Don't Let the Quest For a Polished Demo Distract You

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle

Singer-songwriter with guitarThese 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.

From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro

Posted in Songwriting Business and tagged , , , , , , .


  1. Pingback: Interesting Links For Musicians and Songwritiers – August 3, 2015 | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

  2. Surely there is a strong case for Artistes and Publishers to also ask for two
    demos one ofthe bare bones versions with a decent vocalist and one with
    a fuller backing

    Trouble is Publishers are doing less and less in trying to find talent , and
    most would not want to employ anyone to listen to any kind of Demo,

    They take the easy route using established writers

  3. Great article Gary and true in many ways. I hope I can add a few bits and pieces to make it complete. A demo in today’s music industry is not a demo anymore. It’s a full blown production and in many cases, the “demo” (hate calling it that, as it really isn’t one) sounds even better than the final version of the song hitting the airwaves and download stores. A&Rs, supervisors, etc. they want to hear the full potential of the song and a simple guitar/vocal demo will not show the full potential. Professional productions are affordable these days, so when pitching for a placement, you know you’ll compete with 100s or even 1000s of fully produced songs – why would the person on the other end listen to someone’s rough demo? I like your advice on cutting a rough recording first to see for yourself (but, really keep it for yourself and family and friends – don’t pitch it as this might shut the door with that A&R forever) if the song on its own is “ready” for production.
    One thing I would like to correct in your post is the sentence “They need to be 4-minute journeys that allow musical energy to grow…”. I’d say it should read 4 minutes if you’re going for commerical placements. As a rule of thumb for an upcoming songwriter is:
    Intro: if you put an intro, keep it under 10 seconds – the shorter the better
    Chorus: Hit the chorus for the first time in less than a minute, again, the sooner the better
    Total length: Keep it under 3.30, the closer to 3 min the better. There are few exceptions where it might work for a song of 3.40 or even 3.50, but that’s very rare.

  4. This post is so true to life , I know people who judge their Demos on
    the amount they have spent on them, But the truth is that many
    end up with a great recording of a bad unfinished song

    Learning Country writers are the worse , I was involved as one of a team
    of judges for one particular well known Song Writing Competition

    The songs were pretty bad so I suggested they have a category where they
    use either just a guitar or a piano with a vocalist, they did it for one season
    then scrapped it , because of lack of entries in to double figures

    Its not that steel guitar or those fiddle licks that sell a song it’s the melody
    and the underlying chords that make a great song , get that and then
    you can make a Great Recording with instruments that can embellish into a
    Top Class Song

    Truth is that many of these competition judges dont know a great song from
    a bad one , and consequently the winning songs never see the light of day
    for the simple reason they are not good enough for the commercial market

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.