Promoting yourself with a demo can mean all kinds things, from selecting a couple of tracks to help connect with a collaborator to getting yourself a composing gig or record deal. Producer/musician Quantazelle herself has seen plenty of demo discs and has assembled some tips for how to make them work. If you’ve got ideas or questions of your own, be sure to sound off in comments. But the best idea of all may be getting people together for an in-person event to share music and visual reels. -Ed.

A demo is short for “demonstration,” and its purpose is to show others what you can do, musically. In the past, a band with major-label aspirations would scrape together a bit of cash for a few hours in a studio and crank out a few copies of their best songs on a tape or a record and then send it off to various A&R departments, hoping for a record deal and a contract with a fat advance. These days, technology has made the concept of a demo and its applications somewhat different, but we’ll always need to share what we’re capable of with others.

If you’re in Chicago this Tuesday… During my time at Modsquare a few years back, I organized a Demo Swap at a club in Chicago, where guests would get in free if they showed up with a stack of 10 or more or their demos on CDR. Not only did I discover talented local acts who I featured on our free online compilations, I met artists that I would later book at events, and learned that fellow attendees who had met at the night ended up collaborating on projects. Since I had so many people asking me to do another one, we’ve reincarnated the night at Ramp Chicago. So if you’re close to Chicago, show up at Sonotheque on Tuesday, July 17, 2007 at 9pm with a stack of demos or promotional material, get in for a reduced cover, and start meeting your fellow musicians and industry types (Peter Kirn of CDM will be there!). Read more about it here: Demo Swap July 17 at Ramp Chicago.

Where’s it going?

Figure out your intentions with the demo. Is it to get signed to a label? To book gigs? To find like-minded potential collaborators? To get work scoring a film? Similarly, determine the audience. Is it the A & R people at a label? The talent buyer at a club? Other musicians? Each of these requires a different approach.

Getting signed

If you’re trying to get signed to a record label you have to take into consideration the sort of label. Most thriving independent labels focus on staying within a particular niche or “sound,” especially in the fields of electronic music and indie labels. If those are the types of labels you are hoping to release with you should make a demo that will fit within those niches.

First, find out if unsolicited demos are accepted at the labels you’re considering. You don’t want to waste time and money on something that won’t even be listened to. Then make sure you’ll fit there. Don’t submit psychedelic folk to a minimal techno label and dark drum and bass likely won’t fly at an indie-emo label in the Midwest. While you don’t need to bend your style to fit in with a particular label, you should look at the rest of their releases and consider whether or not you think you would fit alongside the other artists. With my own label, subVariant, I focused on IDM and melodic, glitchy 4/4 tracks, and I was always surprised (and a little annoyed) when I would get trance, folk, and hip-hop demos.

Include a short bio along with a brief description of what you sound like, and feel free to name-drop musicians you’ve played with or acts that you’re similar to. Faced with an unfamiliar situation (you, the unknown artist), humans look for a familiar point of entry, and more well-known names will help them get to know you better.

If you create wildly divergent styles of music, perhaps you should consider setting up one or a few side projects so that you can package your sound appropriately to each label. This also depends on the label type. Some are far more eclectic and open to different styles while others have a laser-sharp focus on one particular sub-genre.

After about a month or so, drop a note via email and pleasantly ask what they think of your demo. If you don’t hear anything back, or you get a “no,” suck it up and move on to the next label. Or, if you think their criticism was constructive, go back and rework your songs and have a fresh demo made.

And if you’ve only got one or two labels in mind that you’re absolutely in love with, make a jaw-dropping first impression by sending your demo overnight via FedEx, DHL, or UPS (or if it’s a PO box, then USPS Express) in the States or the international equivalent. Telefon Tel Aviv did this and got booked to Hefty records.

