Although the music landscape has changed considerably over the past few years, creating and packaging a good demo can still be an important part of a new artist’s promotional campaign. A demo used to be seen as bait for a major label recording contract; however, although this may still be the intention of many bands, the process should now be viewed in a broader light.
Considering the range of easily-accessible distribution models available to contemporary artists, a demo can be targeted to attract interest from many diverse areas: musical collaborators, a film or TV scoring project, advertising jingles, net label backing, online or print reviews… as well as traditional labels. However, the most important thing here is that the demo is targeted correctly.
If you are sending out discs to labels, it’s better to send them to a particular person – do some research and get a name. The labels should be dealing in the type of music you make; don’t waste time by sending folk music to a Drill ‘n’ Bass label. Major labels may run the gamut when it comes to genres, but specific genres are usually covered by particular imprints; if appropriate, you can direct your offerings here, but unless you have a contact it is unlikely that unsolicited discs will get heard. Smaller independent labels are usually much more approachable.
Liz McLean Knight posted an article on this topic in CDM, with plenty of links to useful resources. She suggests that it is unwise to “waste money” on getting a demo professionally mixed or mastered – however, if you can afford it, I would say that every advantage you can give yourself is worthwhile. Whether by including unique artwork, glossy packaging, promo posters or postcards, or putting an added sheen on the recording itself, anything that creates a positive impression should be included. Although you can say that it’s really all about the music, and everything else is just fluff, things aren’t quite that simple in practice. People who listen to demos are likely to get dozens, if not hundreds, every week; anything that might catch their attention has to be helpful to your cause.
Even within the recording itself, you should aim to put forward your very best efforts. There are quite a few mastering houses that can put the finishing touches to your recordings for a reasonable price; Sound On Sound performed a comparision of some of these in this article; the results are revealed in an article from the following month. If you have some basic knowledge of mastering – enough to be regarded as competent in the art – then there is probably not much benefit to be had from sending a demo out for a third-party professional treament. On the other hand, if you know nothing about the mystic vagaries of frequency tweaking, this could be an avenue worth exploring. At the very least, it might open your ears to possibilities you had previously been missing.