9 things NOT to do with your next song demo

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A song demo is trying to accomplish one thing: sell your song to the listener. While there’s no magic formula for rising to the top, these 9 tips will help you avoid sinking to the bottom of the pile.

9 song demo mistakes
Last year, I got a call to produce a record for an artist on a NY label. It was a rush project, they wanted it distributed in early December in time to ship for Christmas. The songs were already chosen, but at the last minute the label decided they wanted to add two more songs.

We put out the word to our community that we needed songs within a week. Usually our song request process begins with a pitch sheet (or tip sheet) that spells out the song and lyric styles required for a project. That usually includes details such as: “up-tempo party songs” or “mid-tempo island country grooves” or “ballads” or anything that can give writers criteria for their submissions. The tip sheet will also detail who the artist is, along with other dos and don’ts about song submissions for that particular artist, etc.

Within 48 hours, we received over 250 songs. After hearing the first two songs, I knew what my next blog post was going to be about: I wanted to share the experience we had going through all these songs to give you a perspective from the producer’s side as we try to do our job. The intent here is to reveal what goes through our “producer’s mind” as we cut the list from 250 songs to the 15 or so we’ll present to the artist who then chooses the final tracks to be cut on the record.

9 ways to screw up your song demo

1. Include a long intro. All we are concentrating on during the vetting process is the melody, lyric, and vibe of the song; and isn’t that what you are selling? For the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone would produce a song demo with a 45-second intro. It feels like a lifetime when you have 250 to listen to. If every song had 45-second intros, that would be 187 minutes spent waiting for the damn songs to start! Think about it! What’s the purpose of a long intro on a song demo? You are trying to sell the song, not blow people away with your producing skills. Why make us wait? This is such an annoyance. Every single one of these pissed us off immediately. To some extent, we rendered a poor judgment on the song before we even heard the first verse. Fair or not, this is what happens. Foretold is forewarned.

2. Submit a track with crappy, cheap production. We did come across a few songs with horrible production. We just laughed and ripped on them. They provided a welcome comic relief from the work load we had to complete. How does that make you feel? You have to compete intelligently in your marketplace. You don’t need to produce the greatest record in the world, but poor production certainly colors our opinion. Food for thought.

3. Don’t read the tip sheet or follow the parameters for what the project requires. If the producer asks for up-tempo party songs, don’t send ballads. If the tip sheet has an artist with a limited vocal range, don’t send huge songs requiring four octave ranges, no matter how good they are. Who’s gonna sing them? Also, don’t use an opportunity to pitch a particular type of song as an excuse to send every song you have. We don’t care – not right now, anyway. We are only looking for the songs we need for this project so we can get on with producing it.

4. Send emails with vague or missing subject lines. As I mentioned, in 48 hours, I added 250 emails to my regular daily allotment. As a sender, you want to put the name of the artist your pitching for in the subject line so your song doesn’t get lost in all the traffic. The subject line is how the receiver will find a song among so many emails. That’s called common sense.

5. Don’t research the artist before submitting a song. In the case of this particular artist, his songs all have a very positive message. We came across a couple songs about heavy drinking, sex, and adultery that just wouldn’t be right for his brand. Clearly the writers who sent those in had no clue about the artist, and simply wasted our time. This doesn’t make a good impression on us about your songwriting, no matter how good the song is. In fact, it makes a bad impression on us that you didn’t provide what we asked for.

6. Choose a terrible singer. Choose a pro singer for your demo. Unless you’re a real vocalist, don’t sing it yourself to save money. FYI, suitable vocal ranges to the intended pitch are very important. It is really hard to hear a big, high, soaring melody an octave lower. We try, but it really is difficult, especially in the face of a 250-song listening session. Those demos with poor singers or inappropriate singers (with respect to the artist) are ignored immediately. Sorry. I strongly suggest that if your song would work down in a low octave as well as a high soaring vocal performance, demo it twice, or at least cut a second vocal so you have something that clearly represents both vocal ranges.

7. Don’t work hard on your lyrics. We listened to some good songs with average lyrics through the first chorus. However, the great songs with killer lyrics kept our attention through the second chorus because we just couldn’t wait to hear what the writer was going to say next. Simple artistic curiosity kept us inside that song. Lyrics will make a big difference every time.

