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Putting the Record Straight

Article from Home & Studio Recording, June 1986

Chris Denning, former Radio 1 DJ, tells you how to go about presenting a demo to record companies and what pitfalls to avoid.

You want to be a rock star? Where do you start? Chris Denning tells the story from an A&R man's viewpoint.

Not another blinking pile of records?' I muttered as I walked in the door of my Surrey house, stumbling over the pile of packages on the doormat as I went. A friend with me observed my behaviour with an incredulous look on his face. I appeared to be bemoaning the fact that the postman had just delivered to me some thirty or forty newly released singles and at least a dozen albums. What's more, they had arrived totally free of charge! So why was I complaining?

The year was 1969, and I was enjoying the fruits of being one of the very small band of people who comprised the first Radio One disc jockey team. I had, in fact, been there from that very first Saturday when Tony Blackburn had launched the service with those immortal words 'Welcome to Radio One everyone'. Prior to this, Simon Dee and I had been doing our best to liven up the old Light Programme. Before that, I had endured six enjoyable (but turbulent) months on the waves (both air and sea) of the pirate Radio London. I had also, for two years, been a resident DJ on Radio Luxembourg and spent yet another six months as the very first announcer on the then new TV channel, BBC2. And the records I had just received weren't one-offs. A similar quantity arrived virtually every day! The more they poured in, the more depressed it all made me!

True, when I first joined these hallowed ranks, it was a tremendous thrill, providing confirmation (as if my swollen ego should need such a boost) that I had at last 'arrived'. I poured over every last single as if I'd had to save up my pocket money for weeks in order to buy it. I lovingly listened to every one several times over, partly to make sure that my 'Where It's At' programme didn't miss any hits or new trends, and partly because of the feeling that I and a handful of others had tremendous power and, because of that, we owed it to the industry to give every contender a fair chance.

But, unfortunately, this new found enthusiasm quickly began to wane, probably in indirect proportion to the number of records that arrived. At first, it was just a handful now and then but, as the industry began to be aware of my existence and my address, the number rapidly swelled to well over 100 per week. The trouble was, as most people know, the hit potential of a record often does not emerge until the listener (even assuming he's a good judge) has heard it maybe five or six times. Multiply the average length of a single (say three minutes) by 100 and you get 300 minutes, or five hours. And that's how long it takes to listen to them just once. To give them all a fair hearing would involve thirty hours per week!

In practice, I and the other DJs fell well short of this. We would reduce the pile by about twenty per cent, using the simple expedient of removing all the records by well known names. We'd probably have to play those anyway. Then we'd select a short list of records on favoured labels. Tamla Motown, Stax, Atlantic and London were always good bets. This left a huge pile, representing more than half of the total. We always intended to go through these carefully, but rarely did. For before we had a chance to do so, another huge pile arrived!

There was also the problem of what to do with the rejects. At first friends benefited tremendously and, before long, everyone I knew had an enormous record collection. But, even the less musical amongst them began to baulk as it dawned on them that their ever-expanding libraries consisted of nothing but unknown junk. Soon my largesse was greeted with firm refusals, occasionally bordering on mild panic! By the time I gave up full time disc jockey work, I had thirty thousand singles and countless albums, the majority of which no one in his right mind would ever want to play. What's more, they had taken over an entire room! Fifteen years later, after countless car boot sales, gifts to charity and the ruination of several friendships, I am down to a core of around three thousand, some of which are actually quite good.

"Whilst tenacity without talent is a bore, talent without tenacity is a tragedy."

With so many records arriving all the time, I and the other DJs carried a constant burden of guilt. There was always the thought of whose career might be going down the drain, just because we never actually got round to listening to their records. This was brought home to me dramatically on one occasion when I decided to really have a serious go at clearing my backlog, consisting of about five hundred records that had arrived over the previous couple of months. Suddenly, whilst listening to one dud after another, a smile began to creep across my face. There was something very catchy indeed about the single on the turntable. Although no one had played it on any programme, there was most definitely a hit 'in the grooves'. What was rather disturbing though was my discovery that it was in my pile marked 'singles heard three times and rejected' and the fact that it had been released over six weeks previously.