Getting booked

If you are trying to book a gig at a club or other event, it’s best to provide a short (20 or 30 minutes, tops) overview of what you do live, either as a live PA or a DJ set. An actual live recording would be best, and if you can hear an exuberant crowd reacting to your music, even better! You’re trying to convince the talent buyer that crowds love you when you play out, and that you’ve got a solid act. Myself, I’ve got links to differently-themed DJ mixes on my website and as CDRs that are appropriate for different types of gigs (ie: 4/4 mix, IDM / chill mix). Make sure you include a one-sheet with an overview of who you are, why you’re interesting, and what you sound like.

For more on this, check out my other article, Getting Booked: Ten basic tips for getting live electronic music gigs.

Getting a partner

If you’re looking for potential collaborators, create a short demo showcasing the kind of tracks you would like to work on with someone else. Make notes on the kind of things you’re hoping to get help with for each track. So if , say, you’re trying to find a vocalist, but have no idea of the melody or lyrics, just put up the instrumental track with a note that says something to that effect. But if you’ve got the melody and lyrics down but just need someone to perform it, you can sing it yourself and mention that the current vocals are just one interpretation. Here’s a list of online places where you can find like-minded musicians:

Getting jobs

If you’re looking for commercial work, then you should present a spectrum of the sort of thing you’re capable of, be it emotive washes of sound, or rocking party music. If you’ve previously scored a film, include a three or four-minute clip of the tune (provided you have permission to do so) and briefly describe the scene it was used in. You should also include a one-sheet and bio that present your unique talents as a musician and suggests that you’ll be professional and easy to work with. Testimonials from happy former clients are also a great idea.

The demo itself

Don’t waste money on getting your demo professionally mastered or mixed, especially if you’re sending it to record labels. Try to find a set of flat response speakers or a friend’s professional studio monitors and try to mix it so it sounds pretty much the same on any sound system. Remember to keep a non-hard-limited or non-compressed version of your demo somewhere so that when the time comes, a professional audio engineer has “room” to work their magic.

For all types of demos, keep it simple & short. Put your best track first, followed by two or three in descending order of perceived strength. While an album may have a real winner at the end to leave a positive impression, often times people who are pressed for time will stop at the first or second track, and skip through perceived “filler.” Make sure you grab them with the first song, and keep them hooked with the ones that follow. Unless you’re submitting to an ambient / noise or abstract label, leave off the tracks that have five minutes of building sound or slowly extinguishing outros, or make edited versions of those songs.

Plan on having it in multiple formats to accommodate the preferences of the recipients. Chocolate Industries only accepts CDR demos, but Archipel accepts links to online tracks but not as email attachments. At the night I help book, Ramp Chicago, we ask that any local act who wants to be booked show up at one of our nights and hand us a demo. This gives us a chance to meet in person as well shows us that the act is serious about wanting to play and will make the effort to come see what we do. Here’s a list of formats your demo can be in:

  • CDR / DVD-R (here’s some nice packaging)
  • Online, zipped or archived as one file
  • Online, separate files to download
  • Online, streaming
  • On a 16 MB flash drive
  • On a 16 MB SD card
  • On a social networking site like Myspace
  • A business card, flier or postcard with a link to a URL where people can grab your stuff (here’s a printer)

No matter what the medium, always make sure your contact info is on the disk, card, or page where your files are. And don’t just put it on a sleeve with a blank CDR inside, since the two pieces will invariably become separated.

For all demo applications except for commercial work, don’t waste time and money by creating elaborate artwork for your demo. A record label will come up with its own artwork and concept (sometimes with your input, sometimes not), a talent buyer isn’t interested in the underlying themes of your music, and a potential collaborator is focusing on the music.

One thing you can do is to make the packaging of the disk or the postcard with the URL stand out in a singular way so that it will be easy for you to follow up later and reference your demo in a stack on the recipient’s desk. For instance, you could glue a sheet of bubble wrap on the back of your business card if you make pop music, make a CD case out of purple satin if you make lounge-y tracks, or (as one demo I received) create your business card in the shape of an flash memory stick from a Play Station Portable.

