The Benefits of Stripping Down Your Song Demos by Cliff Goldmacher

Cliff Goldmacher is a songwriter/engineer/producer/author and owner of recording studios in Nashville and New York City.  Download Cliff’s free e-book, “The Songwriter’s Guide To Recording Professional Demos”



So You’ve Got A New Song

Let’s begin at the beginning. You’ve written a song and, hopefully, you’re thrilled with it. So thrilled, in fact, that you want to record it right away and use every instrument in both the Western and Eastern musical traditions on the demo. I don’t blame you one bit. There’s nothing more fun than dressing up your songs to go to town. But it might make sense to stop and ask yourself what your goals are for your demo.

Why Demo Your Song

If the answer is that you’re a recording artist in your own right and you’re putting together a collection of demos that represent you and your sound, then, by all means, create a full-blown demo and best of luck. But if the answer is that you’re hoping to represent your song in a way that highlights what is unique in your melody and lyric and you’re hoping to pitch it to publishers or recording artists in order to get a cut, you might want to put on the brakes before doing a full-blown demo.


Budget

Let’s start with the elephant in the room…the money. Doing quality recordings of your songs is never inexpensive. As a matter of fact, doing a full band productions of a song can be downright expensive. As a result, you should have VERY good reasons for doing a full production of your song. An example of a “very good reason” would be that you know a music supervisor who has come to you specifically looking for a song for a film or TV show and they’re looking for a full band production. Another good reason would be that you’re working with a young artist and you want to do a version of the song that highlights not only the song but the singer as an artist. However, if you’re hoping to have a long, successful career as a songwriter, you need to manage your demo budget carefully. In terms of pitching possibilities and placement opportunities for your songs, I firmly believe that it is better to have a catalog of ten great sounding, professionally recorded guitar/vocal or piano/vocal demos than it is to have half that many full-band recordings. 


What Is A “Stripped Down” Demo?

A stripped down demo is generally a recording of a single instrument (either acoustic guitar or piano) and a vocal including vocal harmony. This is in contrast with what I’ll refer to as a full band demo which generally involves a rhythm section (drums and bass) as well as various “color” instruments like electric guitar, keyboards, fiddle (if it’s country) and any one of a variety of other instruments. The trick to a well-recorded stripped down demo is that it implies something bigger without necessarily having to use a lot of instruments to do it. For example, a piano/vocal recording where the singer adds harmony vocals on top of their lead vocal gives the impression of the chorus getting bigger more dramatic without having to use a big drum fill or electric guitar power chords to do it. Stripped down demos are particularly effective on ballads but can also work well on uptempo songs. Sometimes, it’s as simple as including a shaker, tambourine or even foot-stomps and hand claps on a recording to give it a sense of drive and motion. Adding a slight percussive element like this still fits in the category of stripped down because it’s being done in exchange for what a full drum kit would do. Give this snippet of a stripped down demo a listen to see what I mean.

Stripped Down Demo with Simple Percussion Click here


Stripped Down Does NOT Mean Low Quality

Let me be perfectly clear. Just because your demo is only one instrument and a vocal, this is not permission to do it yourself unless you’re an experienced studio musician or demo vocalist. When a demo is boiled down to a single instrument and vocal, it is doubly important that the recording and performances be of the highest quality because every element of the recording will be exposed. Most importantly, trained studio musicians and vocalists bring an emotion, precision and energy to a recording that will make it stand out in a way that is essential for creating a positive first impression. I suspect I don’t have to remind you how intense the competition is out there. You’ve only got one chance to make a first impression with your music so make absolutely sure that your demos (whether stripped down or full band) are done by experts. In other words, save your money by using fewer instruments and scaling back your production, not by using inexperienced players, singers and engineers. 

Click the examples below to hear the difference between a guitar/vocal rough recording done on home recording equipment and the same song professionally recorded with a session piano player and professional vocalist.

