Demo Recordings: Which is Better, High Production Value or Lo-Fi?

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Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her -- confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.

Dear Fan,
How do labels handle first releases from "new" artists these days? More to the point -- do labels sign people based on demos anymore, or do they only pick up new artists who have a record recorded/mixed?

I've got a ten-plus year history with many labels, tiny indies on up to quasi-majors. I've usually worked as a sidewoman, but for the last year I have been doing solo singer songwriter stuff. I've demo'd some of the songs with a well-known producer who has given me a very generous "friends" discount. My producer pal has a large chunk of time free this summer and is ready/willing/able to help me in whatever way I'd like, either finishing the demos or recording and mixing an entire record. After this summer, he is booked.

I would love to just go in with him for a week or more and make a record this summer -- it really would be a dream come true -- and then find a label to release it, but I can't afford that right now, even with the generous discount he can give me. But I also think that no label is going to pony up a few thousand bucks for me to record a debut record on such short notice.

So what do I do? Is my only option to spend the few hundred bucks it would cost to finish a three (or four or five?) song demo and start talking to labels, knowing that I'll wind up recording with someone else, somewhere else? Or do I lower my standards and finish a full-length's worth of demo-sounding songs and then shop it around? I know what labels I'd like to work with, but I don't know whether they like demos or fully-realized first releases.

Yours,
Iron Johnnie

Dearest Johnnie,
Congrats on venturing out on your own, and for doing good enough work that a talented friend is willing to help you out--it speaks to your talent or at the very least the good will you have accumulated.

What you are up against here is the fact that because of access to technology, many bands and artists can make records for nearly nothing and shop them. It's certainly less of a gamble for labels: to know exactly what they are getting, to know the cost and the results and have the ability to put it out quickly. That said, your best bet here is to finish your 2-3 best songs with this producer so that labels will know what is the full produced potential is for your material. It's not worth the financial risk to go all in on the record with your producer friend. My suggestion demo the rest at home or with a friend who is handy with Pro-Tools, and work on getting another 3-4 of your very best songs in good shape with them. A good song is a good song regardless of whether there is harmonica, harp, drums and a bunch of reverb on it. Who knows, maybe one of the labels you shop it to might prefer you in stripped-down Nebraska mode. The key thing is make sure you put your best songs forward, that they are workshopped and solid and not hindered by horrible sound quality. Unless you are in a Mummies-phase and that's your thing.



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