10 Worst Song Demo Mistakes

Song Demo Mistakes feature

This week I got the call to produce new record for an artist on a NY label.  It was a rush project as they wanted it “in the can” by 1st week of December in time to ship for Christmas.  Mostly the songs were already chosen, however, at the last minute, the label decided they wanted to add 2 more songs to the project.

We put out the word amongst the writing community here that we needed songs quickly as we were planning on cutting in under a week.  Usually this song request process manifests itself in the form of a “Pitch Sheet” of some sort.  The tip sheet will dictate the kind of songs styles and lyrics styles that are needed for any particular project like “Up-tempo party songs” or “Mid-tempo island country grooves” or “ballads” or lately we have seen a lot of “AC/DC songs with country lyrics”.  The tip sheet will also tell the reader who the artist is along with a few other dos and don’ts about song submissions for that particular artist, etc.  Since we didn’t have time for a tip sheet we personally called or texted every writer we knew with specifics on the artist, kind of songs, melodic ranges, and lyric content needed.

After roughly 48 hours, we received just over 250 songs. I sat down this past Saturday to dig into the task of listening. After hearing the first 2 songs, I knew what my next blog was going to be about. I want to share the experience that I had going through all these songs to give you a perspective from the producer side as we try to do our job. I thought this might help you on your future pitches! The intent here is to reveal what goes through a producer’s mind as we have to trudge through so many songs to cut the list from 250 to 15 or so that we present to the artist who then chooses the final list of songs that will be cut on the record. FYI, this is not the most fun part of our job, this part is busy work that we would just as soon get out of the way as quickly as possible. Every job has this component in some fashion or another.

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As a producer, I am very familiar with the artist brand and voice. We’d better be, right? We understand the vocal range and we understand the kind of songs the artist gravitates towards. Matter of fact, I was so clued in that I predicted the very two songs we thought would make the record out of the 18 that I presented.