Rough Recording Click Here

Final Stripped-Down Demo Click Here


When Less Is More

Beyond being easier on your budget, there are several additional reasons to consider stripping down your demos. First of all, a simple guitar/vocal recording of a song shows that the song is strong in its most basic form. If you find yourself thinking that your song will only work if it’s got a full-band production behind it, then you might want to re-investigate the song itself. Another advantage of scaled down production is that it leaves room for the artist or producer on a project to explore production options instead of pegging the song to a particular style of production. Along those same lines, a piano/vocal demo sung by a vocalist with a clean, contemporary sound would open up pitch opportunities across several genres. In other words, it might be possible to pitch the same piano/vocal demo to a pop artist as well as a country artist. If, however, you’ve created a full band recording of the same ballad, the session musicians would most likely have to commit to a particular style thus limiting your pitch opportunities.


Conclusion

Hopefully, your career as a songwriter will be a long and prosperous one. Having great songs is the first and without a doubt the most important place to put your time and effort. But, if you want to make a living as a songwriter, then creating quality demos and getting those recordings into the hands of those who can do something with them comes a close second. By stripping down your demos, you’ll be able to stretch your demo budget and highlight what’s unique in your songs without compromising on the non-negotiables like a quality recording studio, professional musicians and experienced demo singers.  

Good luck!

  • http://www.filteredspace.com Goop

    Thank you Cliff! I have been preaching this as well.
    I have also found when pitching/selling songs to producers, a “stripped down” version has more appeal to the producer. If it is all flushed out it makes it harder for him to hear what he may be looking for; narrowing his own vision for the song. Yes, it will lead to him getting some sort of credit, but in my experience, a working song is better than one on your shelf.

  • http://www.kajgenell.se Kaj Genell ( p & comp. )

    It is a beautiful thing when someone thinks everybody else are idiots. Good luck Mr Goldmacher!

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jawboneband Jawboneband

    Hi Cliff,
    So in your experience, most A&R people have the imagination and desire to find the best talent. As such they will listen past the lo-fi production and zero in on the song-writing and singing talent. I find that fascinating. It certainly doesn’t match with my experience. It may be that in America the record companies are interested in developing and nurturing talent, although I suspect that not to be the case. It’s certainly not the case over here where it helps more if your daddy’s rich or famous or well connected and it certainly seems to be the case in the US. Over here most record companies want bands and artists to have already released a few EPs or albums off their own back and have built themselves a serious following before they are willing to show interest. One wonders why anyone would bother with a label at all if the artist has already done the work for themselves. It does minimize risk for the record company. After all, taking on an artist is a risk for them and they are businesses, in hard times, where people are not spending on music, ergo the lack of desire to put money into acts that aren’t a “sure bet”.
    Anyway I must get a good night’s sleep. I have a gig tomorrow. I’m working with an alt-country artist whose music has been on ads for
    Sony Playstation,
    a National Tourist board,
    a major international confectionery brand,
    Transport For London,
    who has a self-released EP out (on itunes and available as physical copies)
    who was booked to tour with Chuck Berry on his recently (sadly) cancelled UK tour.
    And no, there’s no label interest, no A&R interest nor any sniff of either, for the worked up produced demos or the stripped down stuff. In my experience unless you are very lucky, it doesn’t happen.
    Apologies for my pessimism :)
    Simon
    Jawbone Band
    http://www.myspace.com/thejawboneband
    http://www.thejawboneband.co.uk/mp3/3rd.mp3

