Time to Make a Demo? Six Ways to Know If Your Song Is ReadyBy
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
written by: Cliff Goldmacher
While our instinct as songwriters may be to love all of our songs equally, the reality is that some of our songs are simply better, or more commercially viable, than others. The problem is knowing which songs those are.
This knowledge becomes incredibly important when you, the songwriter, are considering making a professional demo. How do you know which songs are good enough to invest your time and money in making a high-quality recording, and which need a little, or a lot, more work?
The below steps should help you make that decision.
Make A Rough Recording
One of the first tests I’d suggest is to make a rough recording of your song. Given that you’re not trying to win a Grammy award with this recording, it can be as simple as a bare-bones guitar and vocal recorded on your smartphone.
Rough recordings are useful because they let you hear your song as a listener would. This is entirely different from listening to your song as you’re playing it. I’m always surprised at how tweaks and adjustments present themselves when I sit back and listen to a rough recording—problems I never noticed while I was playing and singing the song.
Put It Away For A Week
After creating a song, there’s often a rush of enthusiasm. This is a good thing. I certainly hope you’re pleased with what you’ve written.
However, it’s still a good idea to have a short “cooling off” period of, say, a week or so, in order to make sure what you’re feeling is true love, not infatuation. After a week, go back to the song. If that same excitement is there, you’re on to something.
Have a Professional Critique Your Song
Getting an experienced songwriter or music publisher to give you their professional opinion can bring valuable insight into the way the industry listens to songs. After all, if your goal is to have a song that is commercially successful, then a professional opinion can be very useful.
That being said, songwriting is still an art, and you should never blindly agree with something just because a professional said it. The music business is filled with stories about publishers and A&R reps passing on songs that went on to become huge hits. In other words, a professional critique should be taken with a large grain of salt and appreciated for what it is (industry insight) and what it isn’t (the final word on whether or not your song is good).
Play It For Your Songwriting Peers
It’s especially easy to find a group of songwriting peers to bounce ideas off of when you’re living in a music city like New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville. However, organizations like the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) have chapters in many cities, which means you can find songwriting peers even if you don’t live in an industry town. A songwriting group can be a good place to play your song and get outside perspective from people who understand what songwriting is about.
Again, it’s important to remember that you won’t—nor do you have to—agree with everything that’s said, but there might be a helpful gem or two that can make all the difference. The risk with any feedback in the early life of a song is that the wrong word or a mean-spirited comment can be devastating. To that end, protect yourself by making sure your group’s members are constructive in their criticism. Also, it’s a good policy to develop a thicker skin for these situations. The more songs you write, the easier this gets.
Play It For An Objective, Non-Musician Friend
It’s been my experience that fellow musicians and songwriters tend to listen to songs in a certain way, often paying attention to details that only other musicians and songwriters would appreciate. This can be useful (thus the above tip), but as a rule, songwriters aren’t really music buyers.
Playing your song for a trusted, non-musician friend—someone who can tell you exactly whether they like the song or not (i.e., “the song feels long” or “I don’t understand the story” or “it makes me want to get up and dance”)—can be a helpful way of seeing whether or not a song is working.
Play It Live
If you’re a live performer as well as a songwriter, you’ve got a valuable tool at your disposal. There’s nothing quite like gauging the response—or non-response—of a live audience to see whether a song is working or not.
Often, the things that you thought would work while you were writing the song don’t pan out, while other things you barely paid attention to go over beautifully.
A word of warning, though: don’t assume that, just because a song is working live, you’re all set. It’s still well worth your while to use some of the earlier suggestions (especially the rough recording) to make sure that when you listen to your song objectively, it’s doing what you want it to.
One Last Note
As a producer, it’s clear to me when a writer knows their song is ready. I can tell that they’ve done the necessary work, including some or all of the above suggestions. This makes my job easier, as my focus goes from doing damage control or overhauls to simply polishing an already-beautiful gem.
In the end, no one else can tell you whether your song is finished and ready to be professionally recorded. In most cases, you’re the one spending the money for the demo and the one who has to be excited about pitching it, so you should be as convinced as possible that your song is ready for prime time. At the end of the day, the decision is—and should be—yours.
About Cliff Goldmacher
Cliff Goldmacher is a songwriter, producer, session musician, engineer, author and owner of recording studios in Nashville, TN and Sonoma, CA.
Cliff’s site is full of resources for the aspiring songwriter including monthly online webinars.
Cliff’s company, Nashville Studio Live, provides songwriters outside of Nashville with virtual access to Nashville’s best session musicians and singers for their songwriting demos.