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.