How can I make sure that my demo actually gets listened to?

There will come a point where you think you’re ready for a record deal, a manager or a publishing deal (or that other much touted ‘new model’ deal with some music related company). You’ll want to get yourself heard by the right people so what better way to do it than to send out a demo right?

Record labels, managers et al get hundreds of thousands of demos, and if this is the route you want to take then there are some things that you will need to take into account if you want to make your demo stand out from the rest and be given more than a second glance.

It’s going to take a lot of hard work and luck but if you make sure that you take notice of the following points, then you’ll be on the right track.

In this article, note that wherever I talk about a demo, I mean either a physical CD mailed to someone or a link to a MySpace page or band website where all the relevant information can be found and songs listened to. I’ll make distinctions where necessary.

1. Make sure you’re targeting the right labels.

If you’re an indie, guitar led band, and that’s all you ever want to be then there is no point sending your demo’s to hip-hop or dance labels. You won’t get a second look as the labels just won’t be interested. That’s not what they do! To start with you should be looking for labels who work with bands that are similar or in the same genre as you. They are more likely to give you a second glance and maybe even a listen…

As a musician in a band, you really ought to have some idea of who those labels are for your genre, but if you need help, search on the web for directories that can help you. In the UK, you have to use The Unsigned Guide, and in the Us there are choices, but we like Galaris.

Once you’ve found a label, you need to find a name. A personal touch is really going to help in getting the person you are contacting to actually listen to your stuff.

2. Make sure your demo is listenable.

This doesn’t mean that you have to go and get all of your tracks professionally recorded. That would be silly and a complete waste of money. However, you need to make sure that whoever is going to listen to your demo can see the potential there. So, make sure your singers are in tune, the recording is clear and there are no white noise issues or glitches.

There are lots of inexpensive recording software programs doing the rounds now which you can use to do this, or you could strike a deal with your local studio to do it on the cheap with the help of one of their engineers.

3. Make sure you’re ready for label interest

This is another very important point. When you’re just getting started you can’t expect all of your songs to be hits, and no one else expects them to all be hits either. However, when choosing songs to send out to labels you need to make sure that these songs are your absolute best so far.

If not, they won’t be given a chance, and you won’t be given a second chance in the future. You’ll be remembered as the band that had no songs. If you’re not sure that you or your songs are ready then hold off on sending out demos until you’re absolutely 100% sure that you are.

I recently came across a service here at SoundOut, which I heartily recommend. We’ll look at this in more detail in the future, but, in short, if you spend $20 to $50 with them you’ll get the most honest appraisal of your songs from real music fans who get your genre. We don’t get paid for recommending this service, so I mean it when I say that it’s money well spent – to see if you really have the material ready that you think you have!

4. Get your promo package right.

Labels like to know a little bit about you, and a standard demo comes with a bio, some press cuttings, a photo and your music, but there is such a thing as too much information…and too much music!

We get a lot of demos in our office, and the first thing we look at is the size of the package that’s been sent through. If it’s huge then it goes to the bottom of the pile. Full albums or CDs with lots of tracks on will also get put to the back of the pile. Most people in the industry have a limited amount of time for demos so we like them to be short and snappy.

Ideally, when I get a demo through the post I like to see a half page brief bio, a handful of press cuttings (if you have any that is, and if you do, make sure they’re good ones!), a photo in which I can see your faces, and a CD with no more than 3 tracks on, and your best track first. By best track, I mean your most catchy, hooky, universal song, not the one you’re most proud of. If you’re not sure which one this is then ask your fans, friends and family.

Another thing to add to your package is details about any previous releases or significant touring you have done in the past and also if you have any attention from other industry professionals, i.e. management, an agent etc, and let them know who these people are. This will help raise your profile before you even get a listen.

If you’re doing this submission by a link, then make sure people can find all this stuff on your site or MySpace page easily too.

People do look at numbers of plays and friends on a MySpace link and it does have a bearing – which is why we do think building numbers on Social Networks is part of your job – but everyone knows that those numbers don’t necessarily mean fans, so don’t get too hung up on it. What people are looking for is how your fans interact with you on those pages – so make sure you encourage commenting as well as friend adding, for industry people to see that you have a real buzz around you.

