Let the Derby Begin – recording tips from NEMO Music Showcase – Brief Article
Byline: Mike Levine Editor
Not too long ago, I attended the 2002 NEMO Music Showcase and Conference in Boston. One of the more interesting events there was the Demo Derby, in which a panel of industry professionals – including producer-engineers Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, John Lennon), Shelly Yakas (Tom Petty, U2, Bob Seger), and Lawrence Gelburd (Margin of Error, Amy Carr, Squash, Real) and manager Steve Smith – listened to one-minute snippets of demo CDs from audience participants and offered constructive criticism. It was a fascinating exercise, and I wanted to share some of the panel’s wisdom with you.
One of the first things the panelists pointed out was that many of the songs had intros that were too long. One intro lasted almost a full minute before the first lyric was sung. Whether you’re trying to get the attention of an A&R person, a club booker, or even a magazine editor, you need to get to the point quickly! Otherwise, the best part of your demo may never get heard.
“A lot of the battle is won in the arrangements,” said Gelburd, who pointed out many examples in the various songs in which subtle variations in a riff or rhythm would have made for a more solid and arresting arrangement. For example, one song had an ascending riff that repeated four times consecutively in each chorus. Gelburd observed that if the end of the riff had simply descended on the third repeat, the entire chorus would have felt much less static.
The panelists all agreed that the songs they liked best were the ones in which the artist’s musical personality and the genre of the song came through clearly from the start. This was not the case for many of the demos, however, and quite a few were marred by problems such as vocals mixed too low and rhythm sections that couldn’t hold a tempo.
Although the panelists’ criticisms were often harsh, they were quite instructive and accurately reflected the realities of the industry. Conversely, several of the demos impressed the panelists so much that they invited the artists to talk to them afterward.
The bottom line is if you’re going to compete in the music business, whether you’re trying to get a record contract or just going for some gigs, it’s crucial that you have your act together (figuratively and literally) before you start sending out CDs. Don’t expect busy industry types to be able to spot the talent hidden in a flawed demo. You must present them with a top-notch product. If you’re unsure as to what that entails, there are plenty of resources available – from music conferences to directories of industry personnel to musicians’ resource sites (not to mention magazines such as Onstage) – and you can learn a lot by taking advantage of all that information.
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