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Semi OT: Song demos--fully produced or bare bones?


ksoper

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I started writing with a real songwriter (someone who actually got national cuts with signed artists) and we got into the discussion of how to present the songs for pitching. When I first moved to Nashville I was told that a song demo should be just guitar/vocal, or piano/vocal. My writing partner, who hasn't written formally in quite a number of years agrees with the bare bones approach. Lately, though, all my song demo work has been fully produced. I'm aware of more than one Nashville "producer" who cues up the demo and tells the A-Team to copy the demo.

 

So, what approach do you think best presents a song? Fully produced so the listener doesn't have to think about it, or bare bones, so the listener can use their imagination?

 

K.

 

 

 

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I'm aware of more than one Nashville "producer" who cues up the demo and tells the A-Team to copy the demo.

 

Ken - are you saying that this Nashville "producer" copies your demo then somehow rips you off by later using your ideas as his own?

 

If so, can't you copyright your demo before presenting it to these buyers?

 

I would guess that presenting a fully-produced demo vs. bare-bones comes down to a matter of the buyer's preference.

 

Can you have both at the ready and test the market to see who prefers one vs. the other before choosing to stick with one format?

 

I am not in the industry, but I find this a very interesting topic.

 

Good luck!

 

Tom

 

"Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent." - Victor Hugo
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This is an excerpt from an interview with Jon Brion done by The A.V. Club:

 

AVC: You've said demos for songs should not exist. Why?

 

JB: I think they're the worst things in the world. They set people up: Usually every artist at some point makes a bunch of demos at the moment they write the song, which absolutely contains the feel. Then they re-record them for the sake of higher fidelity, or reaching more people, or whatever the fuck they're doing, and they chase the demo. Because of it, they're blinded and they can't see the value of what they're currently doing. I think everyone should record at the moment they write the song, whenever possible. It's almost inevitably the best version. Not always, but 95 percent of the time. I always tell people I'm working with, "Don't make demos, but always be recording." If you're recording the song on your four-track in your kitchen, when you finished writing the song, you're recording, and it's cool, and honor that. And maybe that's the version that should be released. And if you're recording the song again, it shouldn't be because there's a version you love that you're chasing. It should be because "You know what? I made a recording, but I don't love it emotionally." So, okay, then record again. And be in it and take advantage of the buzz and energy of "I'm getting to record right now!" It's such a beautiful and cool privilege. At any time you're in front of a mic, think, "Hey, this could be it!" I mean, why not? I don't mean to go into some crazy showboat mode, but part of the reason demos are often so good is because people don't think they're "recording." If that's what it takes for someone psychologically to get the good thing, fine, but then don't re-record for the sake of fidelity.

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Dana - that makes sense.

 

One thing - it's cheap to record everything these days.

 

I often recorded every gig I played to learn the parts that I was unsure about or wanted to improve. Most of those recordings were never heard by anyone but me. However, it was a HUGE help in quickly getting better and learning new tunes.

 

The second thing is that often, the first take is the best - even if it's got some clams. The energy and excitement that is recorded in the first take can often be lost in the second, third, etc.

 

So it makes sense that if you've got a song idea that you're excited about - capture that moment right then.

 

And it also makes sense to leave something to the imagination of the listener.

 

Recording music is often like writing software - it's never finished. However, there comes a deadline and you have to stop and live with what you've got. Sometimes this makes it very hard to go back and listen to recordings you made in the past. Nevertheless, that's the way it works.

 

Tom

 

"Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent." - Victor Hugo
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ksoper & D-Bon's posts are two completely different examples. The first is songwriters pitching songs to singers, the second is singer/sonwriters recording their own songs 'in the now', and keeping the inspiration behind the idea alive in the recording.

 

In the first example you have to have a demo, unless they want you to demo the idea on an acoustic guitar in some dudes office.

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"I think everyone should record at the moment they write the song, whenever possible."

