Demo, demo tape, prototype, rough cut...they have many names, but what exactly are they? Do you need one? Can it help your music career?
In this article, we'll look at the historical relevance of demos as well as how their role has changed over time.
What is a demo tape?
The traditional definition of a demo tape is exactly what it sounds like—a cassette tape with a demo recording on it. If you're too young to know what a cassette tape is, well, you may need to Google that one.
A demo recording is a rough recording of a song to showcase how a song could sound when performed by a particular artist or band. Historically, most demos were recorded on crude equipment, a small portable tape recorder with a built-in microphone. Nothing fancy. After all, quality wasn't what you were going for. The demo was merely supposed to represent the overall vibe of the song to see if it worked.
Who used to record demos?
Demos served two groups of musicians: songwriters and artists.
Songwriters and publishers recorded and continue to record demos to help them hear how a song sounds in its complete form. Most of these demos are usually pretty simple with minimal instrumentation, like acoustic guitar and/or piano. They are often recorded in one take as a straight one-time-through performance. If the songwriters/publishers are happy with the demo, the recording is then used to help them pitch it to be performed by other artists.
The second group that always benefited from recording demos of songs were artists themselves. If they found a song that they wanted to put on their next album, recording a rough demo of it would allow the music producer and record label to hear how the artist sounded on that particular song to see if it worked. Since every song can be performed in different styles, a demo would be a great way to try how a certain style of arrangement/performance worked for that artist.
Another great use for demo tapes was for new upcoming artists. Many unsigned bands and artists would record demos in order to obtain a recording contract. These demos would usually be sent to record labels in hopes that the artist/band would get signed onto the label's roster and get a full-length album produced in a professional recording studio.
As you can imagine, nowadays large record labels ignore unsolicited demos. This means that young artists must be more creative to find ways of getting demos heard by influential people.
How many songs?
A demo tape would usually include at least two songs and could go up to an entire album's worth of material. The longer ones also provided a great way to hear how the different songs worked in connection with all the other songs that were being planned for the album. It was a helpful method for music producers and the record label to hear a "sketch" of what the album may sound like. It would allow them to instantly hear if the album was, for example, too ballad-heavy. Which would definitely be a useful thing to know before spending a lot of money on recording sessions only to find out that some songs need to be replaced with up-tempo tunes.
Getting more detailed
Historically, most demos would be created in a bare-minimum way. Vocals and a piano/guitar. This would often be enough to get the basic idea across. But in certain cases that just wasn't enough, some artists and songwriters would make their demos more elaborate and detailed, by adding bass, drums, and even background vocalists. More detailed demos usually cost more money (particularly if you were a songwriter and had to hire a few musicians to record your song), but they also produced higher-quality results. And since presentation plays a big part in how we experience things, a higher quality demo of a song gives a songwriter a higher chance of another artist wanting to record it.
Consider this—music producers listen to piano/vocal demos every day. Their creativity allows them to instantly hear the potential in a song and imagine how the basic piano/vocal track could be turned into a fully produced song. Artists, on the other hand, may not be as skilled in hearing the full version in their head. This is why creating a high-quality demo that's as complete as possible makes sense as this will give the artists the ability to hear how that song would sound in their style when fully arranged.
A great example of that is "I Will Not Say Goodbye." The song was written by Chuck Cannon, Lari White, and Vicky Lynn Mcgehee. Although all three are skilled musicians, they knew that to really pitch the song to the artists they wanted to reach, they had to create a professional demo. The three of them rented a studio and got a great demo of the song produced with a full band. The finished track sounded great. Was it radio-ready? No. But it had a full band playing the song. Definitely better than just one guitar and a vocal. Eventually, they got the opportunity to play the demo of the song to Danny Gokey (American Idol finalist). Danny fell in love with the tune, decided to record it, and released it as a single on his next album. The song became a huge hit for him. Needless to say, having a professional sounding demo helps a lot.