  • David B

    I appreciate this article, however, I find many “real world” holes in it. Living in Nashville and writing with many of the best songwriters in the world, having songs cut all over the world, and producing some chart-toping artists in my career, I’ve seen the industry go from “We can hear this is a hit!” with a simple guitar/ vocal, to now dealing with “Uh, yeah, we can’t really hear anything good in this guitar/ vocal. BUT, if you’d produce it out, now THEN we’d really be able to tell something!” It’s VERY frustrating, because now the people in the decision-making seats (A&R, publishers, music supervisors, etc.) are more business-minded than creative-minded. Translate: You’d better make darn sure that your demo is 99% a master BEFORE you have these decision-makers hear it. I could tell stories of pitch meetings where a hit producer would hear a song one week and pass, due to it being a “stripped-down” version, only to hear the same song fully-produced the next and say “Why the hell didn’t you bring this last week? THIS IS A HIT!!!!” So, for me, in my world where I want to continue getting cuts, I’ll continue to invest the dollars and elbow-grease to produce master-quality demos. I’ve found a better return on my investment and cut-to-songs percentage when I do this. I do stripped-down demos, or simple worktapes of songwriting sessions, for archiving purposes only, until it’s the right time to demo the song for the right batch of artists. And make sure that when you’re demoing, you go balls-to-the-wall by the first chorus… many songs won’t be listened to beyond that. And if possible, demo for many demographics… something that can go pop/country/AC. Or pop/R&B/AC. You’ll have so much better luck. Yes, it’s an investment, but the possible returns will make you wonder why you’d do it any other way!!!

  • Danny J

    Yeah, veeeery useful info, thx. The problem is that in MY music, I use MY rules, because this is how I do it and untill now I can’t complaining. Have a good PC, a good syntesizer and a mixing table is sufficient for me to create MY good music, wich involve voice(es) and instrumental…. including drums wich sound perfectly made on syntesizer (every single beat manually) with the help of a metronome. Sooo… Mr Goldmacher, when you do this, you may give a piece of advice to the others. By the way, I´ve started a soundtrack for a documental that a religios TV has made… what ya think? Interested in share some of your ideas or you just stay with those rules of yours? Sorry 4 my english.

  • David C

    As a songwriter, it’s hard enough coming up with a melody & lyric that is unique enough to call “original”. There are very few songwriters that can take a melody & lyric and turn it into a song that is good enough (production wise & sonically) to release/ shop around…
    Producing a song is an art form in itself. Songwriters who think they can do both (don’t get me wrong, some can), are few & far between. A Mac/PC, Protools in your own studio (most times a glorified bedroom) are not enough tools to call yourself a producer. Yes these facilities can be more than enough “if” you have the right producer. That’s how I do it….

  • http://www.paulgrenier.com Paul Grenier

    I’ve had awesome success independently, and frankly wouldn’t be interested in major label involvement anyway. I’m sure most of you know why. I fully produce my songs to the best of my ability and as fully as possible. I have an insane amount of airplay on internet stations like Jango and the public love the production. I think doing one or 2 stripped down tracks is a great idea, as long as the song calls for it. In my opinion you have to follow what the song asks for. Otherwise it will always sound like something’s missing and that sets people off. My song “Frightened” was a feature song on a major Canadian TV series called Durham County. And if it had not been “ready” for that sort of thing in the first place, it never would have been selected. It’s a double edged sword i guess and everybody will have to make their own decisions. What works for one does not always work for the other. Determine who you want hearing your songs, and that will give you your answer. If you want the public to hear your gift, then give them all you’ve got. They’ll love you for it.

  • Brad Hampton

    I agree with Paul on the very first post. If you offer your song in the form of its fullest potential, the song’s presentation will lead it to where it should go. With modern mixes the way they are, it seems almost like you need to deliver the song in the manner people will be most interested in listening to it to keep their attention without allowing for interpretation. You’ll find your target audience.
    Brad Hampton
    http://www.myspace.com/bradhamptonmusic

  • http://www.renelabre.com Rene Labre

    Everyone who makes it in the biz has their own formula,some of you with expierence would forget that this article was to help out an artist just getting started to produce a decent demo and to that end it has very good points.