10 Worst Song Demo Mistakes

  1. Long Intros SUCK – all we are thinking about during the vetting process is the DSC_2314melody, lyric, and vibe of the song; and isn’t that what you are selling?  For the life of me, I cannot understand why ANYONE would have a song demo with a 45 second intro; it seems like a lifetime when you have 250 to listen to. If they all had 45 second intros, that would be 187 MINUTES (just over 3 hours) of time we wasted waiting for the damn songs to start! Think about it! What’s the purpose of a long intro on a SONG DEMO? You are trying to sell the SONG, not blow people away with your producing skills. Why make us wait? This is such an annoyance; we had probably 8 songs like this. Every single one of them pissed us off immediately (because we could tell it would be a long one). To some extent, we rendered a poor judgment on the song before we even heard the first verse. Fair or not, this is what happens; foretold is forewarned.
  2. Crappy/Cheap Production – We did come across a (very) few songs with horrible production, cheap demos. We just laughed and ripped on them. They provided a welcome comic relief from the work load we had to complete. How does that make you feel? I will tell you honestly, that you have to compete and compete intelligently in your marketplace. From the first note of crappy production, we are ripping on the demo before we even get to the song. Poor production certainly colors our opinion. Food For Thought.
  3. Wrong Song – READ the tip sheet or LISTEN to the instructions on what the project is requiring. If the producer asks for up-tempo party songs, don’t send ballads. If the tip sheet has an artist with a limited vocal range, don’t send huge songs no matter how good they are. Who’s gonna sing them? Don’t use an opportunity to pitch a certain song as a vehicle to send the producers every song you have. We don’t care (not right now, anyway). We are only looking for the songs we need for THIS project so we can get on with producing it.
  4. Vague/Missing Email Subject Lines – As you might imagine, in about 48 hours I added 250 emails toSong Demo Mistakes my regular daily allotment. As a sender you definitely want to put the name of the artist pitch into the subject line so your song doesn’t get lost in all the traffic. The subject line is how the receiver will find a song among so many emails. That’s called common sense.
  5. You Didn’t Research The Artist Before Sending Songs – In the case of this particular artist, his songs have a very positive message; they are on the bright side as opposed to darker themes. We came across a couple songs about heavy drinking, sex, and adultery that just wouldn’t be right for his brand. Clearly, the writers that sent those have no clue about the artist and simply wasted our time. This doesn’t make a good impression on us about your songwriting no matter how good the song is. In fact, it makes a bad impression on us that you didn’t listen to what we really needed.
  6. You Chose The Wrong Singer – Choose a pro singer for your demo, NOT someone who is your friend or who is half-price. Unless you’re an artist, don’t sing it yourself to save money. FYI, suitable vocal ranges to the intended pitch are very important. It is really hard to hear a big, high, soaring melody an octave lower. We try, but it really is difficult, especially in the face of a 250-song listening session. Those demos with poor singers or inappropriate singers (with respect to the artist) are ignored immediately. Sorry. I strongly suggest that if your song would work down in a low octave as well as a high soaring vocal performance, demo it twice, or at least cut a second vocal so you have something that clearly represents both vocal ranges.
  7. Your Lyrics Aren’t Strong Enough We listened to some GOOD songs with average lyrics up throughSong Demo Mistakes the first chorus. However, the GREAT songs with KILLER lyrics kept our attention through the second chorus…because we just couldn’t wait to hear what the writer was going to say next. Simple artistic curiosity kept us inside that song.
  8. You Don’t Honor The Purpose Of The Recording – What is a song demo supposed to do for the writer, EXACTLY? It is supposed to sell the SONG – specifically the lyric, melody, and vibe of the song. Anything more than that production-wise and you are doing yourself a disservice and frankly wasting money on your demo.
  9. You Over Produced Your Demo I understand the impulse for any writer or artist to do this. It’s really almost a rite of passage. I guess we ALL have to learn “less is more” by doing it. For writers with very little studio experience, you tend to get caught artistically somewhere between a song demo and an epic album track. Stick to the song demo side. DO NOT OVERPRODUCE your song demo! Put BGVs only where they are obvious to lift the chorus. DO NOT put Oohs and Ahhs and fill in some holes with BGVs. Your taste may not be the taste of the person you are pitching to. Don’t add too many guitar tracks or color instruments; keep it as clean and sparse is possible. You really want to leave room for the producer to do their job and take the song to another level. Remember, this should be a solid blue print for a song, not a production idea for a record. Another good reason not to overproduce is that tastes and trends change constantly. We definitely heard a few older demos (like more than 10 or 15 years) with production that was cool and in style 10 or 15 years ago but not cool now. In those cases, the production choices personally took me out of the song for a second or two. If the dated production values were not present, the demo will certainly be more “durable” over time.
  10. Bad Vocal Tuning – Holy cow we had a demo where the damn vocal tuning was borderline Cher! It’s unbelievably distracting! Hire a pro singer, y’all, it really is the way to go if you are trying to compete with the big boys.

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21 replies
  1. Carebear
    Carebear says:

    Well on the bright side you got a good laugh at the poor demo submissions. What fools they are, maybe they couldn’t afford a professional production, but its this category that generate the most laughs, and hence probably the ones who wouldnt submit again.

    Reply
    • Johnnydwinell
      Johnnydwinell says:

      Well as harsh as it is, a human being can’t help but judge some things no matter how unfair. The point of my message is that if you are going to be professional, you want to eliminate every negative aspect you can control from your presentation to ultimately put the song in the best light where it will be judged on the merits of the song. I submit to all great writers that where there is a will there is a way. Nashville and the whole entertainment industry is filled with successful stories of very poor or unfortunate people who decided not to let money get in the way of their success. If you want to be a pro writer, than you need to compete with all the other pros; so the songs, the professionalism, the demo quality have to compete. If you want to play pro football, you are going to have to compete with the other pros in the league; you will have to have speed, talent, hands, and a work ethic. If you want to be a NASCAR driver you are going to have to find a way to afford a car. 🙂

      Thanks for the input, Carebear!