Not every songwriter in the world is a phenomenal performer. And you don't have to be. In those cases, you could ask some friends or hire a professional singer to sing the demo. Elton John and Garth Brooks are among many artists whose early careers in music involved singing on demos for other songwriters to help them pitch their songs to other artists.
Are demos ever released?
It's rare for demo versions of songs to be released to the general public. But it does happen. Sometimes on purpose, other times unintentionally. Either way, these demos do provide an unusual peek into the creative process of some of your favorite songs.
Occasionally artists release their demo recordings as part of special collector's items. You can sometimes find them on deluxe editions of albums or as part of special box sets. Florence and the Machine, Taylor Swift, and Rascal Flatts are among various artists who have released the original demo recordings of their songs. If you want a trip down memory lane back to your childhood, get your hands on the limited edition The Music Behind the Magic box set. This four-disc collection features back to back versions of all the songs from Disney's The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. What's amazing about this collection, is that for each song you'll hear a work tape recording, a demo, and the final fully-produced recording which made it into the movies and the soundtrack albums. It's fascinating to listen to the progression that each song underwent from a rough idea to the final version.
Other times demo recordings have been leaked online or released on bootleg copies. Needless to say, this isn't always the most comfortable situation for the artist, but it does happen. Some of the more famous unofficial bootleg releases to include demos were The Beatles' The Beatles Bootleg Demos and the Beach Boys' Sea of Tunes series.
Final demo releases
In rare instances, a demo may end up being released as the final produced recording of a song. This was the case with Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks." The version of the song that was released as a single and subsequently became a hit was a demo recorded by frontman Mark Foster. Another great story like this belongs to Bruce Springsteen. In 1982 he recorded ten demos of songs in his New Jersey bedroom that he planned to one day record with his E Street Band. Having completed the acoustic recordings, he realized that he really liked how they sounded and in the end decided to release them as the 1982 album Nebraska.
Where are we now?
Tapes as a medium are obsolete, but you'd be mistaken to think for a second that demos are no longer recorded. Demos are being created more than ever.
Just as before, demos still serve a great purpose in visualizing sonically what a song will sound like in its full form. Songwriters, artists, and music producers alike use them all the time.
As time passed, new mediums became popular. With the advent of recordable CDs, people started making their own demo CDs at home. Things are changing so quickly that even those have practically disappeared. Since everything is digital nowadays, demos have moved into the digital world as well. Oftentimes, demo recordings are sent over email or, in the instance of multiple songs, shared via Dropbox. Other times artists will use SoundCloud to create specific private playlists which are shared with the appropriate people. This is particularly convenient as it means that the person you're sending your music to doesn't have to download any files or open them. They are instantly streamed and played.
How about releasing demo recordings nowadays? Is it done? Yes. Various musicians decide to release demos of new songs on their own websites, SoundCloud or Bandcamp. It's a great way to get your fans engaged, get feedback on what works and what doesn't, and provide your fans with some great behind the scenes access.
The modern demo pitch
As new styles and sounds started to infiltrate popular music, demos had to evolve as well. Can you imagine a hip-hop, EDM, or trap song as a piano/vocal demo? These styles (and many others) were almost impossible to effectively portray with the use of just a piano or guitar. So songwriters started to collaborate directly with producers to create exceptional sounding demos that would include complete music production. “The Middle” by Zedd, Grey, and Maren Morris is a phenomenal example of a song that started as a small piano/vocal demo, got produced into a full track with a demo vocal, and then went through a long process of trying to find the right artist to sing it, to eventually land #1 on various charts all around the world. If you watch one thing today, I highly recommend you watch the journey that was the creation of this song.
Today it's very frequent for demos to be completely produced with professional mixes, all the vocal effects, processing, and production to make them totally radio-ready. These "demos" are then pitched to different artists. If an artist is interested, rather than create their own track, all they have to do is re-record the vocal with their own performance and the song is effectively ready to be released! This is a particularly popular process of working in all of K-pop and J-pop (Korean Pop and Japanese Pop) music. Oftentimes, songs are written and produced in English. If an artist becomes interested in recording the song, Korean and/or Japanese lyrics are then written for the song.
