10 Worst Song Demo Mistakes

Whether I am asked to comment on submissions that were rejected for an artist’s CD, running one of my songwriting workshops or assessing a song for submission through our Song assessment Service – I am constantly making points about the way a song is delivered in a submission.
Similar to the difference and ‘listenability’ of a competition singer who has a shoddy backing track vs one with a professional, pleasing backing – if you are going to submit a song you need to be conscious of its presentation.

On the other hand, as a judge on the TSA Songwriting Competition for a few years, the ASA and a couple of local competitions and offering comments to songwriters as part of that – I have to ignore production and concentrate on the song itself. Yes the production can have a slight influence – but judging is mainly on lyrics, melody, structure, flow etc.

So my tip is always – concentrate on both.
1. Get a great song in all its elements and then
2. do the research and submit it in a manner appropriate for the potential client/end user.

So when I saw this post by Johnny Dwinell of Daredevil Productions Nashville I had to pass it on. It reinforces so many points I would want to make to those trying to make it in the ‘contract songwriter’ area.

Hope you find it of interest. My side comments are in blue italics as you will see. ___________________________________________________________________

“This week Kelly and 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 “Tip 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 do’s 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. Kelly and 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 we 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 our producer 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 assume get out of the way as quickly as possible; every job has this component in some fashion or another.

We are very familiar with the artist brand and voice; we better be, right? We understand the vocal range, we understand the kind of songs the artist gravitates towards so much so, that we literally predicted the very 2 songs we thought would make the record out of the 18 we presented. (Ian this is important for those submitting to understand – we know our artist and what we want/are after – so ask, research or find out – and supply that! Not what you THINK we want or what you like!!!)

Here are the 10 worst song demo mistakes songwriters make when their cutting and pitching demos.

  1. Long Intros SUCK – all we are thinking about during the vetting process is the melody, 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 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, so why make us wait? This is such an annoyance; we had probably 8 songs like this. Every single one of them ^%%^%^ us off immediately (because we could tell it would be a long one) and to some extent, we passed a poor judgment on the song before we even heard the first verse. Fair or not, this is what happens; foretold is forewarned. (Ian’s note – by the way – this is the same for songs produced for commercial radio and also for songwriting competition submissions)
  2. Crappy/Cheap Production – We did come across a (very) few songs with horrible production; cheap demos. We just laughed, they provided a welcomed 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. Again, from the first note of crappy production, we are ripping on the demo before we even get to the song and to some extent, it certainly colours our opinion. Food For Thought! (Ian’s note – different if you are doing a quick demo of a song for your producer to get the feel of a recording he is doing for you – this is about submitting a song to someone else).
  3. Wrong Song – READ the tip sheet or LISTEN to the instructions on what the project is requiring (or ask if unsure – we will tell you). 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. We are only looking for the songs we need for THIS project so we can get on with producing it. (excellent point)
  4. Vague/Missing Email Subject Lines – So as you can imagine in about 48 hours, I added 250 emails to my regular daily allotment. As a writer 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. How else would one find a song amongst so many emails but the subject line? That’s called common sense. (Ian – same when sending a demo to a venue for gig booking, or ……make sure if the pieces get separated it is easy to contact you with what they have left).
  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.(Ian – the more you research and tailor to the opportunity appropriately – the more chance you have – seems logical to me).
  6. You Chose The Wrong Singer – On your demo, it is so important to choose a pro singer; NOT someone who is your friend or who is ½ price, or yourself to save money. FYI, suitable vocal ranges are very important as 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 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 2nd vocal so you have something that clearly represents both vocal ranges. (Ian – just imagine Beyonce’s producer listening to songs for her and hearing a bass baritone singing it… no imagination remember! Be artist appropriate in range and feel as well – – almost as though it was the artist – it helps truly).
  7. Your Lyrics Aren’t Strong Enough – We listened to some GOOD songs with average lyrics up through the first chorus. However, the GREAT songs with KILLER lyrics kept our attention through the 2nd 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. (Ian and be mature in your lyrics – eg dont use kindergarten word rhyming, put the story together logically, etc).
  8. You Don’t Honour 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. (great call).
  9. You Over Produced Your Demo – I get 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. So for writers with very little studio experience, you tend to artistically get caught somewhere between a song demo and an epic album track. Stick to the song demo side. DO NOT OVERPRODUCE your song demo! Put BGV’s only where they are obvious to lift the chorus. DO NOT put Ooh’s and Ahh’s and fill in some holes with BGV’s because your taste may not be the taste of the person you are pitching to. Don’t add too many guitar tracks or colour 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; so the production choices personally took me out of the song for a second or two. If they were never there, the demo will certainly be more “durable” over time. (Ian- great point and an important one – again we are talking about submitting to someone else for their interpretation and use, not yours. If you want the song recorded ‘just the way you like it’ – then do it yourself and pay for a vocalist if you can sing it etc ….. but if submitting to me or any other producer – let go! Enjoy the sale and let them arrange and produce to suit their need).
  10. Bad Vocal Tuning – Holy cow we had a demo where the damn 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. (enough said).

Ian – let me summarise and add a bit more.

Again remember we are not talking about demos to prepare and work up for your own recording  – we are talking about being a songwriter who submits to opportunities as their ‘business’.

In this day and age when every songwriter who is pitching their songs will be in competition (and heated) to get their song even listened to let alone chosen – and in what can be a fairly limited market (in some genres). So you need to understand that at the selection stage when so many submissions are being listened to – imagination is out the window!. Imagination starts when the producer and artist takes over with the material that has been selected – not now. And this is logical when you think about it…..most of the time there just isn’t the time to get past what is presented, re-listen a few times and see if they can discover a kernel of a gem underneath. – – So….make it easy for them to want to listen to your song!

  • submit something almost as though it was the finished product and with someone singing that sounds as close as possible to the artist-or the guide given in the tip notes   BUT
  • Not ‘finished’ in the production sense the way you would want it as your record….finished for them and with scope for their producer to do something with it – because they know their artist way better than you do. So research, get the feel and then produce (or get produced) to the minimum level needed to convey the song in its best light Similarly – there is a reason that pop songs for commercial radio are 3.20, have the hook coming in quickly, have a chorus within 30-60 seconds etc etc – there is a limited window of time from a song starting to grab a listener before they switch the dial or go to Spotify etc …… so as said above – sell the song not the production/arrangement you think will work
  • Even more importantly (unless you want to starve through lack of song sales) – do not demand they do it a certain way/your way/the way you hear the song. If you want to get any business – let it go – you business is songwriting if you are submitting to others, not producing or being lead artist (and if you are that/those or cant let go – then save the money and do it yourself instead and be happy) 

Hopefully this has been helpful to some of our readers who are in this field – especially those starting out, trying to crack this area of the industry. If we can help, you want to pursue this further or, utilise our song assessment service – go to the website and contact us.www.pavmusic.com

Cheers till next time.


A slightly different post

Well sort of – it still has to do with some of my basic conjecture that a lot of people don’t last in the music industry (even more than other creative arts areas) because they don’t treat it as a ‘full time’ JOB and give it the same level of attention in ALL areas as would others who are SELF EMPLOYED (capitals deliberate).

Anyway, I had a discussion recently with a few people (practitioners at various levels, all independent) about the music industry, greed etc.

The question that started it all off was – “Why do business men/companies/managers have to be so greedy and not make a fair deal that would benefit everyone?”  During the initial exchange of views other questions and statements arose including – Back in the 60’s and 70’s everyone was more naive and there wasn’t the music lawyers around like today and so people got taken for a ride.

Having been in management and event production as well as on the performance and production side of things – maybe I have a more unbiased view or maybe a view based on more experience, or one a step back from the emotional of a past bad experience.  Anyway I offered some alternative views – not well received but ones I wanted to share here – partly to help people’s information base and own decision process if opportunities arise – but also to bring some perspective.


So let’s start with the second statement first.
Regardless of the decade, there were still lawyers and those who understood business contracts and ramifications whether in the 60’s, 70’s to today (and of course now today we have specific music lawyers etc).  So there were people around to help and explain if one bothered to ask.  Even today, with all the promotion of getting advice and opinions, and all the “stories” out there – – there still way too many who just “sign on the dotted line” with rose coloured glasses on, and without any understanding of the full ramifications (positive and negative).

Yes, there are some ‘shonks’ and some who will take an opportunity presented regardless of the cost to someone else – but in reality that’s a minority and further more, the same as any area of business – lots of businesses from banks to suppliers ‘get away with whatever they could and can’ or have contracts and clauses that only favour them (just read the fine print on any home loan document) – so why should the music industry/business be different. That is not an excuse nor that I think it is right -but it is what it is and always has been – and in the music business just as much an industry.

So next part of that = being ‘young and naive’ and taken advantage of.
That argument could be applied/possible with anyone entering self employed life and signing contracts with big firms (back then or now) – but so is ‘going in with your eyes wide open rather than rose coloured glasses’. – Now I’ve only been in the music industry for 37 years professionally but even right back at the start we knew what we were doing (or some of us did). Yes, there was a lot who got shafted (as in many other businesses) but there was also and A LOT, like now, who chose ‘not to know’, put on blinkers and go ahead anyway – even when they got advice to the contrary.

For those who did bother to get advice and listen – we knew how to make it viable, do the hard yards while still being creative, fuel our passion and joy and retain control as well. We may not have been the top 5%, 30% or even 60% of money earners in the industry (for example jazz/blues/folk genre artists never were) – but we knew how we got regular gigs, traveled and toured more than once etc. All I am saying is being in business is being in business and always has been – and being in the music business is no different to any other creative business (or shouldn’t be).

There seems to be this ongoing trend to somehow want to make excuses for the ‘poor musicians’ who want to be self employed, run their own businesses etc without accepting the ramifications (and extra work and activity) to “be in business”. Then wonder why they don’t make it or make much, then look for sympathy/complain as though they are somehow different from any others in the same situation (creative or not)…….but they are not ….and those who are running their music career like a self employed business are proof of that!


OK on to the managers/companies/contracts/greed area

Let me start with my first basic premise – everyone has a choice to say yes or no to working with anyone, signing a contract, going on ‘those reality’ shows etc – and if they choose to go forward without being fully aware of, or getting advice as to, the ramifications or options – then they are doing it to themselves!

In the finance (and many other areas) industry they always say ‘consult your accountant or lawyer before signing a contract to be sure it is right for you’. Is it naivety or that we think we are so special that we don’t need to understand? Because most people if dealing in other situations and with other industry situations would automatically consult someone. In fact if most in the music industry were dealing with someone in another industry they would know to do that….. so why not here?

But it goes even deeper than that. It goes to a lack of understanding of what “the other side” are actually doing, should be doing, etc etc. So let me through a few thoughts into the mix.

Let’s start with the managers/agents/booking agents etc

Another qualifying comment.
Yes, like other parts of the industry and business generally there are managers who will rip off clients – who take a percentage of an artist’s music income for little or no effort and the artist is still left doing it all, etc – but that is in fact a very small percentage – so we will concentrate on those doing it right.

Let’s just consider:

  • Often these people have put/invested a lot of their time and energy (and sometimes money) up front in getting PR and branding right, contacts and hype started, getting out there for the client – so they are often ‘out of pocket’/’invested in’ seeing results happen
  • Good managers generally as well tour agents (when building the tour and on the road) are not working a 9-5×5 day a week job – they can be 60,70 or more hours at times – and the really good ones can be ‘on call’. So, unless the act is phenomenally successful and the relationship lasts long enough – their effective hourly rate of income compared to average workers is often very low (remember the ‘average’ worker in Australia gets $75K per year according to ABS)
  • A lot of managers etc work on a % of income generated – so if they don’t get the artist gigs, sales, exposure etc ……… they don’t get anything let alone a return on their investment of time, etc– it is a “success based” return That percentage can vary but 15-25% is probably a ‘usual’ ball park (that is discounting any recoup arrangement that may be in place initially if there has been actual $$ outlay) – — but that still leaves 75-85% for the artist/others in the team ….. and I would have said ‘reasonable considering the effort put in and based on a success based return
  • Again I said we were looking at those ‘doing it right’ the vast majority.  Accordingly most of the gigs, sales and returns will actually be from new opportunities that they have generated and results of campaigns, networking, relationships they have established ….. a lot of which the artist/client wouldn’t have probably had access to/come across. So the artist/client is probably getting a percentage of money they wouldn’t have had any of if doing stuff for themselves

Does that give you another perspective?

Let’s talk about labels.
OK so another qualifying comment………. I am not talking about the label an artist sets up for ‘look’ or the small one band/own operation – lets concentrate on the big boys.

One of the speakers at a conference I ran a few years ago provided attendees with this chart on all the things a ‘good’ label does for their artist (excuse the poor replication).

what labels do

Now consider the infrastructure, personnel (and variety of personnel with needed skill sets), financial overheads, etc needed to run an operation to provide that level of support – and/or fees that may be payable to contracted outside services to provide specific needs not available in-house.

They are a business. The cost of all that is a direct expense/outgoing to the organisation – a bottom line amount of money that goes out all the time – and if they don’t have it covered, eventually they will go into debt and close their doors.

Then combine all that outgoing with extra money they mmay spend to help the artist directly. Possibly:

  • Funding the production of EP/CD projects including all the pre-production/arrangements, session musicians, studios, producer, graphics, pressing etc
  • Touring costs, touring musician fees, etc all required regardless of audience return
  • All the marketing, networking, travel just to be representing each artist
  • Clothing/branding, look etc
  • Advances or financial assistance, etc costs
  • Specific legal liabilities,insurance, etc

Why wouldn’t you expect them to secure their investment by holding on to master recordings, etc (especially since they paid for it)?

Why wouldn’t you expect them to need some return on investment to recoup their outlay as soon as possible and keep viable with their running costs (or take a high percentage while their money is out)?

Why shouldn’t they make a profit into the future as a return for that speculation/taking a chance and investing into the artist in the first place?

Wouldn’t you expect all that from any organisation in any other industry?
For example, finance companies, speculation investors in a business, you might not be happy about it but you are paying 16-25% on outstanding balances for credit card debt/loans for the same reason. Sure home loans are low(ish) but you are in it for 30 years.

What level of return, percentage, regular payment would you think was fair? Really!

What about if it was you??

You see, it really comes down to how you look at it, your perspective and if you can understand by ‘walking in their shoes’ how they need to survive – then maybe a strong relationship with support that fits you, and from which both benefit, is possible..

Finally I go back to the start.
Remember – The artist doesn’t have to sign the contracts in the first place ……….. or if they do, they could put in sunset or performance clauses etc.

Even with lots of perceived negative clauses in a contract – there STILL may be advantages for an artist to be with a label or manager or even one of “those” shows???.

Questions needing to be asked by an artist considering such an offer or alternative –

  • Could they have achieved the same level of exposure, career movement themselves?
  • Regardless of the retention – will the income they would have got from their own efforts be more than ‘net income’ from the label, etc?
  • Would they be ‘living the dream’ as much from running their own part time activity?
  • Will they be happy to be directed, be organised but be gigging, appearing touring, etc?

If the answers to all of these and the rest of the questions that could and should be asked is no – then it’s worth signing up isn’t it? If not, then they shouldn’t sign to anyone and just do it themselves.
The decision process is really that simple isn’t it? Of course the rammifications may not be.

That is – if you are one of those in a position to be offered a choice and your decision is to do it yourself -you now have a diagram of all the activity a label does and does on behalf/with/for their client artists.

So if you are not with a label – and want to achieve the return for yourself that you possibly would have with a label – you now know all the tasks in the diagram above that you need to do (or hire people to do the areas they can’t/don’t want to do themselves). Can you do all that effectively and continually? Including assessing that time involvement and possible $$ outlay.
All of this is a consideration in the decision if a “sustainable” and flourishing and planned career your desired goal.

I hope some of this has been helpful.

Have a good day.


Want to discuss any of the above in relation to your situation? Want independent music business/career advice and input? Check out our advisory services (and the few endorsements there) at http://www.pavmusic.com/artistdevelopment/music-business-assessment ……… and give us a call.