If you’re an up-and-coming musician there’s only one way to get noticed. Make work. You need to be producing songs. You need to be out in the streets making connections and showing your abilities. That’s the only way to make headway within the industry.
A while back, the only way to get ahead was to make a demo of your band, but that’s not nearly as hard today as it used to be. Today, you can record and mix a whole demo album in a weekend in your friend’s garage.
In decades past, making a demo could be on a much smaller scale than it is now. It used to be a demo that could be a recording of vocals and a single instrument on a tape machine, and sending it off to the A&R departments at the labels. However, things have changed a lot in the music industry over the past 10-20 years, and tactics that worked back then don’t work the same way now. If you’re trying to get your music heard and noticed, you need a different approach.
There are two different paths forward, for young musicians. If you’re trying to get your band noticed or if you’re trying to be a songwriter. However, both paths require you to be producing work and cultivating a following. Let’s dive in further:
How Do You Get Noticed As A Band?
If your intention with making a demo is to try and land a record deal with a label for you or your band, you should know that the competition has become incredibly fierce. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be impossible, it just means the road is going to be tough. In recent years, most cold-call demos never even get listened to. The record labels are being bombarded by thousands of excellent bands, and they just don’t have the time and attention to give to all of them.
Simply put, the best way to get a label interested is to build a fan base and have some proven success on your own. Start a TikTok profile and upload videos of yourself singing. If you’re already generating millions of YouTube views and selling thousands of copies of your record without their help, you’re much more likely to attract them.
That’s how most creative industries work. You’re constantly trying to balance the push and pull between the levers of power. Finding the sweet spot between having the older systems anoint you, and the new systems embrace you. Some people might say, “well, why do I need a record deal if I’m already successful on my own?” That’s a very astute question. That’s something that only the independent artists can answer for themselves.
The old world record contracts take a lot of the control and money from the artist, but it gives them a path into places that being independent just doesn’t. Being an indie artist is great if you’re content having a smaller audience that likes what you do. If you’re trying to be a Top 40 artist who plays on the radio? It’s almost impossible to do that without a record deal. It’s not completely out of the question… but it is a very uphill battle.
What this means for you is that you need to treat any band/artist demo as though it were a professional recording. Don’t wait to get signed to a label to make a great record; cheap digital technology makes it more affordable nowadays to make a high-quality recording. If you do a 4-5 song EP, for example, not only can you pitch it as a demo, but you can also sell it directly to your fans, whether or not the labels bite. So invest in yourself, raise some money, go to a good local project studio, and make the highest quality, most polished recording that you can afford—and be sure to get the project mastered, not just mixed. Then get your music out to the world, not just into the A&R departments. If your band is good, you might be surprised at where this approach can take you.
How Do You Get Noticed As A Songwriter?
Music is a wide-reaching industry. It’s a place that seems impenetrable from the outside. It’s a labyrinth of agents, managers, and difficult to obtain recording contracts. It’s an industry that only wants people who are successful already. It’s a place that seems extremely hard to get your foot in the door.
While all of that is true, it’s definitely easier today than it used to be. It’s a place where qualitative evidence and demonstratable success go a long way. It’s a place where A & R reps are always on the lookout for new voices with highly refined skills.
If your goal is to land a publishing deal as a songwriter, rather than as a recording artist, your approach to making a demo can be a little simpler. It should still be well recorded and mixed, and as close to “broadcast ready” as possible, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a full-blown finished product. In fact, overproducing the tracks can hurt you if it overpowers the lyric and melody.
Getting started as a writer is a little simpler than if your goal is to be a full-blown Recording Artist. Just record 2-3 of your very best songs. Keep the arrangements fairly simple so that the vocals can be heard clearly, and include lyric sheets and chord charts when you send the demo to publishers. Even this is significantly easier than it used to be with home recording set-ups, indie producers, and online tutorials easily within reach.
Promoting and Distributing Your Demo
Next step is to start beating the pavement. Find publishing houses, record companies, and local studios you like and start sending them links to your work. Start posting on social media saying you want to write songs for local acts. Once you’ve made enough of these connections the publishers will eventually see your work. It might take them a while to actually respond and get in contact with you, but where there’s a will … there’s a way.
When you finally do break through and find a publisher that likes your work, you may be offered a single-song contract or a publishing deal for a certain number of songs. Once you have that deal, if a better demo is needed to pitch the song to artists and labels, the publisher will often foot the bill for it.
You’ll head back into the studio and either re-record the existing material or record brand new works. Another way this can happen is, if you’re signed to a record contract with a record company already, they can pair you up with talent for chemistry tests. You can go into the studio with a band or an artist and work on producing work together, you as the writer and them as the talent. These meets can sometimes lead to nothing, sometimes lead to huge successes.
Finally, whether you’re pitching songs or your band, it’s important to make as many industry connections as possible along the way. Labels and publishers almost never take unsolicited demos anymore; you really need to establish relationships with these people before you ask permission to pitch your music to them. You need to build a following. You need to develop a cult of personality for yourself. Whether that’s online or in person, having an audience for your work prior to sitting down with these potential connections is a huge boon for you.