How to Present Your Demo: 10 Biggest Mistakes Artists Make and How to Avoid Them

Your demo will introduce you to the eyes and ears of many music industry professionals. Take this introduction very seriously — it’s your job interview.

Here is a short checklist that summarizes the biggest mistakes I see new artists make all the time. Avoiding these will maximize your chances of getting heard and respect the demo listener’s time.

1. Sending more than 3 songs (unless specifically requested).
Demo listeners like to watch the “In” pile on their desk shrink and the “Out” pile grow as quickly as possible. If the listener has limited time, which is usually the case, the tendency is to listen to a CD they know they can complete.

So if you send a 12-song demo or a 12 song master, send a note that prioritizes 3 songs they should listen to. If you refer them to a MySpace, ReverbNation or other page where you have a list of songs, do the same.

If you want them to hear a song for a specific artists you think the song is appropriate for, tell them to listen to that specific song. If they like it, they may listen to others.

Most industry people resent getting CDs with 20 songs or a link to a site with 20 songs and a letter that says, “I know you’ll like at least one of these, so just pick out what you want.”

If you’re presenting it via snail mail or in person, they want you to send (or play) them three songs or less that you totally believe in. If you’re not far enough along to be able to decide, you’re not ready. When sending CDs with more than three songs, highlight three you want the listener to focus on first, and include the numbers of the cuts in your cover letter and lyric sheets (so they have a reference while the CD is on their player and they can’t see the label). If they like those, they’ll listen to the others.

Send CDs in standard, hard, jewel cases (not soft, thin vinyl) labeled on the spine so when they stack them they can find them later. And please remove the shrink-wrap!

2. Not placing their best and most commercial song first.
If you have a strong up-tempo song, start with that. If the listener doesn’t like the first one, it may be the only shot you get.

4. Not sending a lyric sheet, neatly typed or printed.
Letterhead is impressive. It says “This is my business and I take it seriously.” Some don’t like to look at lyrics while they listen, but most do. It’s a time saver to be able to see it all at once and to see the structure of the song graphically laid out on the page. If you submit online, attach the lyric sheet so they can look at it.

Lead sheets (with melody and lyric together) are not sent out with demos. They’re bulky to mail, it’s too difficult to follow the lyric and visualize the song’s form, and many industry pros don’t read music anyway. If they want to record the song and ask for one, then send them a lead sheet.

When you type your lyric sheet, separate the sections of the songs with a space and label each one (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) at the upper left side of the section or otherwise differentiate them by indenting or bolding the chorus or typing them in capital letters. If you’re repeating a chorus, note where it goes. Do not type your lyrics in prose fashion. Lay them out with the rhymes at the ends of the lines so the structure and rhyme schemes of the song can be seen immediately.

5. Not Putting on a Copyright Notice
Make sure there’s a copyright notice (© 2011 I.B. Cool, All Rights Reserved) on the bottom of the first page of the lyric sheet and on the tape or CD label. Technically, this isn’t necessary but it alerts everyone that your song is protected, whether it’s registered or not. (See the U.S. Copyright Office Website for info and forms.) Note: DO Register your song at the Copyright Office to be on the safe side.

6. Blowing the Cover Letter
Cover letters should be short and to the point. Let the music speak for itself and avoid hype. A professional presentation will do more to impress someone than “I know these are hit songs because they’re better than anything I’ve ever heard on the radio.” Don’t hype, plead, apologize or show any hint of desperation. It only gives the message that you have no confidence in the ability of the songs to stand on their own.