If ever I needed proof that records need many hearings to establish themselves in the listener's subconscious, this was it. Anyway, I immediately scheduled the single in all my forthcoming programmes and it instantly began to sell. What's more, other DJs and producers heard it on the air and started to play it themselves. Eventually 'Baby, Now that I've Found You' by the Foundations reached number one and launched not only the group themselves, but also the long successful writing and producing career of the very talented Tony Macaulay. Tony was kind enough to mark the incident by asking me to write the sleeve notes on the group's first album. I just wish he'd given me a share of the royalties!

The Best Approach

I've taken all this space with my anecdotes to illustrate a point that is very important for anyone who has any wish to make it in the world of pop music. The vital fact that, to professionals to whom records are ten-a-penny, new releases by unknown artists are viewed, not with thrilling excitement and anticipation, but by boredom verging on contempt. If this is what they think of finished records that have actually been released by professional record companies, consider for a moment what their opinions must be of the average unsolicited demo cassette from non-professional sources, arriving (as many do) badly recorded, badly packaged and containing no discernible trace of talent in a pile of twenty or thirty similarly depressing contenders.

Not wishing to offend the sensibilities of the gentler reader, I shall confine myself to saying that, as far as unknown amateur sources are concerned, A&R (Artist and Repertoire) Managers in general do not enjoy receiving demo cassettes very much! So how can you, as a budding songwriter, singer, musician or producer ensure that your demo (which obviously is in a different class from those I have described) gets past that 'reject' pile.

"...somewhere, in the vast pile of as yet unopened tatty envelopes lying around in my office, is a demo from a potential world class star..."

It has been calculated that less than one in ten of all records released ever break even; that less than one in ten of professionally recorded songs are ever released; and that less than one in a hundred unsolicited demo's eventually lead to a professional recording. Simple mathematics tells us then that your demo has a chance of succeeding of less than one in ten thousand!

It also should be understood that the vast majority of artists signed up by record companies are introduced to them by other professional people: managers, music publishers, studios, agents and so on. This means that individuals wishing to break through the A&R barrier today have to have an incredibly high standard or a great deal of luck. The days of a third rate demo leading to a successful career are long since gone (if indeed they ever existed at all). Whether your demo is intended to introduce your talent as a song writer, a performing artist or whatever (and assuming that I haven't put you off for ever), the 'five T's rule' is essential.

The five T's are: talent, tune, toe-tapping, taste and tenacity. Talent – be honest with yourself. If you have none, don't waste your time or anyone else's. Tune – unless you happen to believe punk rock is coming back, make sure your song really does have a memorable melody. People won't buy it if they can't remember and sing it. Toe-tapping – unless your composition is a moody ballad (very difficult to launch a new artist on), make sure it's danceable. Taste – present your package in a professional way. You are competing with professionals. A re-used jiffy bag and a grubby hand-written letter won't do. I would always recommend that the demo tape is accompanied by a nicely printed brochure giving brief details of line up, potential and bookings (if any), a photograph and a neatly typed letter. I would suggest trying to make the envelope or package look interesting. Anything to get it opened! In this connection, a clever photograph, sticker or slogan might be appropriate.

Tenacity – staying power is probably the most important quality of all for anyone trying to make it in the pop world, or any branch of showbusiness. I myself received more than a dozen rejections from Radio Luxembourg before they eventually took me on their staff! Whilst tenacity without talent is a bore, talent without tenacity is a tragedy. Don't be put off by refusals. Virtually everyone who has made it will tell you that they have been turned down far more times than they have ever been accepted.

Whilst, no doubt, somewhere there is someone who did send off a grubby letter with a badly recorded, distorted cassette in a torn envelope and who today is a world class star earning millions, I've never met one. What worries me most is that, somewhere, in the vast pile of as yet unopened tatty envelopes lying around in my office, is a demo from a potential world class star, who will spend his life in obscurity and never realise just how close he got.

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Publisher: Home & Studio Recording - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Home & Studio Recording - Jun 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Chris Denning

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