Understand that a record label's A & R person (Artists and Repertoire - into other words, who will play what songs) listens to your demo for only three reasons:

  1. To decide if you have a sound that can sell well.
  2. To assess whether you're musically proficient enough to sound good in a commercially- released album.
  3. To decide whether your material has any market appeal.

Therefore, the most effective demo is a simple, straightforward, good quality recording that showcases ONLY your musical talent. Anything else is a waste of time and money. Also include:

  1. A one-paragraph biographical sketch.
  2. A list of your live performances.
  3. A list of any awards or recognition you've earned.
  4. Copies of clippings of any mention in local newspapers.
  5. A good photograph, preferably taken while you're performing live.

Making an effective demo is actually very simple. Many A&R persons feel the best demo is a good live recording of you and your band performing an actual gig before a live audience. Failing that, set up a good two-track (stereo) recorder, then record your band "live" in your rehearsal space using a simple stereo microphone setup. If you're a solo performer, record yourself with a good stereo recorder and one good microphone, like the fool-proof Shure SM57 cardioid or ElectroVoice 635A omnidirectional dynamic, plugged into its microphone input. Pick your best few songs, and record them this way onto a CD-R or a good stereo cassette. That's really all you need to do. It's really just that simple. At one time, the standard method professionals used to make their demos was to place a microphone in front of the musician or band, then record them onto a full-track monaural reel-to-reel, even when stereo had become commonplace. Don't ignore technical quality altogether. Your demo doesn't have to sound like a big studio production, but it shouldn't have excess noise or harsh distortion. Evveryone should be easily heard in the recording.

Don't make the mistake of trying to do a slick fully-produced demo, with numerous overdubs, effects and fancy edits. The A & R person doesn't care about your attempt to be a record producer. In fact, demos like this will get in the way of your success and can often turn off the A&R person, especially if he or she dislikes your arrangement or your production technique. The record label will have their own ideas on how to produce the album, based on their market research, their knowledge of how to create a "sound that sells," and their insider's experience, all of which is unique and closely guarded "secrets to success" that the record label knows up-front you do not have access to -- otherwise you'd be a record label. A fully- produced demo also raises concerns that you may already have your heart set on a particular arrangement and thus won't be open to their suggestions and recommendations. In other words, a fully-produced demo is a sign to the record label that you may be difficult to work with.

The Fifteen Second Rule.

A&R persons will listen to only the first fifteen seconds of your first song, and if they like it, they'll listen to the first fifteen seconds of the rest of the songs. If they don't like the first fifteen seconds of the first song, then your demo goes into the trash. Why? Because if the song hasn't "hooked" a listener within fifteen seconds, it likely never will. Why only fifteen seconds? Because that's how long it takes for a person to hear a new song, decide whether they like it or dislike it, then reach over and change the channel on their radio.

The "Can I Whistle It?" Rule.

How does an A&R person decide if your songs are any good? One common method, if you passed the Fifteen Second Rule test, is to whistle or hum the song, or to play it on a piano or a solo guitar. If the song "needs" an specific effect or a particular arrangement to "sound good," then it isn't a good song. It's that simple. The songs that have stood the test of time are the ones that are fun with almost any conceivable arrangement or instrument, or even just whistling it to yourself as you walk along.