by Marty Dodson
Jul 12, 2015
So, you’ve written a great song and you want to record an amazing demo to present it to the world. Here are 6 demo mistakes I have learned in a 20 year career and more than 6,000 demos:
1) Telling the band what to play.
Let the band and the engineer be creative. A HUGE mistake I see people making in the studio is coming in and telling each player what to play. They tell the drummer how and when to play. They sing the lick they want the guitar player to play, and so it goes. My thought is this. If you know what everyone should play, just make the demo yourself. You don’t need a band. I can’t count the number of times that I have had amazing things happen in the studio because I let the band experiment and have fun. The more fun they are having, the better my demo will be in most cases. Creative people like to get the chance to be creative. Let them do their job. They may come up with something much better than what you had in your head.
2) Over-Telling the singer what to sing.
Let the singer try different things. Countless times, I have seen writers forcing the singer to sing their melody note for note. That wears a singer out. It takes away any creativity they might bring to your song. And, ultimately, it will cause them to just give you a so-so performance. If there is a melody spot that makes a HUGE difference to you, then fight for it. Otherwise, acknowledge that this person is singing your demo because they are a better singer than you are and they might be on to something when they try different things. They might make your melody even better and more attractive to other singers – like the artists you will be pitching them to.
3) Playing producer when you’re not one is a big demo mistake.
Don’t play producer if you are not one. The fact is that most writers that don’t have a cut don’t need to be producing their own demos. I know I didn’t early in my career. When I asked my publisher how to go about producing my first demo session, he said “Tell the band leader you don’t know what you are doing and then shut up”. Studio bands have played on tens of thousands of demos. They know more about how a song should sound than you or I do in most instances. So, don’t feel the need to “direct the show” any more than you have to.
4) Failing to learn the language.
Learn to communicate your vision for your songs. When I start each demo, I say something like “I want this to have a similar vibe to Kenny Chesney’s “Anything But Mine”‘ The band instantly knows what I’m talking about and they start off very much in the ballpark where I want to be. The better you can communicate what you want, the better and cheaper your demos will be.
5) Coming in unprepared.
Know what you want when you go into the studio. The studio is not the place to re-write, figure out production, change things around, etc. You are paying a lot of money to have people sit around and watch you do your job if you do those things in the studio. Go in knowing the key, the arrangement, the tempo, etc. That helps things go smoothly and saves you money. Plus, it makes the band and the engineer like you WAY more.
6) Asking for too many changes to a demo.
A demo doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it won’t be perfect. There’s just not time to get everything perfect in the demo studio. The cost of perfection is high. And, at the end of the day, the demo is just to give people an IDEA of what your song could become if produced professionally. In the pro world, our rule is this – If you don’t show up for the demo, you are giving your co-writer who is there your blessing to produce the demo. You give up the right to complain or ask for it to be different (with the exception of a FEW small changes in the mix). We operate on a show-up or shut up basis. If you are just DYING to hear the demo go down and you can’t be there, you may ask to be skyped in, but tread lightly here. Pros don’t do that – so it’s best to just watch and not interject if you are allowed that courtesy.
Avoiding these demo mistakes and learning to behave as pro songwriters behave in the studio will save you lots of money, produce better demos AND it will make you a customer that people LIKE to work with.
Marty Dodson is a multi-#1 hit songwriter, co-founder of SongTown, and co-author of The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Cowriting.
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