers but some of the most successful singers can't even sing in tune. What is more important is the individuality of the voice and the strength of the material.
Mediocrity is what I hate most. That really turns me off. I listen to a lot of tapes that are just mediocre and to be honest I'd rather sit and listen to something dreadful than something that's just OK. The funniest ones are the romantic songs about honey bees on clover sent by the old codgers singing along to their Casio keyboards. I think they are great — I listen to them in the bath.
But seriously, only a small percentage of the tapes sent in are actually worth signing — certainly no more than five percent. I hardly ever sign an artist on the strength of the demo alone and where it's appropriate I want to see the band play live at least a couple of times.
A lot of the demos I hear are competent but they don't have that special quality that makes them stand out. The quality has improved because of the technology people can now use at home, but I don't think people should worry too much about the production, arrangement or quality of recording on a demo. We recently signed a band called The Holy Show on the strength of a demo which was so badly recorded we could hardly hear the material. But what we could hear was so interesting that the poor quality of the demo made no difference to our decision. Some demos are of a very high quality. It's not unknown for a track to be so good as a demo that it ends up getting released, even after the record label has spent a small fortune trying to make it sound better.
The ideal number of tracks on a demo is three, and the first track should be the strongest. Bands don't always know which track is their best and they tend to bury the really good stuff at the end of the tape. They also do odd things to attract attention to their demo — like sending it in with gifts or wrapped in a peculiar way. That's not necessary. It's nice to have a picture and a bit of biographical information to go with the tape, but there's no need to pay for expensive photo shoots or spend a lot on packaging, because it's the music we're interested in, not the box.
• Three tracks to a demo seems to be the ideal number. Some people go as far as to say that seeing many more than this on a demo just makes them annoyed — and if your tape has got as far as the car stereo or Walkman of an A&R exec, you don't want him or her in a bad mood while listening to your masterpiece, do you?
• Putting your best song first on your demo tape may seem obvious, but from what our interviewees say, some bands/artists don't. The best way to find out which track is really your best is to play your demo to as many people as possible and get their opinion; you might think a particular track is the best because you love that reverse reverb you used on it, or that luscious synth pad you programmed. Someone completely unbiased is much better placed to judge which song is the catchiest or most appealing.
• Almost all our interviewees emphasised that a good, distinctive singing voice is important to them. So if you're a solo artist and really can't call your own voice distinctive, think about finding a unique-sounding vocalist. This doesn't necessarily mean a trained singer, or even one who sings in tune all the time; many of the people we spoke to seem to consider a memorable voice with some character and individuality more important.
• Many of our interviewees insist that production and recording quality are low on their list of priorities. As producer Stephen Street says: "Roughly recorded demos can still have a good vibe." Most concur, however, that a demo should be clear — so watch out for clarity when having tapes duplicated.
• One option to help make your demo stand out is to keep it simple. In these days of cheaper synths and MIDI, a fully-arranged demo is the general rule — so if yours is sparser, it could come as a refreshing change to the listener. Some of our interviewees actually said they wished demos were simpler!
• Cassettes are the preferred medium for demos. Most of the people we spoke to regard CDs as unnecessary. Packaging should be simple — but ensure above all that everything, including the tape itself, is labelled with your name and phone number. Include an SAE with your tape.
• A surprising number of our interviewees said that it doesn't matter to them if photos are not included with a demo. But we still think you should try to get a good photo and send it with your tape. If nothing else, it can help to establish an extra rapport with the listener if he or she likes your tape. The same goes for letters — but don't be too witty or self-promotional; you might just end up irritating the reader.
• Remember: it's rare for an act to be signed on the basis of an unsolicited demo; however, it does happen — Chris Cooke of Arista relates how a band was recently signed in just such a way, even though their demo was badly recorded. A much more promising route, if you're serious, is to get some management, who will have a better chance of getting your tape heard where it counts. Making yourself part of a local 'scene' is also a good idea — if one of your mates makes it, they might recommend you to their label! Debbie Poyser