Navigating the A&R Jungle

What record label execs want in a demo. By the mid-'90s, rap-rocker Kid Rock had been dropped by two record labels, yet he still regularly packed 1,200
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What record label execs want in a demo.By the mid-'90s, rap-rocker Kid Rock had been dropped by two record labels, yet he still regularly packed 1,200 fans into hometown bars, sold a lot of creatively designed merchandise, and tirelessly worked a network of interns to promote his music throughout the country.

Temple of the Dog, Kid Rock's rudimentary basement studio in Detroit, featured two ADATs, a 16-channel Mackie mixing board, cheesy guitar stompboxes, a couple of turntables, and a massive collection of vinyl records. That basic gear spawned a cheap cassette demo, which led to another recording contract and the release of Devil Without a Cause, which has since sold more than 9 million copies.

Andy Karp, Atlantic/Lava Records' A&R director, has seen a lot of fledgling groups in his ten years with the company. He calls Kid Rock's budding empire "a pretty impressive operation for a local musician." Kid Rock's tape and promotional efforts intrigued Karp so much that in December 1996 he flew to a Kid Rock show in Cleveland, where the performer crawled out of a coffin to perform for only 50 people. They inked a deal in October 1997, and Karp's nervous answering-machine message about the deal was later immortalized by Kid Rock on the track "Where You at Rock."

One of the mysteries of the music industry is how some bands get signed while others languish in obscurity. Most musicians know that they have to be talented and ambitious to make it big, but what exactly is it that grabs the attention of that crucial audience - the A&R executive? What do they want to hear when they pop a demo into their stereo system and press Play? As Kid Rock's road to success demonstrates, a combination of factors makes A&R execs sit up and take notice, but the crucial element in getting signed is a good demo.

WHAT THEY LISTEN FORSince the dawn of the record industry, the rule has been the same: a demo must first work on the most primitive level. It must grab the listener like a caveman and sock him or her over the head with a club of song, singer, and personality.

"Here is the secret rule: a melody, a lyric, and a performance, all with a rhythm track that makes you want to dance or have sex," says Dave Novik, RCA Records' senior vice president of international A&R. An A&R veteran with 26 years in the field, Novik has been with RCA for the past eight years. He is surrounded in his office by memorabilia of the artists he brought to the label, including gold and platinum discs of 'N Sync, Natalie Imbruglia, and Republica.

"A band needs to have a vision. They need to have an idea of who they are, where they're going, and what they want, because that's what we're buying into," Novik says. "We're buying into their whole package, who they are musically, intellectually, and visually."

Karp says energy, chemistry, attitude, and good songs are the key requirements for a successful demo. "If someone has star quality, it sticks out like a sore thumb," Karp says. (For an overview of A&R and its role in the music industry, see "Working Musician: A&R Primer" in the June 2000 issue of EM.)

THE PRODUCTION QUESTIONThe importance of production in a demo, however, is in the ear of the beholder, as opinions vary among top professionals. Although most profess to be able to hear through any type of production to the underlying artistry, a song produced to sound like a hit record is certainly a big plus for those seeking the Holy Grail of the music business - a big-time record deal.

The well-dressed demo."I'm a producer myself, and I would be the first to admit there's no way to not be influenced in part by recording," says Bradley Kaplan, director of A&R for Warner Brothers Records. "When you hear a great singer who is recorded in a really cool way - which doesn't have to be high-tech or expensive - it definitely is more seductive. It makes our job easier."

Renowned guitarist, songwriter, and producer Nile Rodgers believes he owes the start of his recording career to a master-quality demo of his first number-one hit, Chic's 1977 disco classic, "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)." "The only reason I got a record deal was because I walked in with a record," Rodgers says. His career highlights include working with David Bowie, Madonna, and Duran Duran. Rodgers currently runs his own production company, Nile Rodgers Productions, and distribution company, Sumthing Distribution.

According to Rodgers, an artist with a stripped-down, bare-bones demo doesn't have a chance in today's market. A polished track is "the most effective leveraging tool," he says. When he started in the business, most artists were limited by the cost of professional-studio time and could present only thumbnail examples of the music they envisioned. Now, tools once available only in world-class studios are just a mouse click away in a desktop studio, and Rodgers hasn't heard a stripped-down demo in a long time. "Have your vision as complete as possible. Try to make your record," Rodgers says. "Why should A&R people accept less when they can have more, when they routinely get finished products?"

The stripped-down demo.However, the days of the bare-bones, no-frills demo are not over. Singers with a less-is-more approach to production can still shine on a demo featuring only vocals with piano or acoustic-guitar accompaniment.

Sony/Epic/550 Music's Michael Caplan, senior vice president and A&R department head, signed artists such as Ginuwine, Living Colour, and G. Love and Special Sauce. "I've signed a lot of deals off live board tapes or people playing acoustically for me in the room," Caplan says. "I don't really require that people spend a lot of money."