Success with your demo

Having a polished demo (or multiple versions thereof), while important, is just one of the steps in achieving success with your music. Networking can help you get a personal recommendation to the head honcho of a record label—start asking your friends and contacts if they know anyone at the label you’re considering and ask for an introduction. Checking out events and clubs in your city and introducing yourself to the talent buyers will be the first step to getting booked for local gigs. Taking advantage of the opportunities provided by social networking tools and online communities will help you find other musicians with whom to create stellar tracks you couldn’t do on your own. Being professional, doing excellent work, and going the extra mile for your clients will thrill them and they’ll refer you without you needing to ask for it. Your demo will change over time to reflect your current work, but keeping a professional attitude and commitment to your music will always help you get where you want to go. Good luck!

Do you have a favorite medium for demo creation? Is there one social networking site that you consider superior to others? Do you have any success stories with creating a demo that you’d like to share? Let’s hear it!

  • Prepostra

    The subVariant link takes you to a hostmonster "under construction" page.

    Just thought you would like to know.

    Great article, thanks for the really useful info.

  • Gah… I am not sure why subVariant suddenly died like that, but I put in a support ticket with the host. I suspect some weird DNS business at their end. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Glad you find it useful!

  • ^ And that's what it was–some fbxrd NAME records–I just checked. Should work now!

  • Prepostra

    I'm in Australia, it may take a few hours to replicate through the "tubes"… wrong again.

    I just checked and it's OK.

    I love the Electronic Musician's Emergency Adapters 1.1 (espcially the LED light… and why do they always turn up AFTER the gig)

  • Very nice advice, thanks Liz!

  • dead_red_eyes

    Couldn't have said it better myself Liz.

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  • Here is my advice as someone who often sifts through the demos when an un-cracked cd case is needed. Don't just take a hard look at the demo that you are sending out.

    Instead, look in the mirror. You may be totally useless. Don't even bother. You've wasted your youth and the people you've always scorned as sell-outs were all much more talented than you. Just give up.

    Or, maybe try a nice bow and some dolphin stickers on the cd case. Good luck.

  • One other piece of advice from someone who is part of an online remix site and spends time approving mixes (and rejecting them)..

    If you are rejected take it on the chin and move on to new pastures.

    Acting like a spoilt brat and whining about having your "creative expression restricted", how the label are "censoring my art" and how many hours you spent making the music as if that's important will only confirm to the people who rejected you that they made the right choice and they will probably never ever listen to you or your stuff again. Rejection is part of the game. Accept it.

    If you take rejection well and even thank them for their time then next time you send in something you'll get another fair shot, they may even remember you and your good attitude and it may play in your favour!

  • Excellent point, Stef!

  • And I have been meaning to sign up for Virb for a while.. might as well give it a shot and try it out as a MySpace alternative.

  • thesimplicity

    People still send out demos? I thought founding your own CDR label, releasing one album, then letting the domain name expire was all the rage now.

    In all seriousness, as someone who works at a distribution channel that sees 300+ submissions a week: write your frickin' phone number/email address on the disc itself. If you submit a disc, it's most likely to get passed around quite a bit (that is, if it's good enough to stay out of the trash bin after the first listen). If your contact info was buried in some extravagant design that packaged the actual demo, you'll never get a call back. By the time it reaches someone with authority it's just another disc on a spindle.

    Oh, and please stop making songs where the vocals are whispered over a couple of Acid loops for three minutes. That's just a personal request, but I think the world would benefit from it.

  • One key piece of advice here. You may like a particular record label, buy all their records, try to sound just like them, and send them a demo. They will never ever ever ever never ever sign you as they will be getting the same stuff every week from dozens of other indistinguishable imitators. They will probably hate you and urinate gleefully on your brick wall backgrounded band glossy while eBaying for vintage Binaca Spearmint breath spray. Be Unique. Be good enough for them to sign. Send Binaca breath spray.

    Lightscribe discs with all the proper info and a link to your website; all in a simple cd sleeve with a simple interesting cover = The balls! Avoid stray pubic hair in the envelope. Even if you are a bit Heavy Metal or Polka.

