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!