Many years ago, when I was just starting in the music business, I asked Frank Vilardi (a successful New York — based session and touring drummer) what kind of work was out there. He replied, “The world is a demo.” There are many more demos produced than albums. And that means there is a huge need for demo producers.
I have produced demos for songwriters and artists for more than 20 years, and although it hasn't made me rich, it has provided me with a steady income. My clients spread my reputation around by distributing the songs that I produced for them. For example, I did a lot of recording for two major producers who had heard my demos from other clients. My demos for Jonathan Larson ended up becoming the arrangements for the musical Rent.
You need a variety of skills to produce quality demos, including minimal keyboard chops, good arranging experience, and an ear for how sounds fit together. From an engineering standpoint, proficiency in miking and mixing and the ability to work efficiently in your DAW are absolute necessities. Most of all, you need a good attitude. Producing demos is not about you — it's about what artists or songwriters want. Your job is to realize their vision.
You also need a studio. The demo-quality bar has been raised in recent years, so you need a professional DAW, good mics and mic pres, signal-processing plug-ins, and some hardware- or software-based synths and samplers.
There are two basic types of demos: song demos and artist demos. Song demos are sent to artists, labels, and producers to solicit an artist to record the song. Artists send demos to labels and producers to solicit a recording or production deal. Sometimes the artist is also the songwriter, but you would still treat such a project as an artist demo.
To get work producing song demos, you need to find songwriters. In the major cities, songwriters tend to congregate; they take classes in songwriting, perform at open mic nights, and attend BMI and ASCAP events. Those are all good places to drum up work. For example, you can offer the students in a songwriting class the opportunity to make a demo at a reduced rate. At least one of them will probably be writing hits in a few years, so it's a worthwhile investment of your time. Successful songwriters are good at networking, so if you're a skillful demo producer, word will get around.
Your goal when making a song demo is to create an accurate representation of the writer's vision for the song; you should strive to make it sound like a hit. If the songwriter's concept doesn't seem hit-worthy to you, however, you still have to complete it (although you can feel free to make the case for why it should change). After all, the songwriter is paying the bill. It's helpful to have your clients provide you with one or two songs from CDs as a reference for what they want their song to sound like.
If the songwriter doesn't have a great voice, he or she might choose to hire a demo singer. It's important to know who the good professional singers are in your area so that you can make recommendations.
What to Charge
You have the option of charging your clients by the hour or by the song. I prefer charging by the hour, because that discourages the writer from suggesting endless changes. If, however, you don't work quickly and you like to take the time to experiment, a per-song rate may work better for you.
At the beginning, you should charge fairly low fees for your services. Many publishing companies allow their writers only $500 per song, including vocal fees. That translates into approximately $35 per hour, assuming ten hours of work on your part (covering the whole process, from tracking through mixing) and a $150 fee for the vocalist. When you get more work than you can handle, raise your rates. In the New York area, $100 per hour is the upper limit for song demos.
Some producers ask for a percentage of the publishing (in addition to a fee) for the songs they demo. I don't recommend doing that because professional songwriters — the clientele you want to cultivate — typically won't agree to those kinds of terms.
If you do a good job on the demo and the song gets covered by an artist, two things can happen. The producer can ask his or her programmer to copy the demo, or the producer can ask to meet with the person who did the demo. If it's the latter, then you'll be recording a song for a CD and making more money. It also means you've hooked up with a working producer.
On an artist demo, the focus is on the artist and not on the songwriting, so your aim is to make the artist sound amazing. You'll need a quality vocal mic, a good mic pre, and pitch-correction software. Additionally, you'll need to spend more time on the vocals than you would with a song demo.
For an artist demo, it's important to create a unique sound. Unlike the song demo, which should sound similar to a song that a current artist would do, the artist demo should have a fresh personality that accurately communicates the artist's vision.
Artist demos are typically more work-intensive than song demos. Because of the additional work, it may be acceptable to ask for a portion of the song royalties (if the artist is the songwriter). I don't recommend asking for a cut of the royalties as a matter of course. But if you believe in the music and you have a good relationship with the writer, you can accept a lower fee in exchange for potential royalties.
Often songwriters will introduce you to artists, because artists collaborate with songwriters. You can also find artists at open-mic nights.
The Know It All
What makes a good demo producer stand out is the ability to do many jobs well. Unlike a record producer, the demo producer doesn't have the luxury of calling in an engineer, an arranger, or a programmer. If your background is in engineering, you need to learn how to play keyboards and how to arrange music. Having guitar chops is also helpful. If you're a keyboard player, get a working knowledge of how to play guitar and vice versa. And if you are a musician, learn how to engineer.
My background is in keyboard playing and arranging. I interned at a studio for several years. I read up on engineering. I hired professional engineers to do mixes for me, warning them beforehand that I would be picking their brains every step of the way. I still ask for engineering advice from those who have more knowledge than I do.
The Tech Effect
Increasingly more musicians have access to good recording gear these days, but only some have the skills to produce quality recordings. If you're good, you can get lots of producing work. Although many of my clients own or have access to recording gear, they typically don't have the technical or musical skills to make good demos on their own.
At one point in my career, I was recording a lot of demos and getting a bit tired of it. I was happy when I was asked to produce an entire album for an artist for a healthy fee. “Great!” I thought, “No more demos.” The artist then said, “Well, I have about 25 songs I'm interested in, so to figure out which ones to do, we need to demo them.” I guess Frank Vilardi was right: the world is a demo.
Steve Skinner has worked as an arranger/programmer for Bette Midler, Jewel, Céline Dion, R. Kelly, Diana Ross, The Bee Gees, and Chaka Khan. He arranged the musical Rent and coproduced the cast album. He has also produced a lot of demos.
The Internet is changing the world of the demo producer. With songwriter demos in particular, you can do most or all of the work without ever seeing your clients. The songwriters can send you MP3s of their rough recordings. You can then start a track, and send an MP3 of it back to the songwriter. If the songwriter likes it, you can finish the track and either get a vocalist to come to your studio or send a good-quality MP3 back to the songwriter. The songwriter can then record a vocal in a local studio.
At that point, you need some way to send and receive full-bandwidth files over the Internet. To do that, I use Apple iDisk. You can also set up an FTP site or use an Instant Messenger program, such as AOL Instant Messenger or Apple iChat, to transfer files. The songwriter's studio can then send you a full-bandwidth file of the vocal. You can mix the vocal into your track and then send the songwriter back an MP3 mix for approval. Once your client approves the mix, you can deliver a full-bandwidth version either through the Internet or on a snail-mailed CD. I've worked that way with people in Nashville, Florida, and even Russia.
I don't recommend working remotely on artist demos, because you'll want to be in the studio with artists when they are singing. Working remotely requires you to do a lot more producing.