A great example of this is in a fully produced demo that Finish songwriter SAARA did of her song "You Think." The production quality rivals that of some of the best radio hits of our time. Although SAARA is an accomplished artist herself, she knew that this song would work great if it were to be sung by another artist. The song was picked up by the smash hit K-pop group Girl's Generation. The entire original music production from the demo track was kept, SAARA's vocal was replaced with the performance of the actual eight members, the song was mixed and released. Compare the demo with the final version.
Another song that took a similar path is "Run Devil Run," written by Alex James, busbee, and Kalle Engström. In 2008, Kesha sang on the demo of the song. Thankfully for us, this demo leaked so you can give it a listen here. What's fascinating is that the song was also pitched to Girls' Generation. And just like in the previous case, the group recorded a Japanese version of "Run Devil Run," replacing nothing from the original demo production but the vocals. Give it a listen.
As you can hear, it's helpful if your demo sounds exceptional, as you instantly stand a higher chance of actually getting your song cut by a pro level artist. The original demo vocal performance frequently also inspires the artist when they record their vocal. Often times, they will mimic everything, down to the smallest vocal inflections. Sia who wrote "Diamonds," which was later recorded by Rihanna, recorded a demo track. It was a simple demo. But if you compare Rihanna's final vocal performance, you can hear a lot of Sia's vocal mannerisms in it.
What should you do?
If you're an amazing songwriter and music producer, you're in luck, as you'll be able to do it all yourself. Otherwise, I recommend you check out these two tips to help you record incredible demos.
For starters, whether you're a songwriter or an artist/band, partner up with a music producer. You bring the songwriting/performance chops and they can bring their music production skills to the table. Collaborating is a sure way of getting incredible results. If you both manage to get the song recorded by a pro artist you can both partake in the success.
If you're a songwriter and you don't trust your own vocal or performance skills, ask some friends to play/sing on the demo for you. If you don't have money to pay them for the work, you can offer them deferred payment (paying them once the song is cut by an artist) or offer them a share in the success of the song.
The second method of getting exceptional sounding recordings is using Spire Studio. Whether you're recording a simple piano/vocal/guitar demo or an awesome performance of your entire band, Spire Studio can help you record everything at studio-grade quality. With a built-in microphone, two instrument and microphone inputs, a metronome, and pro-level recording effects, you'll get excellent results in no time.
Film and TV
Pop music isn't the only place where demos are produced. Look no further than the world of film and TV. Particularly commercials are known to use a lot of demos. Often times a production company will hire multiple songwriters/composers to write music demos for a commercial. It's like a competition, where the production company gets to hear multiple versions and decides which one they like the most and want to move forward with (often times providing feedback and requesting additional revisions). If you're lucky you're competing only against 3–4 other writers to get the gig. But usually, in the commercial world, things get more hectic than that. I've been in situations where over 100 writers had written demos for the same commercial. Only one won the final project (thankfully, I've been lucky enough to win multiple times).
Commercials can pay really well, so if you win the final contract you will get paid a significant amount of money. Which is why often times composers/songwriters will create a demo for free in hopes of winning the final deal. The more established you become the more you'll be able to negotiate the terms of the work you do, particularly getting paid an additional fee for creating the demo, regardless if you win the final contract or not.
As you can see, although a lot has changed, demos are still a very useful tool. They help you get your song presented to the world. Think of it like this: what good does a song do you if you never share it with anyone? Music is meant to be shared. So use all the tools you've got at your disposal to get your demos out there. The more professional your demo, the higher your chances of gaining interest from the people that matter. There have been plenty of artists in recent years, who got signed major recording and publishing deals just based on the demo recordings that they released online. You could be next. So get your friends together and start recording your demos.