8. Over-produce your demo I know, this sounds like the opposite of #2. In that I meant the sonic quality of the production, how the song sounds. Here, while I understand the impulse for any writer or artist to do this, if you have limited studio experience, don’t try to produce an epic album track. Stick to the song demo side. Put background vocals only where they are obvious to lift the chorus. Do not include “oohs” and “ahhs” and fill in all the open space with background vocals and arrangement ideas. Your aesthetic may not be the same as the person we’re pitching to and it might lessen the appeal of the song. Don’t add too many guitar tracks or color instruments; keep it as clean as possible. You really want to leave room for the producer to do their job and take the song to another level. Remember, this should be a solid blueprint for a song, not a production template for a record. Another good reason not to overproduce is that tastes and trends change. We heard a few older demos with production that was in style 10 or 15 years ago, but not now. In those cases, the production choices took me out of the song. If the dated production values were not present, the demo would certainly be more durable.

9. Use lots of auto-tune. Holy cow, we had a demo where the vocal tuning was borderline Cher! It’s unbelievably distracting. Having a quality, clear vocal is the way to go if you are trying to compete with the big boys.

Good luck out there! And if you have any other insights, we’d love to hear them in the comment section.

Johnny Dwinell is a veteran Los Angeles artist/producer/businessman who created Daredevil Production in 2011 to provide innovative artist development in the new music business. In mid 2013 Daredevil Production started a weekly blog as a free resource for artists and songwriters to use for inspiration, advice, support, and knowledge. In late 2013 Johnny Dwinell wrote the bestselling Music Marketing On Twitter book. Thousands of artists and songwriters have improved their understanding and execution of social media with the help of this free book!

Image via ShutterStock.com.

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28 thoughts on “9 things NOT to do with your next song demo

  1. >What NOT to do if you’re trying to pitch generic product instead of being an artist.

    F these “I’m a big shot. Keep to the status quo.” lists.<

    Heartily agreed and seconded — in a different realm, I once read a list (allegedly) prepared by the late Elmore Leonard about pointers for great writing. His first one started with, "Don't include the time as an important element in your leadoff sentence or paragraph." To which an alert wiseguy responded: "But what about '1984,' and its reference to, 'the clocks struck thirteen?'"

    In Mr. Big Shot Producer's case, we could point to the obvious contradiction (which, to be fair, he does acknowledge, however fleetingly) between #2 ("don't submit a cheap, crappy production") and #8 ("Don't over-produce your demo"). Which is it, then? For those brave few out there who might actually want to join this guy on the Short Attention Span Assembly Line, it's a tad confusing, to put it mildly.

    That's the kind of disconnect that makes most — if not all — these "list" articles more or less disposable. Like this one.

  2. thanx for this useful article and for the recommendation of the book i will surely take the book as i am a singer but not songwriter yet . hope this book gives me inspiration.

  3. I think this is a clear article to know what to expect when sending your demos.
    Think of the producer’s daily routine, the job they have to finish at hand and just act accordingly.
    No compromise on your art at all,but you just need to switch perspectives sometimes to get it forward out there.

  4. “Holy Cow,” there may be good tips here, but the tone of this article is drama-king offensive. It comes across as an unprofessional rant from a whiney, egotistical person who hates having to put out a little work to accomplish his job. If it’s that bad, please retire or do something else for a living. Your belittling assertions of how “for the life of you” you can’t understand why we songwriters do or don’t do this or that only made me stop reading mid-way through in order to scroll down and comment. Lose the condescending attitude, and some of us might actually take your suggestions seriously…insofar as our wallets and dignity will allow us. Or, if you prefer, you can simply write the “d—” songs yourself. No, thank you, for this advice.

  5. I agree with 3,4 &5. Too bad someone has to point out those obvious “tips”.
    Otherwise I agree with the “just move the product” comments.
    What is the purpose of a producer if not to have intuition, vision and the ability to recognize a diamond in the rough and what it could polish up to be? The artist could probably save some money and use a secretary or call screener to do this work instead of an expensive “qualified’ producer.

  6. You left out “Don’t worry about striving to write anything great, just write what’s needed to move product”. And people wonder why most music sucks. Look no further than this article.