5. Don’t forget your contact details

Every piece of paper and every CD you send a record label must have your contact details on. This includes your email address, a contact name and phone number and your website and MySpace address. It’s no use putting these on one piece of paper and thinking that because it’s all together in your package the label will know how to contact you. Papers and CDs get mixed up, bits moved or lost, and the chances are that your promo package will go in one pile and your CD in another.

By putting your details on everything the label have no excuse to not contact you if they like what they see or hear. Putting your MySpace address on also allows them to check out your songs in the event that the CD is misplaced, so when you start sending out demos make sure that the songs you put on the CDs are the ones that are on your MySpace.

Same thing is true on sending a MySpace link. Make sure that email addresses and telephone numbers are there to be found.

6. Does the label you’re looking at receive unsolicited demos?

Lots of labels ask you not to send unsolicited demos. There are many reasons for this, including time and space issues, and even legal issues in some circumstances! If you’re not sure then call them up and ask them.

If they do take unsolicited demos then feel free to send your package in, however, it’s better to find out who the specific A&R man is in your field at that label and start a conversation with them directly. That way they know who you are first and may actually request your demo from you. This route is by far the best way to get yourself noticed by any label.

7. Be Polite

If you’re serious about getting a record deal then, unless you’re very lucky, you’ll send out lots of emails and make lots of phone calls…and will likely be ignored the majority of the time. If this is the case the please don’t get bitter about it, it happens to most people. But bear in mind that if you do get someone to talk to you, then you should show a little gratitude.

The more polite you are then the more people will be inclined to help you in the future. It may be that the A&R person you are talking to can’t help you, but if you’ve been polite and gracious then they could help you out by giving you details for other people who could help you, or even recommending you to someone. You can never know just how influential the person you are talking to is.

8. Don’t be discouraged

Sending out demos can be stressful, demoralising, soul destroying etc, and you’re likely to hear the word ‘No’ more times than you’d ever imagine but you can’t take it personally. If a label turns you down ask them to give you a bit of constructive feedback. It may be that you just don’t fit in with what they want to do in the immediate future.

Take whatever you’re given on board, go away and become better for it. Consider your demo, decide if there was anything you could have done differently that might have made a difference, and then learn from it and move on to the next label. After all, no one expects you to be the finished article straight away! If you’re in this for the long haul then you’ll constantly be changing, so see it as work in progress.

Good luck!

This article is a partner piece to an earlier article on this site titled ‘How you should approach a record label or manager’. There may be a little repetition but this article is by Amanda and the other is by Ian, so reading them both will give you a little extra insight from two perspectives!

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swampyankee - June 9, 2009 Reply

Sending demos to record labels? Is this honest valid advice for 2009? Did I miss something? Maybe a label could give you better promotion than you could do you yourself, but in the end you will be made to pay for it out of your pocket, not theirs. Everything they do for you, you must pay for. They will take a larger cut from your product than you get. They get the money first, then if any is left over, you’ll get yours last. Still want a record label deal? Why?

    Emma - December 19, 2012 Reply

    Because I like music and want mine to be heard? Not everyone is in it for the money.

Ian Clifford - June 9, 2009 Reply

I hope you’re subscribing to this thread, because I think its important that you see our reply.

Firstly, this post is about sending demos to anyone – not just record labels – and there are many people that you might need to hear your stuff, whether you looking for any of the established deals (record, publishing, management) or a booker or PR, or alternative investment if you go the DIY route.
However, and I am writing a lengthy post on this to be posted soon, your comment about whether a record deal is the right thing to be chasing in 2009 is the result of a lot of misleading preaching that I see on the internet.

ALL artists now have to build and prepare for a DIY method of promotion and release, and there is nothing wrong with that being the route for an entire career, but the truth remains that no single artist has yet broken on a significant commercial scale without a record company behind them.

Yes, they do take most of the money, but that’s becuase they give massive investment. I can’t defend that model as most bands never recoup, but it is still there and it still works. More importantly, the changes that are happening in the industry mean that the music you record and sell is truly now just a promotional tool for other revenue streams (live, etc) and having the ‘old school’ record company paying for that is no bad thing when you can earn elsewhere off the back off their efforts.