  • http://blog.j-roland-kelly.com J Roland Kelly

    Isn’t this type of studio system dead? The idea of writing a song, demoing it, just to get it to a music industry titian that might want others to cover it, feels a bit dated now.
    Music industry titians, and the profitable companies they once worked for are becoming harder and harder to find.
    I think now, if you write a song, just record it in your style, and release it.
    Consumers who really appreciate music have learned to over look such high production values, if the song is song by a guy who is a little older, overweight, and ugly so be it.
    This is the NORMAL guy who really wrote the song. How honest.
    Plus if the Jonas Brothers still want to cover it later, why not?
    But waiting for a well paid guy in a dying industry to find your music, before it gets out, and you see any profit for it, is a recipe for a bad life.

  • Barrie hardman

    My band has currently signed to an a and r company. Upon meeting the director we realised that, as someone mentioned earlier, you need to have your own stand alone credentials before any major label will come near you. It all depends what artists want. We have been offered independent deals, but when we asked key questions about how the label can promote us and open us up to a wider audience, they are short of answers because they donthave the financial clout or influence to get you heard by a larger audience. All of our recent success and support slots with bigger bands etc has come from creating our own”business” where by we put stuctures in place to be as self sufficient as possible. By creating a buzz on a small scale in your local and surrounding areas you can provide an example of the potential of your musics capacity to sell! If you are genuinely appealing you will know from smaller gigs if people come back to see you. We have friends who have taken on different roles within our set up to help keep us organised and efficient. Artists by their very nature are not good at these sorts of things. By doing smaller local gigs you can generate revenue to fund gigs out of town and get you name heard by promoters( which usuallly know loads more promoters and spread your name by word of mouth quickly) which in turn can lead to better gigs etc! I guess my point,coming back to the original article , is that by only approaching things from one angle, you limit your scope for a possible wider audience. Good recordings which are of a good quality will , percentage wise get you more success than shabby acoustic demos. Do a glossy press pack highlighting your achievements and spend sone money on decent recordings!!! You will always hear stories about how some artist got signed just by sending a tape of him singing into a mic with a guitar and nothing else…. You will also always hear stories about how a friend of a friend was destined for great things once, but didn’t quite make it coz they didn’t sell themselves properly! We live in a competitive world where thousands of other people want exactly what I want, you are a product on a shelf…. Most people( rightly or wrongly) will pick up the one which is packaged the best and has the best reputation. Do what is best for you, if there was one sure fire answer them we would all be doing it. Listen to my band the rubicon from Portsmouth uk( there you go I’m selling myself right now) and let me know what you think, we have a variety of recordings, some of which are acoustic demos and some high production.

  • http://www.azoz.com G. Ziemann

    “…this is not permission to do it yourself…”
    Permission? I’ve been playing music and mixing since 1973. The first rule of rock and roll is that there are no rules.
    Anyone heard Lenny Kravtiz’s version of “American Woman” with the distorted vocals? It’s only one example of that new trend — studios releasing music that sounds like I could have recorded it better in the garage.
    I don’t need anyone’s permission to do better than that.
    I think it makes far more sense to just do the full-blown recording and use Tunecore to put it directly on iTunes, etc. If you’re interested in pushing songs to producers, you’re still playing the old game — the one with rules.
    The problem with the old game is that if you win, you still lose. Tunecore is playing a more modern game, without the feudal system. Or the need to ask for permission to be artistic.

  • http://wilsf.com Mike Ball

    It is interesting to me that all these “insanely successful gonna get a Grammy any day now” guys are here on TuneCore disputing the strong logic in this piece. You’d think they would be out spending all their massive royalty checks.
    Cliff’s premise is simple – any reasonably talented producer will see the quality in a stripped down but professionally produced demo, if the writing quality is there in the first place.
    Plus it makes it WAY easier for the producer to superimpose their own, probably far more experienced (or at least more in tune with what the guys who sign the checks are looking for) ideas of specifically where the song could go.
    Insightful and very helpful piece Cliff – thanks.

