Song Wars: Revenge of the Demo

Before an independent songwriter can pitch a song they must record a demo of it. The function of the demo is to introduce the song to interested parties – publishers, artists, and producers. It stands to reason that the demo should portray a song in its best light, but now that demos are taking on a life of their own a rebellion has begun...

I Was But a Learner
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, demos could be as simple as a guitar or piano and a voice. Over the last several decades the competition to get songs heard has increased. At the same time the affordability of professional recording has decreased. For both reasons, the quality of demos has gone up dramatically. Today they nearly always include a full band and arrangement. They are often produced at recording studios that specialize in demo creation, and the talent these studios hire is some of Nashville’s best. In fact, many demos today sound almost “radio-ready”.

The result of all this is scores of songwriters, armed with professional sounding demos, looking for ways to exploit them. This scenario raises some new questions and issues for songwriters, among them “What happens when someone wants to use my demo just the way it is, in a TV show or movie for example?” Well, here’s the answer:

Now I am the Master
Let me first say that even though most demos today are very high in quality, they are usually still a long way from the big-dollar recordings of national acts in terms of production value. That said, many times demos do end up getting used in movies, TV, etc. Once a demo crosses this line - once it is being used to make money - it is no longer considered a demo is now considered a master recording.

At that point the problem isn't so much the level of performance or production, but securing the rights. When you hire a studio to record your song demo, it is with the understanding that the demo will not be publicly released or used for profit. Often ( in almost always) the singers and other performers on these demos are only doing demo work while waiting for a big break of their own. Sometimes they are musicians who are already performing and recording with national acts, doing demos for some extra income between tours. You can't just go around selling recordings of their performances without their permission.

Does this mean you’re out of luck? Not necessarily. With luck, some interpersonal relationship skills (and perhaps a little Jedi mind-persuasion), you may still be able to use your recording. First, however, you’ve got some footwork to do.

Bringing Balance to the Force
You have to go back and check with the studio that did the demo, and get permission to use it as a master. You will have to check with the talent - in particular the singer - and make sure they have no problems, contractually or otherwise, with it. Usually the producer or studio will do this on your behalf. If everyone gives you a green light, the producer should provide you with a master recording contract that you can go over with a lawyer. Bottom line: everyone involved is going to expect to be a part of the new revenue stream.

Have you ever been part of such a scenario? I would love to hear how you handled it, and what became of it.


Anonymous said...

What happens in the other direction, when you don't have approval from the singer and you cannot publicly release the demo?

Aaron Cheney said...

In that case, you have a couple options.

Usually a demo studio will provide you with a "vocal mix" and a "track mix". The track mix is the music without the vocals. (Many publishers request track mixes so that interested artists can give the song a try with their own voice.) If the demo studio has agreed to release the music but the singer won't, you can use the track mix and re-record the vocals with a different singer.

If the neither the singer or the studio will agree, you also have the option of re-recording the entire song. Remember: the demo studio has no rights to the song itself...only to that particular recording of it.

If you don't have time or money for either of those options, then I'm afraid you may be out of luck. In my experience, however, everyone involved is usually willing to cooperate if there is enough money involved. :o)


Anonymous said...

What if the publisher wants to use the demo record for profit and to have it publicly released and the songwriter made the demo record only for demonstration purpose and not to be publicly released? What other ways the publisher has in this case to exploit the song?

Aaron Cheney said...

Remember: a "song" and a "recording" are two different things. A publisher is trying to exploit the *song*, not the demo recording.

The sole purpose of a demo recording is to pitch the song to artists, in the hopes that one will like it enough to record their own version and release it. This artist's recording is the one that is considered a "master" recording from conception, and can be exploited in any way the publisher and artist see fit: on a CD, in a movie, as a ring-tone, in a commercial, published as sheet music, as karaoke, in Guitar Hero, etc.

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