These days, so-called “demos” tend to sound almost like finished products. You only have to go back one generation to find that demos used to be pretty rough around the edges, meant to give a general sense of the possibilities. The performers, along with a smart producer, could turn that mess into gold.
I try to remind singer-songwriters that in today’s musical world, demos need to be clean and relatively polished renditions. That’s because most people actually have the technology to do that, and it’s sitting in their den or bedroom right now.
High-quality, polished demos have a downside, you need to know, and it’s this: when something sounds excellent and finished, it’s harder to consider that there might be a different (i.e., better) way to present that song.
A demo that’s ready to work with, but not ready for prime time, like Elton John’s “Levon” (1970), has advantages over demos that sound perfect. Mainly, the stripped-down instrumentation allows you to focus on melody, chords, lyrics, tempo, even meter (i.e., song structure) without being distracted by a polished production that makes you think the song is finished.
So it sounds like I’m making a brilliant case for not spending a lot of time making a high-quality demo of your music. I’m not. I’m just pointing out something that you need to remember in the music business: it’s always about the song.
These days, you can get something that sounds crisp, clean, balanced, well-performed and mixed, and you can do it “easily”, and you can do it quickly. But the ease and speed that that can all come together has a tendency to mask an important principle, which is that it’s always about the song.
Song’s need to connect on an emotional level with listeners. They need to be 4-minute journeys that allow musical energy to grow, stories to develop, musical ideas to evolve, and then leave the listener feeling something that entices them back for another listen.
A bad song that’s been expertly produced can actually come close to doing those things. But there is nothing like having a well-written, passionate song as a starting point. Jumping from a few fledgling musical ideas into a polished, finished-sounding demo can make you feel that you’ve got something fantastic, but you may have missed your target entirely.
So how do you make sure that the song you’ve written really works? The best first step that I know of is to record yourself singing it with a minimal instrumental backing track. Just pick up a guitar, or sit at a piano, and sing.
Then sit back and listen to the song, and try to ignore issues relating to instruments, levels, or production. Just focus on melody, chords, lyrics and basic song energy. Just listen to the song. Do you like what you hear? Is this unplugged version enjoyable? Does it work?
Most songs need more than that, but that’s where the producer’s imagination kicks in. But the bare-bones version of your song is arguably the most important step to getting a finished product that really connects — that really works.
If your song can captivate at that point, now you’ve got something you can turn into a creative musical journey.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.