  7. what a cheeky fella this one who “wrote the best selling blah blah blah … this whole thing reeks of an ADVERT for a book rather than any real tips…i’ll tell you from REAL experience and this came form the guy who recently retired as Sr Vice president of UNIVERSAL INC. he produced MY first lp in 1980 he told me “kid…. it is the song… if it is any good a boom box recording with you and a guitar will show us that and every major exec ive had experience with since 1980 told me the same thing… if a song is good the bare bones of it will prove that… (and if it its shit well you can smell that even if it is packaged up in a neat ittle box…… the great producer and genus SandyPearlman had some good advice while w=i was in a studio in t san Francisco.. “man i wish these guys would respect their music enough to at least us a quality tape( this is when cassettes were used) crap tapes dirties up my deck so dont listen to em .. i hate tothink fo the great bands im overlooking but.. thats a good piece of advice for ya… if you send your tape out use a decent brand at least… if im going to go to the trouble of making the demo of a song i lie im going to put it on one of my records… plain and simple – if they are in a ‘rush” fuck em… if the song is good enough someone will want to record their version of it… a lot of my cds probably have “demo” quality recording but they do have great songs and the people who count buy every one of the 39 titles i have available… someday i may even release other people;s music… one bit of advice cd-r discs are not allowed to be sold in many countries( i am the fella who in 1998 had no budget for 1000 replicated cds and so i sent out 26 proposals to cd dupers with a cd-r short run program DiskFaktory took my idea and started it( i wasnt asking to be cut ion for an idea, i just wanted to be able to get in the game on my paycheck and after being signed to 6 labels i knew i could do it.. as far as demos… well a piano or guitar and a vocal will show the song if the producer doesnt have the inagination to flesh it out in his head HE ISNT A BLOODY PRODUCER THEN RIGHT?.. best of luck to ya all cdbaby has changed my life and made me very happy to DIY i thik it will make more music in the proper state of mind rather than customize your art to meet some one’s deadline or try to copy a band who is popular… blecch… if ya don;t try and make a living at music you will also make better music.. and more pure.. you either have it or ya dont or you have it and it aint quite time yet…

    1. So, your experience with CD Baby is good, too? Haven’t spoken with anyone who isn’t a fan.
      Matt, for a first-timer, how CD’s (without label backing) would you press to start? Don’t need 9,985 CD’s laying around the studio, nor can I bear the expense.
      Or would digital release only be the best option. I failed to mention I plan to do several EP’s a year rather than have to wait 9 months for an ‘album’. That theory seems kinda corporate anyway.
      ps Love them Wild Dogs.

  8. I think it’s stupid you would even expect people to spend money to produce a demo! Most writer’s / artist don’t have a lot of money, I write songs because I love doing it and I don’t know how to even use pro-tools or etc.. I’ve had some songs in front of some big names and all I used was my zoom N4, guitar and me singing the song I wrote! Lyrics speak for themselves, that’s why the are lyrics! The artist job is to bring those lyrics alive with a great producer who, adds music to the artist style and how he interprets the lyrics. Asking for a full produced demo from a writer, to me is showing how lazy and the lack of vision the producer working with the artist has, its basically, like cheating off a test when you already know about the subject! Let writers, write and do what they can do financially or of level in musical talent! You will get better songs in my opinion, many people just don’t have the means or ability to do what you are asking and then, by you bullying them by making fun of there work is pretty rude, also discouraging!

  9. Someone already made the comment before me, but could I respectfully ask how to connect with tip sheets or requests for songs? Is TAXI legitimate? Is there any other forum or site I could be connected to? I have had songs picked up by some national groups, just one or two, connected with an introduction from a band member, but beyond that most listing in Song Marketplace seem like I’d be just adding to a huge slush pile or they seem like tiny outfits publishing two songs a year. Thanks for any advice – I thought the essay on song submission sounded right on the money – and I’d love to send you a demo or two – you still want to hear holiday songs? I have some good ones, up beat, humorous and in tune with the season. And lots of other stuff that local performers (in NYC) sometimes take from me and add to their set, but my stuff could fit in a larger format than just that. Thanks – Kevin Kane Bronx, NY

    1. When I joined TAXI I thought I’ll find out what they are about within six months. It took me just three. They don’t tell you who you are pitching to so you’ll never get it right. They operate the “triangle ” system to confuse you more. I have friends and producers in Nashville and L.A. who say they don’t know ANYONE who ever got a deal through TAXI. I have asked around in Europe as well with TAXI members not one of them ever got a deal.
      You don’t know who they employ as screeners—maybe school kids on holiday–some are just there to get fresh ideas from YOUR songs. Don’t waste your money on TAXI.

    1. I agree with guatam. The advice is sound. Perhaps not accepting advice is why some are reading blogs and others writing them?

  10. The Industry is so wishy washy, mind you some of these demos are done by real artist with real ideas,
    but I digress.

  11. Seems like pretty good advice. However, the turn-off for me is how they present this article.

    I agree with Duder’s last line of his comment – “F these “I’m a big shot. Keep to the status quo.” lists.”

  12. What NOT to do if you’re trying to pitch generic product instead of being an artist.

    F these “I’m a big shot. Keep to the status quo.” lists.

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