 

In ksoper's case, it ain't possible. Someone else is going to cover the tune. The best case here is that the performer won't hear it as often as the writer & initial recording team.

What we record in life, echoes in eternity.

 

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Neil Young writes daily and captures the ideas on media to capture the inspiration.

 

Audience was the best word used above.

 

I understand the producers: They all want to find the next 'Two Out of Three Ain't Bad' or 'I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That' and they'd tell you all it would take is a minimal accompaniment with a few piano plunks and rolling chords and a great vocal and they would know they had a winner in 90 seconds. Putting money into a vocalist to sell the song and simple understated (under)arrangement will do. If the song doesn't work in that context then it doesn't work anyway.

 

That's one approach. Depends on the audience's expectations for the demo.

 

I don't work in the business either but cutting from fully produced demos or covers or regional acts is as old as the hills. A great song demo can be sold and a bidding war erupt among A&R guys trying to secure a song for an act.

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Ken - are you saying that this Nashville "producer" copies your demo then somehow rips you off by later using your ideas as his own?

 

Tom

 

Rip off is a little harsh. When you record demo sessions you have to expect that what you played will influence anyone listening. In a few cases I heard my licks copped on the master session. You can let it eat at you or take it as a compliment that you are doing A-Team-level work.

 

K.

 

 

 

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And you can smile when you deposit the checks! It's definitely not ripping off. If you sell the demo, you sell the demo. They should be able to use as much or little of the arrangement as they want.

 

It's a good question. I think the answer depends on what you're selling and to whom. But if you think your work shows better dressed up, then go ahead and dress it up!

 

Another option: produce some and not others and see which do better. If there's no difference in results, and if you don't enjoy your produced versions for themselves, then you're wasting your time. Or you may even find that the unadorned demos do better.

 

This question would be better to ask on a producer's forum -- if there is one!

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Good question. . .

 

First, as many of us know, you can't copyright an arrangement.

 

Second, the answer varies. . .for dance tunes, you need a pumping rhythm track. For a country or straight pop song, an excellent singer is the best thing you can add. Whatever you add to bare bones should reinforce the impact of the tune, which is primarily emotional, so think dynamics and reinforcing transitions from section to section, like into the chorus and if applicable, the bridge.

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You can let it eat at you or take it as a compliment that you are doing A-Team-level work.

K.

 

You can let it eat you all the way to the bank. ;)

At the same time, the guy who played your ideas is going to be collecting checks for years to come that could easily have been yours too since they're just copping your sh*t. It's a fine balance....
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I had a membership to TAXI for a year, so I could pitch some songs. They would say that a bare bones demo would be fine. However, I noticed that everything I submitted that was fully produced was forwarded, and nothing I submitted that was a rough / simple demo got forwarded. The more raw demos earned comments like " "too dated" or "needs a fresher beat"...

 

So, in theory, I believe a good song can come across with no more than a gtr or piano accompaniment. But think about the idiot you're submitting to- they may or may not be able to imagine color on a sparse canvas.

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First, as many of us know, you can't copyright an arrangement.

 

 

I don't know why people think this because it's not true. You absolutely can copyright an arrangement, I've played literally thousands. You can copyright the charts, I can show you. Those Nelson Riddle arrangements are mainly rental, you can't even buy them. They are also very expensive to rent.

 

Think of Christmas Albums by people like Steamroller and Trans-SIberian: most of the songs are public domain, and I assure you they are copyrighted. My show tomorrow has many arrangements, and at the bottom of the notes are a big old "copyright" disclaimer.

 

My former label got into a pickle: they released a Bach recording by a brass band. They didn't realize that the arrangement was copyrighted, it was. They had to pay the publisher 3X the normal fee as a penalty.

 

EDIT: I think I took your comment out of context, sorry. I see what you're getting at. You can't copyright the ORIGINAL arrangement, just the melody etc. Thereafter, you can copyright an arrangement of the "arrangement".

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But think about the idiot you're submitting to- they may or may not be able to imagine color on a sparse canvas.

