My band is currently circulating a four-song demo, but I haven’t sent it out to any record labels yet because it sounds like what it is: a demo recorded for a few hundred bucks. We want to show labels that we have our shit together as a group, and I think having awesome gear and a really nice-sounding demo would help prove that. We’re saving up money to buy better gear and make a crisper recording, but how much does production quality matter when shipping out demos? What do we need to show labels in order to prove that we do, in fact, have our shit together and are ready to make this band our careers?
Dear Demo Shop’n,
Getting a band signed has always been, well, interesting to say the least. I have seen bands get signed over anything from someone leaving a demo in a bathroom to someone at a label thinking a band was a totally different band at first. The jist is that sometimes it just seems like dumb luck, and of course it always feels like other bands have more money to invest then you do, better connections, better hair cuts, etc. You get the idea; in band life the grass is always greener. So how much does production quality matter? What do record labels look for? To answer those questions I went straight to the top to get some feedback.
First, I turned to the person I’ve known the longest who works at a record label. Wouldn’t you know it just happened to be the founder and owner of Victory records, Tony Brummel? Tony took some time out of his day to give me some feedback to pass on to you.
I asked Tony how much demo production matters to him when he’s thinking about signing a band. Tony replied, “It depends on the band but, if someone has the gift they can hear magic from a boom box recording. More importantly seeing the band is the best “DEMO.” Seeing is believing. Trust me you can even ask the dude.” Tony is of course referring to the signing of my metal band, Darkest Hour. It wasn’t a demo or even a CD that really got us signed. It was our live show for Tony and the Victory staff that sold us.
On whether production value is more important than songwriting Tony answers, “Songwriting, its all about the band. I always try to make the decision after seeing a band. With Protools and today’s current recording technology I have heard a lot of great demos and then ended up seeing a very mediocre band.” No doubt that Tony is right on that point. Computers have given artists many tools and at the same time given those same artists many crutches.
I also reached out to another friend of mine, Josh Grabelle, founder and owner of Trustkill Records. Josh was kind enough to write us some thoughts on what he looks for when signing bands:
“The bottom line is this is all about the music, it has never been about how GOOD it sounds recorded, after all, a band should be reaching more people with their live show than they reach with their recorded music. When I got into punk and hardcore in the late 80s, the records I loved back then sounded like TOTAL SHIT. I didn’t care at all though, I loved it. Again, it’s about the music and the feeling you get, not the production or how many hours you spend on pro-tools with auto tune. In the early days of Trustkill I would sign bands that didn’t even HAVE demos, let alone shitty sounding demos… it was about the music. Now, 10 years later, any band can record a demo, the shit is so easy my Grandma could do it with Garageband.”
Keep in mind you still need to be competitive… Now a days you can’t just send in that boom box recording, it has to at least sound like the band does live. Josh expanded on this point by saying;
“To say that the QUALITY doesn’t matter isn’t entirely true. If I open up 50 demos in one day and one of them sonicaly kicks the shit out of everything else, what does that tell me? Either these are a bunch of rich kids, OR, more likely, these kids take their ART and their BAND very seriously. THIS is what we are looking for, a band made up of kids who are willing to throw it ALL away for their band, give up their life, their jobs, their girlfriends, to get quality gear and truly get a grasp on what it takes to record music in the proper way. So, do you NEED to have a PERFECT sounding demo to send to a label? No. But if you want to compete against the other 10 bands in your high school, or the other 10,000 bands in the country, you should put in the extra work.”
There it is that ugly word right at the end: work. It’s almost as ugly as ‘practice’ but the fact that it shows up a lot in this column, has to mean something right? Anyway, it’s clear that record labels are looking for a band that can play a good live show, that spends it’s time working on songs and music, rather then buying amps and looking on eBay for guitars. They are looking for dedicated, hardworking, musicians who are willing to risk everything. Why? Because a dedicated musician should be driven enough to go for it, no matter what the odds. My advice is read this letter and listen to that demo again. Do you feel like it’s a good representation of your band? Are the songs good? Are you confident your band can hold its own against other bands out there. If so, start shopping that bad boy and playing some shows. If you read this letter and change your mind about that demo then make sure your band is ready to slug it out. Practice and jam as much as possible till you find the sound that says you. Practice (MORE!) until you can play those songs with your eyes closed (this is so you don’t waste anytime when it comes to laying down those tracks). Then find a studio (but preferably someone who has recorded local bands, or bands for cheap. You don’t need to spend a million bucks just make it sound like a good representation of your band live). Take that demo and those songs on the road and share them with the world. Whether or not you sign that million dollar deal you have to always remember the reason your writing all theses songs and going through all the bullshit is to be able to share music with people. If your intentions are true and the music does speak to people, well then don’t worry, there will be plenty of record labels that will want to sign your band.