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How To Present Your Demo

I think it's always enlightening to get a scenario of what happens behind the scenes in the office of a person who listens to demos. Here's a sample from my own experience and that of friends who torture their brains and eardrums in the all-too-often futile search for that killer song or sound.

You should know that if 5% of the songs are in the ball park, we're doing very well. We engage in this masochism because we know that when we find that one-in-a-thousand song that brings tears to our eyes and makes the hair stand up on the back of our necks, we'll forget about all the bad ones we just listened to. The rejects aren't even all bad. Some have lots of imagination and no craft and some have lots of craft but little to say. The right combination of ingredients is rare but we know it's there somewhere. We're anxious to find it as soon as possible. Some listen in the order they receive the tapes. Most others don't. What they do is look for the most likely candidates.

First, they look for the names of writers they already know are good. That's where the odds are best. Next, they listen to tapes referred to them by other industry people whose tastes (or power) they respect. Next, when faced with a stack of anonymous tapes, they look for a package that is professional, neat and imaginative. They hope the songs will show those same qualities. The odds still aren't great but they're several points above the lowest. The least-likely candidates are the ones that look like the sender doesn't care. The lyric sheets, if any, are scribbled illegibly on the back of a menu and the cover letter with no return address says, "I no thees songs wood bee grate for Little Stevie Wonder. Pleez sen them to him." What do you think the odds are that you're going to find a really "great" lyric here? It's not about bad spelling, but about not caring enough to find someone who can check your spelling and not caring enough to notice that Stevie Wonder cuts someone else's song about once every 10 years. It's easy to get the impression that this person doesn't care enough to find out how to write a good song.

Here is a checklist that will maximize your chances of getting heard and respect the listener's time.

  1. Never send more than four songs unless specifically requested otherwise. Demo listeners like watching the "in" pile diminish and the "out" pile grow as quickly as possible. If the listener has a limited time to listen, which is usually the case, the tendency is to listen to a tape they know they can complete. So if you send a tape with ten songs on it and someone else's tape has one song, you can bet that the "out" pile will grow quickly with one-song tapes. There's also the psychology that implies, "I've sent you the song you need!" This is particularly true in pitching songs to producers for a specific artist. Along those same lines, most people resent getting tapes with 20 songs and a letter that says, "I know you'll like at least one of these , so just pick out what you want." They want you to do that and send them four songs or less that you totally believe in. If you're not far enough along to be able to decide, you're not ready.

  2. Place your best and most commercial song first on the tape. If you have a strong uptempo song it's a good bet to start with that. If they don't like the first one it may be the only shot you get.

  3. Never send your original master tape. You may never see it again and it's not fair to saddle its recipient with responsibility for it.

  4. Always cue your tape to the beginning of the first song. You don't want the person to start listening in a bad mood because you just wasted his time making him rewind your tape. When you make your copies, leave six seconds between songs. Most new tape machines have an automatic search feature which finds the silence between songs, stops the fast-forward and automatically starts playing the next song.

  5. Send a lyric sheet, neatly typed or printed. Letterhead is im- pressive. It says "This is my business and I take it seriously." Some don't like to look at lyrics while they listen, but most do. It's a time saver to be able to see it all at once and to see the structure of the song graphically laid out on the page. Lead sheets (with melody and lyric together) are not usually sent out with demo tapes. They're good to have at the point where a producer says he wants to record your song and you want to be sure he has the correct melody, but since the current copyright law permits tapes to be sent for copyright registration, their importance has diminished.Lead sheets are bulky to mail, it's difficult to follow the lyric and visualize the song's form, and many industry pros don't read music anyway.

    When you type out your lyric sheet, separate the sections of the songs with a space and label each one (verse, chorus, bridge etc.) at the upper left side of the section. Do not type your lyrics in prose fashion. Lay them out with the rhymes at the ends of the lines.

  6. Make sure there's a copyright notice ( 1992 I.B. Cool. All Rights Reserved) on the first page of the lyric or lead sheet and on the tape label.

  7. Cover letters should be short and to the point. Let the music speak for itself and avoid hype. A professional presentation will do more to impress someone than, "I know these are hit songs because they're better than anything I've ever heard on the radio," or "I just know that we can both make a lot of money if you'll publish these songs." Avoid the temptation to tell your life story, and don't explain how you have a terminal disease, you're the sole support of your 10 children and if these songs don't get recorded they'll all be homeless or worse. In fact, don't plead, apologize or show any hint of desperation. It only gives the message that you have no confidence in the ability of the songs to stand on their own.

    Here's what should be in your cover letter:

    a. It should be addressed to a specific person in the company.

    b. It should state your purpose in sending the tape. Are you looking for a publisher, a producer, a record deal for you as an artist? Do you want the listener to pay special attention to your production, your singing, your band, or just the song? Is it for a specific artist?

    c. List any significant professional credits that apply to the purpose of your submission. If you want your song published, list other published or recorded songs, contests won, etc.

    d. Include any casting ideas you might have. For which artists would the songs be appropriate?

    e. Ask for feedback if you want it.

    f. List the songs enclosed and writers' names in the order they appear on the tape. (Lyric sheets should also be enclosed in the same order the songs appear on the tape.)

    g. Thank them for their time and attention.

    h. Include your address and phone number.

  8. Send a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) if you want your tape back. There are two schools of thought about this. On the "pro" SASE side, if you don't want to lose all those tapes, you can't expect to get them back without it. There's another school of thought, though, that if you say you want it back, you're assuming they won't like it. Also, there is no guarantee that you'll get them back even if you do send a SASE, in which case you're gambling even more money, and worse could happen than that your tape is sitting around a producer's office. Your decision may depend on how many tapes you can afford to lose.

  9. Your name, address and phone number should be on the tape, box, and on every lyric sheet. It seems like such a common sense request. In fact, it would be embarassing to even suggest that you might forget to do it if I didn't see it happen constantly. The problem on this end is that, between listening sessions at the office, the car, and home, it's so easy to separate the tape from the box or lyric sheet. Once we've gone to the trouble to find your hit song, not finding you is a fate we don't deserve.

  10. Be sure you have adequate postage. Also, don't send your tape in an ordinary stationary envelope. It's risky because rough postal handling could force the edge of the tape box through the envelope. Use a special envelope with an insulated lining. Some people also prefer the soft "bubble" tape box because it doesn't have sharp edges and it's lighter to mail.

The main thing to remember is to make your tape as easy as possible to deal with.

Reprinted with permission from The Craft And Business Of Songwriting ©1988 John Braheny (Writer's Digest Books)