 

Good comment. There seem to be so many of these idiots around.

 

Like I said, most of the demo stuff I'm hired to play on is fully produced. But now the shoe is on my foot and I'm just not sure which way to go. My gut feeling is that a slick production will hide songwriting flaws. It happens all the time. (Is it a hit? Well, it sure sounds like one.)

 

(Oh, and on a side note, I hear that producers are looking at the shape of the mastered wave file and judging its worthiness by how thick the wave is rather than how it sounds. Idiots, indeed.)

 

I may just take it song by song and see which ones lend themselves to a particular treatment. Great responses, all. Thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Based on what I've gleaned from the various people I've talked to and the advice / seminars I've experienced over the past several years, the landscape has evolved. Where simple demos used to suffice, they won't cut it in 2011. And it's important not to confuse 'simple' with 'poor production' as well.

 

I have to admit I don't have personal experience with one being more successful than the other as I haven't pitched numerous examples of either. But the above is what I've heard.

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As Bobby alludes above, due to the technology available today, fully produced demos are expected.

 

A bare bones demo works when you already have an *in* to the industry i.e. personal relationship with A&R, label owner, etc.

 

Otherwise, a demo nowadays should sound like a finished record. Competition is thick. :cool:

PD

 

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In my experience, the world has changed significantly since the 1990's, and ANY demo for ANY purpose must now sound fully produced and mastered.

 

It is for this reason that I had to switch from analog to digital computer-based recording nine years ago and spend most of my off-work time ramping up my production skills. A PITA as I am a super-fast writer and arranger, and am now WAY behind on demos of my manuscripts as production takes most of my time.

 

I luckily have ONE regular client who has a good ear and can hear the composition in its infancy (production-wise). It's the guy I write stage material for, and is one of the reasons I so enjoy the partnership, as I don't have to stifle my ideas until I next have a twenty hour block of time at my disposal. :-)

 

Good luck in your endeavours. Music-making is no longer something one can pursue as a hobby. It's either semi-pro or pro at this point. Unless you still have songwriter showcases in your area a la the coffeehouses of yore.

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I'm aware of more than one Nashville "producer" who cues up the demo and tells the A-Team to copy the demo.

 

I hear people claim this all the time but it's mostly BS. As a ranking member of the so called "A-Team" I can tell you that a producer may say "I really like this demo" from time to time, but the ones who hire the A Team do so because they know they will take inspiration from that demo and make a record that is tons better. That is the purpose of the demo. If the writer(s) have done good job producing the demo, it is intended to influence the record production. Licks are as much a part of the demo as lyrics and melody, and often set the tone for the whole thing.

If you play a lick on a demo and it gets copied on the record, you've done your job well. It's why you get hired to play on demos, and why you will eventually move up to more and more record dates.

Actually, usually it is the artist that insists on duplicating things from the demo anyway, not the producer. Artists have either written, or co-written the song and participated in making the decisions about what gets played on the demo. Or they are not the writer, but have learned the song by listening to the demo over and over. They frequently come into the studio with what we pickers call "Demo Love", and insist on hearing the same licks and fills they've become used to.

Anyway, to address your original question, there is no set rule that says whether a "produced" or "instrument/vocal" demo is best. It's not a question of one way being superior to the other. In my opinion, it is a decision that has to be made on a song by song basis, based on which will best present the song to the prospective listener.

Unfortunately, nowadays we are dealing with more and more "decision makers" who lack the ability to "hear" a good song regardless of the production. Too many working producers and artists today simply don't hear a song unless they hear it sounding like a record. On the other hand, many of the best producers out there are put off by produced demos because they are amateurish and get in the way of the song. It's been reported that Quincy makes writers play their melodies with one finger on a piano only, and if it's not memorable, it doesn't make the cut.

The truth is, some songs present better produced, and some present better as "worktapes" or instrument/vocal. Knowing when it's one and not the other is a skill you acquire with time and experience.

Consider who you'll be pitching to and trust your gut.

 

 

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