Monday, August 27, 2007
A Demo By Any Other Name...
...is still a demo.
There is a lively discussion on the Sellaband forum which asks the question, "Does the quality of the sound recording really matter?" The comments in answer to that question display the wide diversity of experience and expectations present within the Sellaband community. Opinions vary between artists, investors and fans. I take a very firm approach and answer with a resounding and inflexible "Yes...and No...well, maybe...sometimes."
Most of the mp3 recordings posted by Sellaband artists are of demo quality, that is to say, they are recordings meant to demonstrate the writing, performance and/or production potential of artists hoping to raise sufficient capital investment for the production of professionally recorded products. These recordings can vary widely from nearly complete studio versions to song fragments recorded on the humblest of devices. I'm not aware of any aspiring artists on the site posting previously signed material so I can only assume that the music, regardless of recording quality, is posted to demonstrate potential as opposed to finished, marketable product, although there may be exceptions.
I think of a demo as being in one of three distinct categories:
1. The Writing Demo: This can be as simple as a vocal rendition of a song accompanied by one instrument. The object of a writing demo is to sell a song to an artist, producer or publisher.
2. The Artist Demo: The purpose of an artist demo is to demonstrate the performance level of a particular artist. This could be a singer, a solo instrumentalist or an entire band. Artist demos are not limited to recordings of original music as they are frequently used to showcase talent for audition purposes.
3. The Production Demo: When a band or artist has written or secured material, a production demo can be recorded in order to demonstrate and conceptualize elements of style, instrumentation, character etc. An artist or producer will frequently make a production demo to focus attention on production concepts, explore different effects or to edit arrangements before spending precious or unavailable funds in a professional setting.
When an artist is also a songwriter and is struggling to hone his concept into something worthy of recording, he is frequently self-cast in the role of producer. The advent of relatively affordable recording technology has seduced many aspiring artist/writer/performers into believing that they can produce viable products. In some cases I'm sure that this can be the case. The fact that more and more of the listening audience hears music via mp3 and computer speakers further obfuscates the value of professional production techniques.
But again, allowing for the occasional home recording genius, thinking of even the best demo recording as a finished product can be a mistake. If you put two measures of ground coffee in your mouth, pour in boiling water and milk, and then put your face in front of a steam iron, you haven't made cappuccino. All the elements are present, yes. And you've done a great job of gathering the ingredients and simulating the process. But what you've created is a convincing demo of a potential cappuccino. Before you go into mass production, you will need a pro and you will need pro-level tools.
The last project I took part in at Shangri La was the album "Suitcase" by Keb' Mo'. Keb' has many years of recording experience and two Grammys under his belt and I was thrilled to assist producer John Porter and engineer Rik Pekkonen for the project. During the process of recording, I was in awe of what I heard coming out of the studio monitors. To me, it was all gold. But time and time again, after what seemed like a brilliant take, John would go out into the room and have a word with the musicians or go into the vocal booth with Keb'. It seemed like he was just taking a short break or resting his ears or maybe just sharing a joke. But every time he came back into the control room and had Rik push the "record" button, the next take would be magic. And the difference between Keb's original demos and the grammy nominated album demonstrates to me the inestimable value of the collaboration between artist and producer.
I have written reviews of various Sellaband artists and in every case what is most compelling about these artists is potential. When I listen to The Francis Rodino Band, I bow in respect to his songwriting and the performance abilities of the band. But I also know that what I'm hearing is the tip of the iceberg. The same goes for The Vegas Dragons, Kontrust, Lone Pine, Wetwerks and so many more. Mandana, the voice of Solidetube, and Lucia Iman have the potential of making beautiful recordings. And then there is ConFused5, a band that has resurrected itself after a 20 year hiatus and still retains the exuberance of a band of 20-year-old guitar rods. All of these artists and many more on the Sellaband web site have demonstrated massive potential by way of their demo recordings. But only the open-minded collaboration of a professional producer and all that comes with that will result in a great cup of coffee.
Because a demo by any other name...well, you know the rest.