Here’s what should be in your cover letter:

  • It should be addressed to a specific person in the company.
  • It should state your purpose in sending the demo. Are you looking for a publisher, a producer, a record deal for you as an artist? Do you want the listener to pay special attention to your production, your singing, your band, or just the song? Is the song targeted for a specific artist?
  • List any significant professional credits that apply to the purpose of your submission. If you want your song published, list other published or recorded songs, contests won, etc. If you’re a performer submitting an artist demo, resist the temptation to grab at weak credits: “I played at the same club that (famous star) played.” Tell them what drives you, what inspires you. Keep it short. List real sales figures. Don’t lie.
  • Include any casting ideas you might have if you’re pitching to a publisher.
  • Ask for feedback if you want it. Odds are you won’t get it but give it a shot.
  • List the songs enclosed and writers’ names in the order they appear on the CD/tape. (Lyric sheets should also be enclosed in the same order the songs appear on the demo.)
  • Thank them for their time and attention.

7. Not putting their name, address and phone number, e-mail address and Web site on the CD, the case, and on every lyric sheet.
It seems like such common sense. In fact it would be embarrassing even to suggest that you might forget to do it but I see it happen constantly. The problem on this end is that, between listening sessions at the office, the car, and home, it’s so easy to separate the CD from the case or lyric sheet. Once they’ve gone to the trouble to find your hit song, not finding you is a fate neither of you deserve.

8. Not using adequate postage.
You’d be surprised how often this happens. Take the time to weigh your package at the post office and use the proper postage.

9. Sending CDs in ordinary stationery envelopes.
It’s risky because rough postal handling could force the edge of the case through the envelope. Use a special envelope with an insulated lining.

10. Sending song fragments or intro clips.
Like “a verse and chorus of each song to save their time and give them a taste.” Seems like a good idea if you’ve never been in the listener’s position and really like the verse and chorus, then have to wait until the writer can send you the rest. Frustrating! If I only want to listen to a verse and chorus or less, I’ll just skip to the next song.

BONUS: USING THE INTERNET — YOUR DEMO AS A DIGITAL AUDIO FILE

There are a couple different procedures for this:

  1. Send an E-mail with the audio file attached. Follow the suggestions listed above for cover letter (Include phone number(s). Also include your Web site address so they can click it and go directly to it. When they get to your site, they’ll hopefully find additional bio material, photos and lyrics.
  2. Just send them an e-mail intriguing enough to get them to go to your site and hear your music there.
  3. Use an Electronic Press Kit (EPK). Sonicbids has been very popular for a few years now, but most artists will use their MySpace page as their EPK. A better choice is creating an “EPK” page on your own personal website and sending people there. (Example: www.nickdaugherty.com/epk/)

Indie marketing guru Tim Sweeney suggests that because of the limited amount of time someone may want to spend at any site and the degree of difficulty their online access speeds may present, it’s important to help them decide quickly which of your songs may be of most interest to them. You can help by providing a short description like this one provided on the site of Franklin Spicer and Valerie Ford’s Pegasus Project, a soft jazz, world music group.

“One People”
“The first song Franklin ever heard from Val was a reggae tune she had recorded called One People. He really liked the positive message and the infectious chorus. Franklin talked her into doing a rewrite and making it a Pegasus Project tune. They wanted to share a positive message of how we all are part of one global family. This song was shaped from a number of African musical influences, including the Tuku style. The huge chorus backup vocals were done in two days of recording using seven different singers.”

Note that the description includes information on the style, what it’s about, why it was written and how it was recorded. Their site also includes lyrics to all the songs.

Remember, your demo should look good, have something important to say, and say it well. There are a lot of other applicants for the job. The pros are looking for the best. Be the best!

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2 Responses to How to Present Your Demo: 10 Biggest Mistakes Artists Make and How to Avoid Them

  1. mary cerelie November 20, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

    thank you for the info its reslly helpful

  2. Heather O'Day February 26, 2015 at 2:33 am #

    Thank you for posting your tips! It answers so many questions about why we haven’t been contacted by certain venues and points out, very succinctly, what went wrong! It also confirmed for me and my drummer/partner who’s “right” in our disagreements about this very subject. (He was…) I’ll be changing our digital and CD demos tonight with your advice in mind.

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