Follow these 11 rules to create a winning demo or commercial recording

By Louise Lee

At some time or another, just about every performer or ensemble needs to make a recording. It’s an essential tool to get the word out about who you are and what you do, to demonstrate your playing abilities to presenters and others, and to build loyalty among fans and supporters. Besides the mechanics of the process—using good recording gear, finding a producer and/or engineer, getting proper mixing, and making an attractive cover and liner for the package—you also face the crucial creative task of picking repertoire to record. 

TO MAKE AN AUDITION DEMO

A demo is exactly what that term implies: a disc that you can distribute free of charge to show off—or demonstrate—your or your ensemble’s range of repertoire and musical abilities. Because presenters, festivals, music directors, and gig clients have varying criteria, be prepared to make several versions of a demo, each with a different mix of repertoire.

Rule No. 1: Keep the warhorses in the barn. One big mistake is sticking exclusively with overplayed warhorses that everyone from the superstars on down has already recorded. You’re risking having your Sarasate Carmen Fantasy or quartet version of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” compared unfavorably to the world’s top ten recordings of those pieces from the last 50 years. 

Rule No. 2: There’s one exception to rule No. 1. If you’re trolling for wedding gigs, go ahead and include the old standbys that people will want to hear at the ceremony. But you don’t have to be totally conventional. Besides such nonclassical tunes as “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” you can try unusual arrangements of the Pachelbel Canon or “Here Comes the Bride.”

Rule No. 3: Be diverse. For a demo to send to presenters, grant committees, and the like, in general you should record five or six works reflecting a range of tempos, moods, historical periods, forms, and styles.

Rule No. 4: Be concise. For a demo, you don’t need to record entire pieces. Even one movement of a work is fine. In all, you want the entire disc to run about 20 to 30 minutes long.


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Rule No. 5:  Don’t save your best for last. Presenters often throw on the recording looking to be amazed on the first track, so open with your best playing. “People don’t spend a lot of time listening to demos and make snap judgments in the first 15 seconds,” says Angela Myles Beeching, author of Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music.

As for the order of the rest of the recording, mix it up. After the first track, listeners often skip around, says Beeching, so you want interesting sound bites scattered throughout. 

Rule No. 6: Consider your intended audience. Some of your repertoire decisions should simply reflect common sense. If you’re trying to get dates at an event with a specific agenda, such as a festival of new music by American composers, don’t submit a demo loaded with unaccompanied Bach or the Haydn quartets and not a single contemporary work. If you’re trying to find bookings for solo recitals, don’t start with a movement from a concerto. No matter how impressive your concerto performance, “that doesn’t make sense in a recital situation,” says Beeching. “Knowing how well you project over an orchestra is not what recital presenters are interested in.”

Rule No. 7: Record it live if possible (sometimes). You might find that some of your best playing occurred in live concerts or recitals, which of course have an extra element of energy that’s missing from a recording studio. If that’s the case, it’s fine to include recordings from live performances. In fact, judging panels for some competitions require that your demo include live recordings. 

Rule No. 8: Hold the applause. It’s okay to leave in the sound of applause at the end, but fade it out fast. While it’s tempting to show the listeners that your playing was well received, you don’t want to make them wait for the next track. 

TO MAKE A COMMERCIAL RECORDING

You have more freedom in your repertoire selection in a recording for commercial use—usually an impulse purchase bought by audience members who are excited about what they just heard. They want to take home a souvenir from the evening.

Rule No. 9: Give the audience what they want. Be sure there’s an overlap of at least a couple of pieces between the recording lineup and your performance program. Just as with a demo, you may find that you want to produce two or even more “concert” recordings to dovetail with your varying performance programs.

Rule No. 10: Record complete works. You don’t need as wide a range of music. In fact, often you will want the selections on the recording to have a common theme of, say, music by Latin American composers or music written by women.

Rule No. 11: Make it special. But within your theme, you can be adventurous, says David Cutler, director of music entrepreneurship at the University of South Carolina. Try recording a work you commissioned, or one that you arranged. Or work up a selection of music by under-the-radar but highly worthy composers. 

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A version of this article was originally published in the October 2009 issue of Strings.

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