What's a Working Band to Do?
Part 3: Making Sound Decisions
by Erik Jay
“What’s a Working Band to Do?” is a practical series of how-to articles. It is not about describing the unified field theory or exploring the outer reaches of human philosophy; it’s about working in the music business in the real world, so it’s not even about being a star, okay? It’s practical, do-able advice.
I never assume that the articles in a series such as this one are always read in order. So I need to keep the flow of the whole series going in some kind of logical way, while still ensuring that each and every article makes sense by itself and is of practical use. After all, the most important word in the series’ title is (drumroll, please) — DO!
But let’s get ourselves oriented before we hit the launch pad, okay? The only requirement you need to fulfill to read this article is interest in the topic; but the readers who will benefit the most are those who are in working bands (or duos or solos or trios or … you get the point). It doesn’t matter if you’re doing cover tunes at weddings, half covers and half your own material around town, or doing all originals and working as much as possible while hoping to open for a big act in your genre on your way to what is called “the top” — you need a demo. (A word about “the top: As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “There’s no there there,” and if you stop reaching because you think you’ve “arrived,” you’ll watch as others rise past you.)
So, why do you need a demo? If your musical enterprise is simply a way of making a living, or even some extra dough while doing something you enjoy, and you have no original tunes or any desire to claw your way up the entertainment mountain, that’s cool. Nothing wrong with that. In this case, your demo is just a way of getting gigs. You make sure it gets to agents and booking people, you post some streaming files on your website, you do some targeted mailings, all that. It’s a sales tool, exclusively to get you work, and you are selling the event, the performance, the working band as hired hand.
Then there are you “middle grounders”; you are working in the clubs, you do some popular and/or classic cover tunes, but you also have a few good originals. In this case, your demo fulfills the previously described function (getting work) while also working to get you some A&R attention, if possible. So in addition to doing the booking agent thing, you can use your demo to showcase your band (or yourself) whenever possible. In fact, if you read the first article in this series (“Part 1: A Game of Musical Hats”) you know that one thing you will always be doing, at every level of your career, is building buzz, generating news and interest about what you’re doing. If you just packed out the biggest club in town, a clipping from the alternative weekly or Performer magazine should accompany your demo to all the addresses you can find in the A&R directories (on sale now at a website near you).
Okay, so what now? If you are selling an act, you need a performance video in addition to a song demo, and that will be covered in a future article. But you might consider that the demo should also be of your live show, if you are tight and happening, of course. If none of the band members have any audio equipment, you can get a local pro (or semi-pro) to come in with the equipment and record you for something south of a thousand bucks, probably. Or you could beg, borrow, or invest in an eight-track digital recorder for as little as $500, get some microphones, read a few Recording magazine articles on live recording, and give it a shot yourselves.
If you are selling songs and original material as much or more than the act itself, you will want to do a studio recording. You could get into a decent “project studio” and probably get three or four tunes recorded for a grand or less, assuming you have your arrangements down and do not waste time that is billing out at $25 to $50 per hour. Do not go into the studio and stand around arguing about who gets the middle solo — everything, and that means everything, needs to be worked out in advance. You have no time and no money to waste.
Now, if someone in your band or your band’s universe is a budding producer, and has some equipment —or if you want to invest your grand (or two) on getting your own project studio going — then you can take on the work yourself. All the music magazines — EQ, Mix, Electronic Musician, even Guitar Player — run articles on how to set up a home studio; get the right issues, read the right articles, and make the right decisions based on your aims and your budget. But remember this: If you do not have someone who is good at this, who has a good ear and knows how to work with either stand-alone or computer-based recording systems, don’t jump into this particular pool. It’s deep.
In the next article, we will look at some of the most popular (and potent) project studio set-ups, and show you how to set one up for the purposes of doing your own demo. In the meantime, assuming you want to go this route instead of paying someone else to record you, get your arrangements together, get your parts tight, get your songs charted out the way that you need them, on sheets — and get ready. But assuming that you do not want to do it yourself, you can wait just a bit longer for the article after that, which will teach you what to look for in a studio for hire. You will need those song sheets for that option, too.
In any case, it’s time to get your sheets together.
Erik Jay is a writer, designer, and BMI composer/artist who lives in L.A. with one wife and two dogs. At his site, erikjay.com, you can take Door #1 for his editorial and design work, or Door #2 for original music.