      Reply
      • Carebear
        Carebear says:

        Its the humility aspect isn’t it? Its the unprofessional “professional “response by humility. I am sure you are very succesful at what you do and Im sure that the professionals who didn’t humiliate yourself but gave you the proper critique that was actually useful made you a better and more successful musician.

        So the purpose of laughing at a demo and then humiliating individuals because its not to your standard doesn’t motivate anybody positively.

        Its like teaching someone to drive and laughing at them and telling hem how awful they are. Why get back in the car and learn from you?

        But every other aspect I completely aggree with what you say.

        Reply
        • Johnnydwinell
          Johnnydwinell says:

          Carebear,

          Yes I was being honest, yes we laughed at a couple crappy quality demos, but it was just Kelly and I privately in the studio. Please don’t misunderstand, the writers were not present while we listened to their songs and we would never broadcast the name of the song demo or the songwriter. So no humility to the writers, we are not monsters, I promise. 🙂 Thank you for the honest remarks and I have offered real honest advice about this matter (in several posts) to writers, the plain fact is that you really need to have competitive quality in your demos (which does cost more) if you plan on being a true professional. I remember I had to face a judge for a speeding ticket when I was 16. I was wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt as I walked out the door on my way to the court date when my father asked me what the hell I was wearing; he told me to change into a suit and tie. I told him the judge had to be “fair” and that my clothes wouldn’t and shouldn’t be a factor in this exchange. This is where I got one of my great life lessons; life is not fair and people are human beings with flaws. I could CONTROL some aspect of the judges opinion of me by dressing up and honoring his courtroom. I feel this is the same story with demo tapes. Yeah, it should only be about the song but when you present a demo that is a “mess” sonically with poor instrumental performances (because 1 guy recorded everything for cheap) it’s torture. We listen to amazing musicians everyday and we can instantly tell, just from listening, who the players are; that is how tuned in we are to this craft. Having to endure a demo that was recorded poorly, played poorly, mixed poorly is annoying and tortuous.

          Reply
          • carebear
            carebear says:

            But never email someone back with feedback and tell them how awful they were in an unprofessional way. I had people from London who did that to me and took it upon themselves to tear into me personally also.
            I was that person who was torn into personally so I know exactly how awful it is to be on the receiving end of it.

            I can honestly say they ruined any future hopes or aspirations I had for myself.

            I hope everything goes good for ya and best wishes.

            But personally I learned don’t work with professionals who think they have a right to tear into you personally.

            And I can’t follow someone who laughs at people like me.

            Best of Luck with everything

            But I won’t be following anymore #badpersonalexperience

          • Johnnydwinell
            Johnnydwinell says:

            Aww, Carebear,

            Don’t let one moron ruin your dream! We would never email somebody back like that! I can absolutely tell you that anybody who takes the time to write such a vicious, negative email is the one with the problem, not you! They feel so bad about themselves that they made themselves feel better by tearing into you. The world is full of jerks like that, and you will meet one every day! Don’t let them affect you, my dear, they are worthless. btw, any truly professional person would never be so negative with any writer or artist. I understand if you are upset with me now, but know that I chose to let you into a PRIVATE moment we had with a very human and natural response because I think everyone should know the reality of what goes on. You are reacting this way because you had a traumatic experience and I can’t blame you. I wish I could help you! I hope you at least keep on writing. 🙂 Good Luck

  2. JG McCloskey
    JG McCloskey says:

    A very positive & knowledgeable post, full of great tips & real solid guidelines. Some of it i already knew, some of it i didn’t. I’ll be saving this as a reference point for the future. Thanks for sharing a wealth of experience there 😉

    Reply
  3. Juan
    Juan says:

    It’s not just demos. It’s everything. First impressions are very important and people forget that sometimes, especially online.