True, the 360 deal is now a way of life, but, by and large (and I see this in the front line) if you have built your act up yourself and you get really hot, they still do deals that have very small elements of 360 participation in them. In a way that’s the best of both worlds.

This needs a lot more explanation than I can do in a comment, so look out for the post. But, what I’m saying is that whilst the industry is in a state of flux, don’t believe all the gurus that tell you that the record deal is dead. It has its place for the majority of artists and will continue to do so for a few years yet.

DIY is great and very much to be praised, but it isn’t right for everyone in the long term.

Eugenia - June 10, 2009 Reply

Another idea is that along the CD, to send a cheap mp3 player. A 32 MB overstock model will do. It shouldn’t cost you more than $10. Put that in the package, with 3 songs in it, and the battery fully charged (so there’s hope that they can just plug their headphones immediately after opening the package). I think that this will strike them as “different” and will try it immediately. A free mp3 player!

MASS DESTRUCTION - February 18, 2011 Reply

Well I read the comments and I will say this! I play 10 to 15 hours a day I have my on studio, and so what if u get a record deal and they take most of the money at first it’s better than nothing !!! I play every instrument and sung in my metal band and Wouk love to get a record deal bc I play bc music is my life and if u do it for the money you ain’t the real deal so go to your day job and wine some more

Donald - October 20, 2014 Reply

I am a writer in collaboration with a composer and singer, I have quite a few gospel songs that I have written that I would like to get heard, I have been trying for years to get heard but it is so hard, I know the music industry is a hard nut to crack. One has to love music to keep going at it, If you are in it for the money it will be an up hill to climb. I Christian publisher or label to give me a chance.

    Ian Clifford - October 21, 2014 Reply

    Hi Donald

    You can definitely makes steps to reach out to an audience that would be receptive in the Christian music genre. Have a look around at the posts here to see how it’s done.

    Ian

Steve - June 15, 2015 Reply

Hello Ian, I am a solo act– vocal and guitar– and have been performing at a bar on Monday and restaurant on Thursday nights for the past two and half years. I have finally found a like minded soul to form a band and we want to play at upscale venues — restaurants, coffee shops or bars. I have business cards with a brand and have a dozen or so photos with my band mate. I am going to start recording a four song CD demo… I will do it myself because I am an audio professional. Do you have any advice for someone like me as far as approaching bar or restaurant owners in a effective way to get some weekly playing time. Thank you in advance for your time and interesting blog… I’v enjoyed reading all comments. Steve.

    Ian Clifford - June 15, 2015 Reply

    Steve

    The short answer is that you need to make it work for them.

    Don’t just hit people up randomly and expect them to have you come and play. They need to know that you’ll suit their venue and, at the very least that you’ll maintain the status quo. If you can bring people to your set and/or increase the bar takings by keeping people entertained, then that’s a step in the right direction.

    You need to make sure you have a USP – be different in what you offer to the other acts they could book. Make your offer unique.

    Then, look at ALL the available venues. Make a spreadsheet and get a NAME and a NUMBER – not just an email address.

    Use a citywide or county wide directory on the web and try EVERY venue that might have live music.

    Make the list,m then get on the phone, get a name and find out what they have as opportunities for live music. If they don’t take them off the list.

    On the call, ask who to submit a package to and then get that package together. An email that links to a web page somewhere – could be Bandcamp, your site (preferably), or maybe SoundCloud… – or a zip file that’s under 10MB. In that there needs to be music, a bio, some photos etc and a clear USP.

    Send them out to people you have ALREADY spoken to.

    Follow up a week or so later. Ask why if you don’t get a booking. If they say you don’t fit that venue, cross them off your spreadsheet.

    Rinse and repeat.

    If you do this thoroughly, and follow up, you will get gigs.

    Also, you’ll also end up with a spreadsheet honed to you of names of people you have already spoken to who have said that you could play at their venue.

    Contact them all again every 6-8 weeks.

      Steve - June 15, 2015 Reply

      Ian… you are awesome. Thank you for your fine words regarding my music-performance opportunities. It is always great to have support, mentally and inspirationally from experienced professionals like yourself. Cheers, Steve.

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