Pete Ganbarg, senior director of A&R for Arista Records, also places less importance on production. "Production for a demo isn't really important as long as the strength of the artistry and music and songwriting comes across," Ganbarg says. "I'm much more interested in the substance than the style." Ganbarg knows his substance: he served as musical quarterback for Carlos Santana's Supernatural, which sold 13 million copies.

The overproduced demo.The experts agree that the quality of demos has dramatically improved as a result of the personal-studio boom. The dark side of that boom is that a producer can create a Frankenstein's monster of a demo, in which overuse or inappropriate use of the technology overpowers the songwriter's vision.

"People tend to pad recordings with all kinds of effects just because they can, or think they should. You should work very hard to figure out the essence of the song first," says Karp. "If you can't fit everything in, then there's probably stuff that doesn't need to be there and is just getting in the way. Any reggae band will tell you that it's all about the space."

Glossy slickness is not even desirable in many forms of music, such as hip-hop, according to Public Enemy's Chuck D. "Cleaner doesn't necessarily mean better in all music," he says. "You still knew what a good song was when listening to AM radio. No matter what process you make it with, a bad song is just a bad song, based on how it's arranged and the vocals."

Sometimes bad material is treated to excellent production, but A&R people can see through it. Sean Roberts, TVT Records' director of A&R, who signed hard-rocking Sevendust, says that many of the demos that land on his desk received better production than they deserved. "You can't really polish a turd," he says. "I've heard some really horrible bands with really horrible material who sounded awesome."

DO'S AND DON'TSWhen you're creating your demo, plan for maximum immediate impact, because listening time is precious among A&R people. They probably won't give your demo their full attention unless it grabs them and sucks them right in. Because A&R reps spend so much time on the phone, your CD may wind up as background music, aural wallpaper competing for attention with computers, MTV, and various other business interruptions.

"There's far less time to listen to music in A&R than you might think," Karp says. A&R people receive an average of 50 demos per week, and some of them get more than twice that. Of all those acts, each executive signs only one to four acts a year.

A horrible demo that hits way off the mark may get as few as 15 seconds of listening time, but most A&R execs say they that try to get through at least the verse and chorus of a few tunes. Many listen to everything they receive, usually taking at least a few weeks to do so, but they say they rarely find anything worthwhile in unsolicited material. (See the sidebar "Getting Noticed" for tips on getting the attention of A&R people.)

The songs.Ideally, a demo contains between three to four songs, none of which pass the four-minute mark. Carefully choose which material to include by gauging audience reaction at your live shows. Also, have more songs recorded for a follow-up in case you do pique a label's interest. If you send a full-length album instead of a short demo, identify the best tracks by highlighting their titles or listing them on a sticker on the cover.

Always put your best song first, as that may be your only chance to grab the listener's ear. Get to the chorus quickly, and keep the lead vocal up front in the mix, instead of burying it in reverb or other effects. Check your tapes and CDs before you send them to make sure your music was actually duplicated. Be certain to send your demo to a company that fits your musical style.

A successful demo must show focus and direction and not jump stylistically from one song to the next. "One of the biggest problems," Ganbarg says, "is trying to do too much and be too many things at once, stylistically and production-wise."

Caplan adds, "Unfortunately, diversity is now viewed as schizophrenia in the business. I love the Beatles' White Album because it's diverse, but now it would be viewed as being all over the place."

Packaging.Keep the demo package simple. Desktop publishing lets artists come up with more-elaborate packaging, which frequently results in excess garbage. Elaborate, expensive press kits are generally a waste of time and money; many A&R people never get to see them because their assistants separate them from the demo. Besides, A&R executives cannot be seduced by packaging. They're searching for good music, no matter how it's wrapped.

Do, however, be thorough when putting your package together. Make sure every item - especially the CD or tape - includes a current contact number, and an e-mail address and fax number if you have them. Label the spine of the CD with the band's name so it will be easier to find in the plastic mountain of jewel cases on an A&R person's desk. While a photo is not always necessary, it can be helpful, particularly if the band or its front person looks cool. A compact biography and some technical information about how the demo was recorded, are good additions. A compelling and simple live video can also be a big plus if your act is visually interesting.

Many musicians go way overboard with their demos in the mistaken belief that any attention is good attention. See the sidebar "Extreme Musicians" for a few hilarious examples of promotional attempts that went too far.

YES, MASTERThanks to the dramatic improvement in project-studio recording, more demos than ever before are being released as the final albums, usually after being remastered and tweaked with some re-recording or remixing. Although most pop records still require the slickness of the top professional studios, hip-hop and dance music are primarily the products of the personal studio.

"Demos are really a thing of the past with dance music," Roberts says. "When you're dealing with dance music, what's done in the home studio is generally just as good as anything done in a formal studio, depending on the artist's gear and talent and skills as a producer."

