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The New Demo Tape

This is the first essay by Hypebot intern Mike Pineau (@mikejpineau).

image from indierockmemories.com From the minute a shaggy-haired kid plugs his slightly used guitar into his slightly used amp, frailly  strumming his first chord, he dreams of making it big - selling out stadiums, buying mansions, decorating said mansions with endless platinum records.  Like most kids, he dreams of being discovered by an A&R scout through his band’s demo tape.  In the case of A&R scouts, the same applies in a sense.  The twenty something dreams of getting the demo of the next big thing, making his bosses happy and getting that big chair and that big office.

"In the digital age, the... demo tape is not dead."

In the digital age, the traditional demo tape is not dead.  Calling anything non-human dead is foolish.  Just ask vinyl collectors.  However, the traditional demo is no longer the best way for a band to get exposure.  Sure, there have been artists signed on the strength of their demos this year.  The industry is too massive to exclude such a thing from happening.  Although all four majors refuse to accept demos for a variety of reasons (mostly attorney-driven), many indies still do, relying on armies of interns to listen to the first thirty seconds.  The truth is that the sheer amount of music being made in what I call the “Garageband Era” - an era of mass, high-quality bedroom recording on a shoestring budget - makes the traditional demo submission route grossly ineffective.  Artists should still have a demo available, but submitting it to labels without a prior relationship there, even if the songs are amazing and life changing, is generally a waste of resources and postage.

The best use for these “old school” demos can be found in fan-to-fan promotion.  Handing out demo CDs after shows, hiding flash drives in random places and placing download cards on cork boards can slowly gather a crowd, boost name recognition and establish a “brand” of fans that acquire the music and take a personal stake in promoting an artist.  These are the same fans that wear artist shirts, talk about music with their friends and record cover songs.  Having an established fan base would definitely make an artist more palatable to a label which has its pick of artists that it could sign.  Demos are still useful for cultivating this relationship.

In terms of making an artist visible to a label, for the past ten or so years, the answer has been MySpace; it has become a cliché.  Many artists create pages on the site before they even write a single song.  Many people still consider MySpace to be a music destination, but today this mostly applies for artists looking to maintain a fan base, not establish or grow one.  MySpace as a tool to connect artists with A&R scouts has become largely ineffective for several reasons.  First, because of the “Garageband Era” of music, the sheer number of artists on MySpace make the site ineffective for music discovery.  Also, there are many artist profiles without a single song in the music player, yet they may have thousands of friends and pages of pictures.  In addition, many artists choose to promote by spamming the comments of more popular artists hoping for a click through.  Some include a flash player in their comments to override the artist’s own player.  The number of active users on MySpace is also declining compared to other social networking sites and MySpace has been slow to make changes in response to the decline, especially in regards to artist profiles. Colbie Caillat and Owl City may have found fame through plays and friends, but the time of MySpace for artist discovery has largely passed.

"Twitter is not the future of digital A&R - yet."

The emergence of Twitter in the last couple years has led to speculation about the possibilities of artist discovery through the service.  Without native audio, video and photo sharing capabilities, Twitter is not the future of digital A&R - yet.  It most certainly could be, but as is the service has the most use in growing and maintaining artist-to-fan and fan-to-fan relations.  Fans could use Twitter to spread the word about the great artist they just heard.  Trending topics could be spurred by a lyrical meme.  The service is still in its infancy as an artist discovery engine though.  It runs the risk of becoming a marginal player in artist discovery unless the service adds more features for artists to connect with fans and, ultimately, labels.

With MySpace largely being left behind and Twitter still part of an undecided future, digital A&R should look towards video.  In a sense, they are already there, but it has yet to be fully embraced.  YouTube, the popular video sharing site owned by Google, is the best artist discovery medium available for the Garageband Era.  A&R departments need to pay closer attention to YouTube.  It should not be a mere part of an A&R or marketing strategy, but a central component.  Of course, this does not just apply for discovering artists, but also for promoting their debuts and extending their careers.

Justin Bieber has probably been the best example of YouTube being used for artist discovery, albeit unintentionally.  Justin’s mother posted videos of her thirteen year old’s singing on YouTube.  Island Def Jam scout Scooter Braun was doing research on another artist when he accidentally clicked on one of Justin’s videos.  He tracked the young Canadian down and got him an audition with Usher and later with L.A. Reid.  He later was signed to Island.  Bieber has continued to embrace the service that enabled his discovery.  His video for ‘Baby’ is the most viewed music video on YouTube of all time and many of his early videos - including the one seen by Scooter Braun - have enormous amounts of views, which further serve to promote his career.

The way Bieber was discovered is the way many users discover videos on YouTube - by accident.  On YouTube, users go searching for one thing but may end up seeing another, related video - even if the relation is only that other users also accidentally clicked on the same thing.  Of course, not all videos on YouTube are clicked on by accident.  For some, it’s curiosity.

"In the case of Susan Boyle, curiosity drove popularity."

In the case of Susan Boyle, curiosity drove popularity.  A video of spinster Boyle performing on Britain’s Got Talent in the UK slowly gathered views and others clicked because of the growing views.  YouTube allowed Boyle to establish a fan base in the United States, an entire ocean away from where Britain’s Got Talent aired.  She went on to sell four million albums in the US, an astonishing number in the Garageband Era.  Boyle’s fan base is much different from the tween fan base that Bieber has gathered, which shows that YouTube connects with younger and older audiences alike.  A&R in the digital age should look towards YouTube to find these artists and connect them with audiences regardless of what demographic is desired.

The power of YouTube also reinforces the best way that artists and A&R scouts can connect to each other - live performances.  Not just okay live performances either, but highly tuneful and well rehearsed performances that show that artists are ready for the big time.  Search for Tyler Ward, Julia Nunes, Emily Elbert or James Dupre.  YouTube allows A&R departments to see videos of these performances from their offices and to see the potential in an artist.  A demo CD, a MySpace URL or a tweet offers little in comparison.  YouTube is essentially the new demo tape.  A&R departments should realize the power of YouTube for artist discovery and promotion, instead of just using it as a place to host music videos.  It is the Garageband Era’s central artist discovery medium and, along with live performances, the best way for labels to discover and assess an artist’s viability.

Mike Pineau (@mikejpineau) is from Boston, MA. He is twenty-two and has a strong interest in A&R and music technology.  Here at Hypebot, he will be discussing A&R-related topics and also the role that technology will play in A&R departments of the future. It is his hope that his internship with Hypebot will help him start a career in A&R at a record label or publishing company.


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