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Demo Master

How do I know when to make demos for my original songs? Do I need to go into the recording studio for all of them before I pitch? Or can I just send guitar vocals? Any guidance is welcome and appreciated. Thanks! - Billy in Montana

515 Studio in Nashville, Tennessee

The question of when to demo your songs comes up a lot in songwriting and music business circles, and is especially common among people who are new to the songwriting world or people who are not getting as many cuts as they would like…

… so pretty much all of us, right?

Over the years, I have seen lots of different scenarios work when getting songs in the hands of recording artists, record labels, managers, producers, and music publishers, and to be honest, there are a lot of those scenarios.

Here’s a break down of some of the things I have learned about recordings over the years as a songwriter, put into three categories: work tapes, demos and masters.

Work tapes definition – the first complete recording you make of the new song on the day it is written or shortly after.

Not everyone can make a great work tape, I guess, but you have to try.

There is something special and magical about this first recording of your brand new baby song.

It has all the vibes you’ve been laying down in the writing room, and sometimes, this is the best recording your song will ever get – at least from the opinion of the songwriter and a small portion of hard core music fanatics.

It’s stripped down, usually just a vocal and guitar or piano, but sometimes beats and loops are part of it.

The magic often is in the capture of emotion between the cowriters in the room.

These work tape gems are good for a few reasons –

For one, it’s your catalog in its rawest form – the work tape and lyrics.

For two, it’s the start of your pre-production for your next recording or live performance of the tune.

And for three – you can sometimes pitch it.

There are examples everywhere of songs getting cut from just the work tape. My song “I Can Be Me With You” (words and music Benita Hill and Amanda Colleen Williams) is an example of this.

We pitched a work tape and the next recording was the cut, featured on the Garth Brooks FUN album released in 2019.

Pitching your work tapes can work for you, if you have the right artist relationship and are willing to put yourself out there with all you got.

If you’re not quite cutting it with your work tapes, you might want to consider the next option, demos.

Demodefinition – a demonstration recording produced for the sole purpose of pitching the underlying composition.

Woah – technical definition. The reason is because of frequent confusion between the demo and the next type of recording, masters.

Demos came about when music publishers, the business partners of songwriters, needed an affordable way to record with Union studio musicians in Nashville to make pitchable demos.

Not all songwriters can sing and play an instrument, and most of the ones who can aren’t all that good.

So, music publishers needed to make recordings with real singers and musicians to show artists and record companies what the song could sound like when all dressed up.

The goal was to make the song sound like it might on the radio to demonstrate the song’s potential.

In the 80s and 90s, this made perfect sense, because the economics worked out.

My dad, an aspiring songwriter from East Tennessee used to make the 4 hour drive to Nashville trying to work his way into music circles.

Part of this process was to write a bunch of songs, and then to get feedback on which 5 or 6 were the best. Then he would hire a demo studio to record those demos, along with their in-house professional teams of musicians and singers.

One of those hired demo singers was Garth Brooks, beginning our two generations working relationship with him.

The demos were half the cost of masters (see next section for more about those) and were perfect for Dad’s use to demonstrate his great songs.

He eventually was signed to Tree International, the biggest publisher in town, which later became Sony.

The economics worked because the cost of the $600 demos (6 of them costing $3600 total) could easily be recouped if just one of the songs was cut.

Using today’s physical mechanical royalty rates ($0.091 per unit), 1 song recorded on an album that sold a modest 39,600 copies could recoup the cost for the whole demo session.

But the problem is easy to see when you look at the economic reality of today’s music business.

Based on my recent songwriter / music publisher payment of $86 for 5 million streams on YouTube, you see that it would take an astronomical amount of streaming to get anywhere close to recoupment of that $3600 demo investment.

The solution? Fewer people record demos anymore, seeking either to give up before they start, to try and do it themselves and live with an inferior product, or skip ahead to the next category – masters.

Masterdefinition – a recording for which you own the sound recording copyright and can distribute it to the public for sale.

Masters used to be the exclusive territory of record companies or big time hot shot super star artists.

But not anymore.

Whether you record all the instruments yourself, get work for hire agreements from your players and singers, or hire Union players and singers on the card at master scale, you have created this type of recording.

When you do a demo, you can only pitch it. You can’t release it yourself or make CDs and sell them, or distribute it commercially for streaming or downloads.

Remember the reason explained earlier that brought down the musicians rates from master scale pay to demo scale pay for the music publishers, on the condition that the recordings be used for demonstration only.

This became a problem of education and understanding when technology tools made it easy for amateurs to self release onto the various music streaming retail platforms.

Masters are not just demos.

They are fully finished, mixed and mastered (the engineering process of getting the recording radio ready from which this kind of recording takes its name.)

The owner of the sound recording, represented by the letter “p” with a circle around it, is held by the record company, or in recent times, by whomever paid for the recording to be made.

More now than ever the master owner is the songwriter or music publisher, who then can license or outright sell the whole shebang (song © and sound recording copyright) to the general public directly or to a bigger label.

This trend is fueled also by economics.

Unlike the royalty pay out for the songwriters and music publishers, which I already stated was recently $86 for 5 million streams, representing only about 4% or less of the total income for any given rights bundle (song plus its recording.)

In this example, assuming the sound recording owner earned the other 96% of total royalty payout, one could expect that the sound recording owner was paid around $2064 for that same 5 million units streamed.

However, if the same song was picked up in a movie, say a small budget indie project, one could expect to earn maybe $250 for the songwriter/publisher and another $250 for the sound recording. The payout is usually half for the song copyright owner, and half for the song’s sound recording copyright owner.

When you’re both, you double your money.

This is especially awesome when it’s a bigger budget film and you get to split $50,000 or more.

Radio airplay is another place where a good amount of songwriter royalty is earned, if one is lucky enough and well promoted enough to garner such commercial airplay.

A number one song as a songwriter on the radio is still the pot of gold at the end of the songwriter rainbow, and can still (reportedly) garner a million dollars between songwriter and publisher from public performance royalty (paid by ASCAP / BMI / SESAC in the United States).

Plus you’ll earn neighboring rights coming from digital radio airplay of the sound recording on top of that songwriter/ publishing income.

So the beauty with masters is that unlike demos, the buck doesn’t have to stop here.

You can pitch the master and if no one bites, you can self release and increase your chances of attracting attention to your other catalog songs.

Conclusion –

As you can see, there are lots of ways to go about pursuing your songwriting career using a combination of work tapes, demos and master recordings to get your songs out there.

Need help navigating the right path for you? Get in touch with us at Songpreneurs HQ online.

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