Uh Oh. If you have to ask, it's probably not. Good enough just isn’t good enough. :(
Recently, I judged a songwriting contest. I was instructed to consider only the merits of each song and put aside production value and vocal prowess. I thought it would be easy. Just the song. I love “the song.” It wasn’t so simple.
Before technology allowed us to make elaborate demos it was all about the song. But it isn’t any more. And just because there are those of us who still want it to be, and wish it were (myself included on occasion), doesn’t make it so. Some demos sound as good as masters. Some demos become the masters. So basically, a song has to sound like it’s already on the radio.
Let’s have a look at some other reasons why you may want your demo to sound as realized as possible. Before anyone (be it an A&R—who actually still has a job making records—or a ringleader of a writing camp) presses play on your song (and kudos if you’ve managed to get it into their hands), there’s going to be a slew of other songs ahead of yours which are written by the artist himself, or by her favorite collaborators. And trust me, those songs are going to sound pretty good. So if you want to get attention your song has to set itself apart in some way—be it with an uber unique idea or a fresh or unusual production—and chances are you can’t accomplish that on GarageBand.
Next, consider the A&R or manager who listens to material all day long. Even though they may say they are looking for a hit in a haystack and they may think that’s what they’re doing, they’re only human. They get tired. They get hungry. They have arguments with their spouse. And when they do, they don’t have as much patience for a marginally executed demo performed by a decent singer. They’ll fast forward in a heartbeat or take a phone call before they get to your second verse. (I’ve been in that meeting. It’s humiliating.) Furthermore, they might not admit this but a 21st century gatekeeper would prefer to keep things in-house. It’s just simpler not to have to deal with a newcomer. So there’s that too.
Back to the contest: Personally, I don’t care whether a demo is whispering in my ear or shouting in my face as long as it moves me and has some kind of joi de vivre. What exactly that joi is I can’t say for sure—a compelling first line? Captivating sonics? It’s something that speaks to me and says, “you want to hear this, Shelly!” It’s something that, after just four bars, makes me stop whatever it is I was doing so I can listen to the rest of it…because I just know it’s going to be great.
I did my best to hear through arrangements. I tried listening passed the “warbly” vibrato of a grandma singing a self-penned (rather lovely) ballad while plunking chord changes on her semi-tuned piano; I made efforts to excuse the classic rock production of another contender that sounded like it was conceived in 1975. (Hey, I love Classic Rock and 1975 was a fantastic year, but it’s 2015.) I realized just how challenging it is to ignore the clothes a song is wearing or how it combs its hair. I found myself getting frustrated at having to work so hard to hear “just the song” :(. I’m only human too.
I anticipate comments from writers whose songs made it past the finish line via a voice memo. Yup. I had a few of those too. Not any more.
I know it sounds harsh but these are the realities we’re up against. I see so many hopefuls fooling themselves with amateur presentations. It may cost you some dough but if you’re serious about being taken seriously, try to collaborate with a cutting-edge programmer or take the cash you would have spent on a dinner date or a designer purse and spend it on a nuanced singer. So if you happen to run into Diplo and he says…"go ahead—play me something," and it’s your one shot to prove you are worthy of being ‘in the room’ with him, you’ll be ready.