With big commercial studio rates running about $1,000 to $2,000 a day, "it's cheaper to buy studio stuff for your home and take your time with your record to make sure it sounds exactly how you want it to," Roberts says. For instance, TVT's Expansion Union and Supa DJ Dmitry (of Dee-lite fame) recorded their recent releases at home.

The majors have also released demos - after additional sweetening, mixing, and mastering. Albums that were recorded by Sony's Ginuwine, G. Love, and Arista's 14-year-old blues guitarist/vocalist Shannon Curfman are notable examples.

"THE CREAM RISES . . ."The music business continues to redefine itself, and technology helps lead the way. But according to Rodgers, one thing has not changed in his two decades in the music business. "The cream rises to the top," Rodgers says. "It's never been more terrifying, and it's never been more exciting."

Although the dizzying array of recording gear can give a rock star wanna-be a competitive edge, the road to the top can still be paved cheaply with good old-fashioned talent and creativity. Kaplan sums it up best. "Writing is still free," he says. "The most valuable commodity in the entire business is the writing."

The tried-and-true way to get A&R folks to listen to your demo is to create a buzz on a regional level. "The best thing that any band can do is to give us a reason to want to find them," Atlantic's Andy Karp says. "Bands are best served by having as much as possible going on around them when they sign their deal. It also helps them get a better one."

The Dave Matthews Band built its career for years, locking in solid touring, a manager, and promoters before sitting down at RCA Records' conference tables. "They did it all themselves, and that is probably the best time for a record company to be involved in a band, when much of the initial legwork has been done," RCA's Dave Novik says. "I don't want to hear a demo from you unless you have your stuff together." That means having a potential manager, attorney, and music publisher ready to go.

The discs that rise to the top of an A&R rep's demo pile are usually the ones submitted by respected industry contacts, which include agents, concert promoters, club bookers, and radio-station programmers. Novik prefers to hear from one of these professionals instead of the band members. He suggests building a career to the point at which the demand is so high that retailers must stock the record and radio stations have no choice but to play it.

"Kick butt locally and you have a better chance of kicking butt nationally, or even internationally," Arista's Pete Ganbarg says. "If you can prove in your own backyard that you have what it takes to succeed, then all the major label has to do is come in and do some polishing." This strategy might be easier in a smaller town than in an industry hotbed such as Manhattan or Los Angeles, because an artist can be the proverbial big fish in a small pond.

Ganbarg recently signed Shannon Curfman, a 14-year-old whose bluesy style has been compared to that of Bonnie Raitt and Melissa Etheridge. Curfman's self-released recording, Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions, was selling about 500 copies a week in her hometown of Minneapolis when she was signed. "If it's blowing up, we'll find out," Ganbarg says. "I would rather artists go out and start a buzz and I call them, instead of them calling me."

Live performance is still a crucial component in getting signed in rock or alternative music, but not necessarily in the urban or pop genres. In fact, most A&R people admit that they see bands in the clubs only when necessary, usually when they're already interested in an act.

The Internet has blossomed into another tool for A&R people, so developing a Web site can serve as an important step toward getting signed, as is getting your music on other music-related sites. Most industry insiders surf the Net in search of new talent. Michael Caplan of Sony/Epic/550 regularly searches cyberspace for MP3 files, and he actually signed moe. after seeing 500 kids in a chat room discussing the band.

Musicians will sometimes go to extreme and occasionally frightening lengths to get their music heard. Demos arrive at record companies with huge packages of bows, balloons, flowers, candy, T-shirts, and even women's panties. Some A&R men admit that they listen to the packages that include photos of naked women, particularly if the women are part of the group.

One manager went one step further, sending strippers to Andy Karp's Lava/Atlantic office as a special bonus incentive. "I sort of felt guilty not listening to it, and I was really uncomfortable with the fact that the strippers were here. The guy went to the expense of sending them, so the least I could do was listen to his tape. It definitely got my attention," he says. But the ploy failed. The music received a big thumbs-down.

An unusual promotional video recently arrived at Maverick Records. It featured a husband and wife singing a song while having sex. "They were both, unfortunately, kind of scary, so that didn't work for me," says Michael Taylor, Maverick's New York A&R rep.

Sometimes the delusional even get violent. Nile Rodgers once had a gun pulled on him at a music-industry seminar. "I've had to call private detectives and the FBI more than a few times," Rodgers says.

The bottom of the barrel, the place an artist least wants to wind up, is the dreaded Wall of Shame. Some of the photos that arrive at record companies immediately sink to the bottom of the heap. Bulletin boards and walls behind doors display the worst of the worst, which range from inappropriate and freakish to the downright bizarre and surreal. What could the devil worshiper possibly have been thinking when he sent his naked picture to a major record label?

Because their jobs force them to listen to some pretty horrible music, some A&R people gleefully share their amusing - and sometimes horrifying - finds with their peers and visitors.

So before you act on your bright idea for grabbing the attention of that A&R person, remember the Wall of Shame - lest you join the legion of rejects.