It's A Jungle Out There
by Robert Angello
© August 9, 2001 Robert Angello. All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission.
Songwriters today are hacking and slashing their way through the competitive booby traps and mine fields of Music Row. Oh, I'm not talking about the couple of guys who are hooked up and in the middle of their glory years. I'm talking about the guys and gals who have had top ten records, walking the streets, looking for a publishing deal, and the new kids on the block, trying to "get something going". The golden days, in Nashville, appear to be over.
There are so many conflicting philosophies on the songwriter demo, that books have been written and wars nearly fought on the subject. Remember, the only thing between your vision of your music and the song screener's ears is your demo. What this article will do is help you, the writer, sort through some of the confusion and differences in final product, and focus your energy on the important aspects of demoing your songs. Wanna hear it? It goes something like this...
"Hello, Angello Sound Studio".
"Yes, I would like some information about your recording services. I am a songwriter and you were recommended by the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI)"
.... and so the conversation begins.
Typically the first question out of the caller's mouth is,"How much do you charge for a demo?" Value in a recording session is something that cannot only be defined by the price. If a songwriter is learning the craft of song writing, there is a good chance not all of his/her first work will warrant a huge investment in demoing. "If you are just gonna play it for your mom, she'll like it, no matter what!" If, on the other hand, you have a little experience and your goal is to compete in today's song writing jungle, there are some things you need to consider.
Recording demos in Nashville can be like comparing apples and Easter eggs. Plenty of studios to pick from, but a good one can be hard to find. The availability of cheap, high quality recording equipment has made demo studios in Nashville spring-up in the most unlikely places. The amount of bedroom studios that are here today, gone tomorrow, are on the dramatic increase. Does it really matter to the writer? Does it matter where your demo was recorded as long as it suits the purpose of the writer?
Yes and no.
If a writer can get a full band demo for $75.00 or $450.00, all things being equal, logic would dictate that cheaper is better....unless... All things are not equal...
Are real drums a consideration? Feel is everything in music. There are some people very competent in programming drums, and there are some great sounds available, but it is tough to beat a real live drummer who knows when to put what where. It also has been my experience that a real drummer can write and play down a chart in way less time, (and time is money) than it takes to hook up a drum machine and program something instinctive. Compare the themes of the 80's show LA Law to the new Ally McBeal TV series. Real drums make a huge difference.
Is a real piano a consideration? Ask Billy Joel... There is a huge difference between a sampled electronic piano and a 7 or 9 foot, well-tuned, big, black box, vibrating expensive microphones, and the whole dang room in which it's being played.
Is sounding more like the radio a consideration? The publishers who audition new material from new songwriters may or may not have "ears". An intern auditioning new material, (because his boss is too busy), may not have the experience to see through an average or below average demo. Their point of reference is what they hear in their car daily to and from work, or just out riding around. And what about the music they, (the screeners) play in their house, for friends, when they host a party? You can bet it (the music) wasn't recorded in someone's basement. Most people listen intently to "just the good stuff".
Do I need a full band demo or just a piano/guitar vocal? Certain songs are more listenable in their truly simplest form, while others need the support of a full and high quality band. It's a crap shoot at best, that your judgment as a writer will coincide with the taste of the producer / artist / screener. I go back to the national anthem that was sung by Roseanne Barr, and the uproar it created among some patriotic Americans, verses the national anthem sung at the Super Bowl by Whitney Houston. If you had written that song, which version would you pitch?
Established writers like Don Schlitz, Tom Shapiro, and Mark D. Sanders, have a definite leg-up in listening attentiveness by the producers and song screeners at the publishers because of the past successes they have achieved in their writing. The new kids are forced to surpass, or at least equal the bar that has been set by those writers’ high standards. It has been my experience that most established writers don't spare the horses when it comes to their best songs, with respect to the quality of their demos.
Here are some questions a writer should consider when choosing a studio before spending that hard-earned day-gig money:
1. Does the studio have any kind of longevity in the business? If they do, you can bet they are doing something right because of the competitive nature of the studio business in Nashville.
2. Do they have a real address as opposed to only a P.O.box? Remember, most demos are paid in advance and a P.O. box holder can be difficult to track down in the event of dissatisfaction or non-delivery. Make sure you know to whom you are sending your money.
3. Do they come recommended by a legitimate organization or friend who has used their services? The word of mouth recommendation is one nearly every studio relies most heavily upon. Anyone can buy an ad in a songwriter magazine but a verbal recommendation is way tougher to come by.
4. Will the demo producer allow a certain amount of creative input from afar? It's tough when you are in Chicago and the studio is in Nashville, to contribute creatively during the session your song is being recorded. Although the song is your baby, beware of a studio that gives you the feeling that "you get what you get".
5. Asking for a demo reel may or may not be a good representation of the the studio's demo work. If the studio mails you a $2000.00 master session as an example of their work, it's gonna be tough to duplicate that for $450.00. Ask for their "DEMO" reel. Although some studios may charge for their demo reel, it is usually minimal and refundable/credited upon the booking of a session.
There are a lot of talented people in and out of Nashville, willing to do demos cheaply, just to stay in the music business, as opposed to having to deliver pizzas, but most of these people have no real intention of becoming established studio owners. The demo business is kind of a stepping stone to that next level in their career, but is that good for you? Not to say you couldn't get a decent demo from some of these folks, but chances are, if you look for them a year from now they may not be there. I believe that a writer and a demo producer need to develop a chemistry that works and the demo studio needs to be aware of the particular writer's needs. We have clients all over the country and I document the approach we take to each of the songs that are sent to me for demoing. For example, more acoustically oriented for this guy, this other gal hates steel guitar, this gang are rockers etc... Each song gets its own treatment but it is important to know where the "writer's head is at".
Demos are a very important part of the creative process - the main thread between your creative vision and success. Gotta get em’ right. It's a jungle out there!
Bob Angello has owned and operated his master / demo studio, Angello Sound Studio, in Nashville, for nearly 17 years. His client list includes over 200 writers, producers, artists, publishers, and musicians worldwide. Bob is also an accomplished musician, having started his career, playing for the legendary songwriter, Tom T. Hall (5 yrs.), singer/songwriter Suzy Bogguss (5yrs.) Chet Atkins (1 yr.) Jo Dee Messina (3yrs), Steve Wariner (1yr.), and most recently Pam Tillis.
Angello Sound Studio
526 E. Iris Dr
Nashville TN 37204
(615) 383-4080 fax