  • http://www.myspace.com/shekameta Shekameta

    Although it seems like the music industry has become a lot more open for new talent, the opposite is happening…the big labels are taking on fewer artists because they can no longer afford to take the risk that they will flop..the big money concentrates on a fortunate handful such as Lady Gaga, Jay-Zee and the like, knowing they’re a sure bet, leaving less mainstream artists with narrower appeal out in the cold..out in the cold because they don’t have the resources to afford huge A&R. It’s difficult to see this changing..money will always control art.

  • http://www.stratagetikrecordz.com Gino Skarz

    Decent article…

  • Aly Ray Hoxy

    If you have a good song with good lyrics then it should be under produced to attract a wider spectrum of interested parties, That way everybody from a grunge band to a bluegrass band could see it’s possibilities. If it’s over produced a lot is lost on the mind trying to take it all in and the beauty of the lyrics and original music is lost. If your lyrics are “I love you and you love me oh how happy we could be.” then go ahead and over produce because you’re not saying anything anyway. But I underproduce my stuff because I have something to say and I want it heard. Alyray

  • http://facebook.com/alvinalexander Alvin Alexander

    Actually, you’re all correct!!!! The record business has few hard rules, other than “you simply need God on your side to make it.” Think that’s a joke? Stripped down demo, fully blown demo, spend little money, spend lots of money, use the best & most popular talent & professionals from promotion to emotion to very well connect to super freakin’ rich already freakin’ ready rich & well connected. If the public don’t like it, then you’re sh_t out of luck! Do your demo the way you feel & promote to the best of your abilities, but before you head out the door with that BIG HIT! “Pray to God like you’ve never done before that he gives you all the blessings you need to make it!” I’m speaking from experience & I’ve seen & been through a lot with some of the most successful producers & recording artist in the world! Heard the song by Mary Mary titled “It’s The God In Me?” Listen intently to the lyrics & you’ll understand where I’m coming from. Write your song & get on your hands & knees or standup & ask God to please give you the wherewithall to be successful with your music & your personal life. In the meantime, don’t blow your bank account, keep a good credit rating always, enjoy the simple things in life, your family, your friends, stop stressing! Enjoy everyday life! Don’t take rejection so hard! Everybody has an opinion, just like we all have _ _ _h_l_s! Ever hear the song titled “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” The Key? “Yes!” “Be Happy!” “Just BE HAPPY!” Play your music & just be FREAKIN’ HAPPY!” Keep in mind how fortunate we are just to have the talent that gives us the ABILITY TO BE CREATORS of the wonder art of MUSIC! Don’t be vulnerable and let anybody on God’s wonderful earth spoil it for you. “LIVE, LOVE & JUST BE HAPPYYYYYYYY!” “Please!” “Just don’t quick your day job, until it’s time!” “We have enough unemployed people in this country already!” “Keep learning your craft & the business.” “Don’t be afraid of BUSINESS, especially “Music & Entertainment Business,” as it is also an artform. Study the business end, as much as your music arts & watch how successful you’ll be. “Just don’t keep God out of the equation!” “Thank You & God Bless You All.”

  • King V

    i got a song

  • http://www.reverbnation.com/paranoiddroid Derek

    check out my demo
    http://www.reverbnation.com/paranoiddroid
    looking for interested publishers / recording artist

  • http://prestonlux.bandcamp.com Preston Lux

    I am full of songs, and seek to know who to have listen to them, without spending a lot of money. Hopefully there is a place to send material for someone to listen and determine if they want to use your stuff. If you know please let me know. Im a producer, playing, singing and writing my own material. I think the article on cutting down on your instrumentation is relevant.

  • S.H Prince

    I can appreciate what every one has to say as it is clear that everyone speaks from their own experience and what work for one might work for the other. As a person looking for guidance and direction I must say I benefited from all the comments, and look forward for moments like these…peace in Yahshua the messiah,lets take music to the world.