    Also, if you're sending stuff to a radio station and know that there's a guy there who plays your particular perfume then send it to them. Otherwise the intern who only likes The White Strokes will simply take the cd case and urinate gleefully on your glossy while eBaying for vintage Spearmint Binaca breath spray.

    No need to thank me I know I've helped someone. Cheers.

  • Binaca!

  • Gilbert Bernstein

    I thought I'd chime in with some experience from the receiving end while working in student radio. This advice will obviously skew as such, but if you're sending to college radio, these are some good tips:

    * If you can, get a college distributor like Fanatic, Planetary, uhh… there's a bunch more, but these people act as a bit of a pre-filter on college radio submissions. They charge, but if your CD comes into the station from them, it has a much better chance of getting played. Plus they probably know about a bunch of stations you don't. Moral: Name recognition goes a long ways.

    * It's probably not worth "personalizing" your CD when you send it to college radio. I distinctly remember one CD being in a big fuzzy pink fur pocket and sitting unreviewed for god knows how long. I don't remember if anyone listened to it, but that fuzzy pocket kept turning up places for weeks afterwards. By contrast, a one sheet or info sticker will do wonders because it actually tells someone about your music. Moral: substance over fluff.

    * As was said, anywhere that'll accept random demos or CDs is going to be swamped with them. It's entirely possible that your submission sat around for months before getting tossed in a trash bin during spring cleaning. That's the way the cookie crumbles. It's just something you don't understand until you realize the physical impossibility of listening to all the music some places receive. There just isn't enough time. Moral: it's a crapshoot

    * The safest medium for recordings now a days is on Audio CD. At the station I worked at, we just threw away mp3 cds. We still play from CDs over the air, and no-one really wants to bother burning those mp3s onto an audio cd. Almost everyone has an easy way to play an audio CD nowadays, so if you're in doubt, that's the way to go. Moral: CDs

    Hope that wasn't too pedantic. Good Luck!

    (oh, also, if you're sending to college radio, then at least an ep's worth of material is a good idea. They're looking for something to play on the air too, so keep that in mind)

  • Gilbert Bernstein

    Oh geez, one thing I completely forgot about. As far as cover art, the spine is really important. Most of the albums we had at the station you'd be pulling from shelves or a stack where all you can see is the spine. Half the time there's a big sticker or review obscuring the cover anyways. Any CD on our new music shelf that had a stand out spine was guaranteed to get a lot of play if it didn't suck. The front's still really important, but a lot of people completely forget about the spine altogether.

  • Avoid jumbled and confusing text.

  • Michael Una

    DJ McManus, you always crack me up.

    One piece of advice I would offer is to keep your bio short and to the point.

    I used to book shows and we'd get demos all the time from bands who wanted to make it known how they all met in middle school and how they broke up four times before actually getting their act together.

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  • TJ

    I used to DJ and library at college radio. COOL COVER ART. Vet with students. DJ’s need something that looks mind=f’ing when they’re REALLY baked. Trip the cover, the music trips too. WORD

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  • The demo swap was great! Josh, Michael Una, J. Schnable and Karl from Austria were CDM regulars that made it out, as far as I was aware. I have a big stack of demos and I plan on writing a little recap soon and posting links to some of my favorites from the demos I got. We also put up some photos from the night.

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  • hey! i want a copy of E)'(ODUST…. whatever that is. i have one clue… which is what intrigues me. will swap for mine.

  • Hi Peter, I was wondering if you know of a good resource for starting a label(legal stuff, especially for california) and paying artists for their work?

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  • dav


  • dav



  • This is stellar advice. Nice to see such fruitful information !

  • thank you.

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  • Sameir Bakhoury

    Im hot you will hear about me sameir aka show

  • Henry

    Really interesting article. I’m just about to record a demo in a commercial recording studio and approach labels and management, thanks for the info it will be useful. I also read a good article on a similar subject of recording a covers demo: