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Demos 101 for Singers: Why All Serious Singers Need One and What It Should Include

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Just as academics have curriculum vitae, actors have resumes and head shots, and models have portfolios, singers have demos as their calling cards. A demo is a short, not-for-release recording that acts as a sample of your abilities. It’s a distilled taste of what you can do as a musician—your predominant style and technical ability boiled down to one short, easy-to-swallow recording.

Demos are useful for everything from booking gigs to joining groups to getting signed. Here’s a few scenarios when you’d use one:

  • Send it to any pre-screened open mics as a sample of your work
  • Send it to bookers of venues you want to play
  • Use it as a part of a PR kit you’d send bloggers and newspapers
  • Present it to record companies as a tidy sample of your talents (record companies don’t typically work this way anymore, but it’s still a real possibility)
  • Send it to like-minded musicians who are looking to join up to perform

Needless to say, any singer—and really all musicians—should have one, but the your demo’s quality can make or break some pretty momentous opportunities, so make sure you follow these guidelines:

1. First off, if you’ve already recorded an EP or a full-length album, which you think showcases your voice, you’re encouraged to take a few songs off that and use it as your demo. A demo should be as high-quality as you can afford to make it—which makes albums you’ve recorded ideal—but don’t fret if you can’t afford any crazy mixing or mastering. If you can afford just one thing, opt to record on a high-quality microphone. This is, after all, about your voice, and you want to present it accurately.

2. Record (select) no more than three of your standard-length songs. Okay, you wrote a rebuttal to Bohemian Rhapsody, and it’s 15 minutes long with a tuba breakdown. Maybe include that as a separate bonus, or mention it in your bio, but don’t make that the demo. Having worked as an editor of a music magazine, I know firsthand that journalists and executives have minuscule attention spans. If the music doesn’t really ‘pop’ after about 30 seconds, you can bet it’ll end up in the rubbish heap. This may be your life’s work, but at least 50 people a day send in their life’s work too. Keep that in mind.

3. All that being said, the songs you select should highlight your best, most accessible work ASAP. No long intros, no ambient sections (unless ambient is your claim to fame). If you’re selecting music from a previously-recorded album, choose your ‘singles’ that quickly cut to a catchy chorus, not your b-sides with heartfelt lyrics.

4. The songs you should select should both highlight your technical ability as a singer, as well as convey your unique ‘vibe’. Try to accentuate your versatility and include one ballad for every two upbeat songs. The goal is to create the most atomic package of who you are as a singer. Show ’em what you can do in as little time possible.

Hopefully this gave you a little insight into what makes the ideal demo. Oh, and if you ever happen find yourself in Orange, California, near the intersection of Cannon Street and Santiago Canyon Road, feel free to pay our vocal studio a visit. We’d be happy to coach you through the process.

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