    If the way you’ve presented your work to me is via a tweet with alternating caps and terrible grammar that says a lot (to me) about how seriously you take your music.

    Be serious about what you do. Be professional.

    Great posts Johnny, love your blog. Keep up the great work mate!

    Juan

    Reply
    • Johnnydwinell
      Johnnydwinell says:

      Thank You Juan! I couldn’t agree more. I also believe (speaking of first impressions) that people forget how to start a relationship. I could never stand the first communication that reads “check out my new single”. Ugh…I don’t even know you…so WHY do I care?? LOL

      Reply
  4. Shawn Leonhardt
    Shawn Leonhardt says:

    How does a songwriter find producers in need? It may seem like a basic question, but what is a simple way to get on email lists for song requests and tip sheets? I finally have an amazing home studio for quality demos and I write every genre from ragtime to hypnotech.. you know a little bit of everything. I don’t want to be rude and just start sending people random demos It would be nice to be given specific songs producers want. And jingle/song contests are getting old and always seem rigged or just for you to advertise their product when getting friends to “vote.”

    Reply
    • Johnnydwinell
      Johnnydwinell says:

      Hey Shawn,

      Great question! This is quite simply where the relationship part of any business comes in. First you have to have good product, then 2nd you have to have relationships that will increase your chances of a placement or a cut. All the publishing companies and song-pluggers around town get these tip sheets. So if you can’t afford a song plugger to gain access to that information and you don’t have a standard publishing deal (or single song pub deal)then creating relationships with other writers who do have pub deals or song plugger contacts is a great way to gain the access you are looking for. 🙂

      Reply
      • Shawn Leonhardt
        Shawn Leonhardt says:

        Well any advice on decent song pluggers, I would gladly pay a fee. But I find most sites that claim to promote my music are just in the business of collecting membership fees. I have done about everything to make it in music. Repairs, lessons I started a charity to donate instruments and lessons to kids. It’s great and i love it, but you have no idea how many scams I deal with. People hear non profit and circle like vultures. After a radio interview one time I received 100 scam responses but no real help or donations. I put my money in it to run it. I figured I would at least use the charity to connect with other songwriter’s and it worked. However many people I connect with, it is all a one way street “buy buy buy my stuff” I am all for helping other musicians, but like my charity it all seems to be a sad and cruel world. Very little sharing of the love.

        And I do have talent I purposely play everything from the clarinet to theremin (over 60 instruments in apt right now). I got rid of my tv to devote my time to studying music, writing, recording. Songwriting can be done in a scientific way, yes it needs heart and creativity, but formulas, scales, progressions, and loops do work. And I try to stay positive. I find often musicians love to have know it all attitudes and can be very harsh with one another. But your advice is great and I will try to build more relationships. If you think there is a reputable place to pay a fee to gain access, please let me know. I will continue to try and get my songs out there, while doing my best to help build the next generation into great musicians.

        I always wanted to be like Stephen Foster no not an alcoholic I want people humming my tunes almost 200 yrs from now. If that can’t happen at least I can teach those potential Foster’s and Hoagy Carmichael’s.

        Reply
        • Johnnydwinell
          Johnnydwinell says:

          Hey Shawn,

          Why don’t you start by doing this:

          1. Consider joining the NSAI. Get yourself a few mentorships with the expressed intent of creating relationships. I think it would cost you $500 year and it’s a pretty good organization, but political just like any freaking organization.
          2. DEFINITELY spend your hard earned money coming to Nashville on a regular basis. Come for one week, and hit every single writers night that you can. Most of them will suck, but you will run into a few writers you like that week and you can begin creating relationships that way. You can always find where the writers nights are by looking in the Nashville Scene magazine. Winners bar in mid-town has a killer writers nite on Mondays (invite only) called Whiskey Jam. TOTALLY packed and killer writers. That is another good place to start
          3. MAKE SURE you bring KILLER demos with you to hand out so people can really understand where you are as a writer. Only put 3 songs on that CD, make sure they are your best 3 songs and make damn sure they don’t sound like someone recorded them in their basement. If you play all the instruments you better make sure OTHER PEOPLE think they ROCK.
          4. Don’t worry about the song pluggers, you can always pay them, but it’s better to meet and learn about each of them though your adventure trips to Nashville. You will decide on one when the time is right
          5. Hit me up when you get here, we’ll grab a cocktail.

          Reply
  5. Pat Paxton
    Pat Paxton says:

    I believe Carebear is on to something. You provided some useful information, but you come off as arrogant, even if you may not really be. Also, admitting to ridiculing people behind their back is very unprofessional, even though you preach professionalism throughout your list above. Professionalism is not just what’s done while in the presence of others.

    I understand presentation is very important in every walk of life. In item number 2 on your list, you speak as if you had all but ruled out the song “from the first note”. It would seem a seasoned professional could look beyond poor production to find a diamond in the rough. That doesn’t seem possible when you’re ripping, laughing, and dismissing a song “from the first note”. It makes me wonder how many good songs have been dismissed because the producer didn’t recognize that it could be good with the right production. That would seem to be what a good producer does. You may be a very nice person, and you have some useful info. I think if it were delivered in a less smug tone, you mind find it better received.

    Reply
    • Johnnydwinell
      Johnnydwinell says:

      Thanks for the kudos, Pat, and your opinion. Truth is your point is exactly why i wrote it.

      I received my first speeding ticket 2 short weeks after getting my license. I was going to court to wearing jeans and a ripped t-shirt. My dad asked me what the hell I was wearing. I told him the Judge is a professional and is paid to judge me fairly. He looked at me smiled and said, “you can believe that all you want, now go upstairs and put a suit on”. Who knows what kind of day that judge was having? Who knows if maybe he was having trouble that day with his own rocker son and would HATE me because of what I was wearing. The reality is that I COULD CONTROL what I wore which could possibly control the outcome so why the hell wouldn’t I do it?

      Extrapolate that out to the professional music business and I will tell you we are all human. You are “supposed” to care about your job every day, but it doesn’t mean that you do; we all have bad days and overwhelming days, even in jobs that we love. If any writer continues to make crappy sounding demos (for which there is simply no excuse any more) and then tell the world they cannot get a cut because producers are unprofessional and refuse to listen past their horrible production, then I say they are self sabotaging. You can CONTROL that portion of the game, why wouldn’t you?

      Further more, all our HIT SONGWRITERS make awesome sounding demos. They already have a reputation as HIT SONGWRITERS and while there will always be exceptions to the rule, I always get pro demos from them. Why is that? I mean they have already proven that their songs are awesome, so why should they spend the money to make a pro demo when they KNOW we’re going to listen to it right? BECAUSE THEY WANT TO GIVE THEIR SONG EVERY CHANCE IT HAS TO SUCCEED. End of story.

      I am always up for a spirited debate, Pat, but unfortunately the behavior I told the truth about is real life. unfair as it may be, its real, man. Additionally, what about professional reciprocation? I am a pro and so are my writers. Pro writers write GREAT songs and make pro demos. Shouldn’t we expect a little professionalism in return?

      BTW, for what it’s worth, this is the 2nd most popular article I have written so far. So for those who can put my tone aside, you are correct in that there is real information that nobody seems to want to share.

      Thanks again Pat, hit me up for a cocktail if you’re ever in Nashville.

      Johnny D

      Reply
          • Pat Paxton
            Pat Paxton says:

            Thanks for the invite. It’s not quite as easy for to get to Nashville as it used to be, as I’ve recently move to North Carolina. But if / when I find myself in town, I’ll be sure to look you up. Thanks again.

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