In the twenty years I’ve been teaching the BMI Nashville Songwriters’ Workshops, I’ve had music publishers screen songs at more than fifty of my events. One of the questions most frequently asked of the publishers is, “Can you hear through a rough demo?” I’ve heard countless responses along the lines of, “No problem. A hit song can shine through.”
I have never heard a publisher, a record producer, or a recording artist state, “Sorry, I have no idea whether your song could be a hit because the demo is terrible.” Nor have I ever heard a music industry pro say, “I’m not a mind reader. If it’s not on the recording you can’t expect me to imagine how it might sound if it had a groove and some catchy licks, or if a singer really captured the emotion.”
I’ll tell you a secret. Everyone thinks they can hear a great song regardless of the quality of the demo, but they can’t. Some people indeed have the ability to hear a song’s potential, despite the demo’s shortcomings. The problem is that we can’t know who these people are, and when we are fortunate enough to find them, they represent only the first hurdle. For example, maybe you’ll get lucky, and the producer to whom you pitched a rough demo will be able to fully envision your song’s possibilities. Now, that same demo will have to be played for several A & R reps, the artist, the artist’s manager, his or her spouse, and several others in the chain. All it takes is one resounding “no” to potentially bump your song out of contention—and remember—there is a good chance that your competition not only has strong songs, but is pitching them with demos that are up to the professional standard.
This reminds me of when I have judged songwriting competitions. Almost every one of these contest’s entry forms states some variation of, “Judging is based solely on the quality of the song. The performances and the quality of the recording will not be taken into consideration.” Despite that disclaimer, I have never heard a song with a poorly recorded demo take a top prize. Why? Because it is impossible not to be influenced by the recording, and pros who screen hundreds of songs can’t be relied upon to imagine, in the minute or two allotted to each song, how a song might sound with a recording that represented it better.
So, what constitutes “good enough?” Do we need to produce full-band, master quality recordings to compete? To a large extent it depends on the genre and tempo of your songs. While a tender ballad might need nothing more than a heartfelt guitar/vocal, an up-tempo song will likely need more to get through all the hoops.
But whether you are pitching a guitar/vocal or a full band recording, the audio quality, vocal, and instrumental performances need to demonstrate your song’s full potential to give it the chance it deserves.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His songs are on three Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. www.jasonblume.com