  • http://blog.tribemindrecords.com Yuri

    I think some folks have missed the point of this article. It is about demos, specifically songwriting demos. The stripped down approach suggested is for songwriters shoppoing their tunes to otherr bands/artists/producers. It doesn’t seem to be aimed at people looking to release the songs themselves.
    That said, I’m not sure how viable that way of working is anymore. I’ve had better luck working with bands tp write stuff specifically for their style than just writing whatever and trying to put it out there to get noticed. Labels and producers. Just aren’t signing talent anymore because the old model is in its death throes.

  • http://www.shankblog.com shanktalk

    Wake up people! The record industry is only interested in socially engineering the populace. They don’t care if you are a talented songwriter or the next Bob Dylan. They are promoting a one world, racially mixed populace that is sexually androgenous.
    They don’t care about music, if they did they would promote music people wanted. Obviously, the music they are selling is not as popular as the major media would like us to believe, or they wouldn’t be a “dying industry” as one post succinctly put it.
    Take a listen to “Little Steven’s Garage” and you will be amazed at how many bands are out there, recording kick ass “hit records” that never see the light of day. Rock and Roll is going the way of popular jazz. It will soon be this “weird music” that only “musicians” understand.
    Put your own music out and make it sound as good as possible. Then promote and distribute it yourself online. That is about as good as it gets if you play rock and roll.

  • Rob Holsman

    Hmm, not convinced by this article. Sure, if you’re a writer sending ideas to a producer or record company to try and sell songs I suppose its one approach. But what about bands? How exactly is this supposed to apply to, say a metal artist? Or a rap artist?
    Songs rarely exist outside of a genre, and most genres are dictated by the sounds and in some cases the production that they use. I don’t think its unfair to suggest that a lot of modern pop music has shifted the focus away from lyrical content – melodic and rhythmic motifs are becoming much more important, but this approach would suggest removing them.
    Far better I think to produce a full and balanced version of the demo, to give the recipient the best possible idea of the intended message. There’s an interesting contradictory argument at recordyourband.com entitled “Why Demos are a Waste of Time”!
    http://recordyourband.immersiveaudio.co.uk/2010/02/why-demos-are-a-waste-of-time/ which I thought summed it up quite well

  • http://lbndl.net LB Higginbotham

    Hey did you forget something?
    Indie music can reward a good stripped down demo as well; if you are a self made producer, you may not always have the time to crank out a killer bass line, drums to beat the band, and a screaming lead guitar. So give a stripped down demo your best shot, blog it, and post a kind of help wanted if you will and let others collaborate for not only a killer band sound but a brothers in arms experience!

  • http://www.myspace.com/kingcobymusicc kingcobymusic

    download i make it work ,thanks for your time .

  • Connie Helwig

    What a great article,and I love the feedback,,I see I have done the stripped down version already,,not realizing why I did it,,just had that feeling for my first song. It is REALLY great to see the FAITH is still strong and cranking out melodies in this country,ps,if your Mike Ball aka Ernie Ball,,i coiled more of your strings in SLO Town than I can count!!! I aways kept looking over to the sanding section,, wanting to learn that side of Guitar making so bad,,finally did it myself,,and found out it’s cheaper to just go out and BUY ONE!!!

  • http://myspace.com/captaindangentsmedicinechest Dan James

    This article makes me want to change my whole direction in my recordings. Thanks to everybody for your comments. They are all very helpful, as is this article. I also have written, played and produced my songs as (rough tracks), but with a full band sound. I realize that they need some tweaking and professional mixing. I guess I didn’t do too bad of a job on them. The only reason I didn’t use a band is that it’s hard to find the right musicians, (besides friends) that understand where I’m coming from in my songs. I’ve been told “I’m not exactly easy to pigeonhole”. HELP!! Take a listen to some of my rough drafts on my Myspace page. Go to myspace.com/captaindangentsmedicinechest and send me a comment on them please. I would really appreciate it. I may have to scale them down to get the message across as Cliff says. Great article and comments once again.