In the Beginning There Was... the Demo

Cutting Tracks and Everything After

Musicians all want pretty much the same thing: to make a living at their art - to not have to support themselves doing horrible, low-paying work like selling blood or substitute teaching. They want radio play, a solid fan base, good reviews, and regular gigs at clubs that pay. Without these things, music is a hope and a dream for the optimist, a glorified and expensive hobby for the pessimist. How does a musician get these things? First, and foremost... make a demo. It's this simple: Live performance is ephemeral, but tape is forever (or at least the musician's lifetime). Before anybody's going to record your songs, book you for a gig, or put up cash for you to make an album, they want something concrete to assure them of the quality of your work. For just these reasons, Austin musicians record hundreds - possibly thousands - of demos each year, varying from album-quality recordings made at 24-track studios to glitch-ridden live cuts recorded in one take. These demos are invested with hope: that this is the tape that will get me a slot at Kerrville, land me a showcase at South by Southwest, get me a Friday night gig on Sixth Street, catch some agent's attention, and, ultimately, get me a deal with a label. Mostly, none of these things happen. But first things first.

The Great Demo Spawning Ground

Unsurprisingly, the first stop for most singers, songwriters, and bands is the open mike circuit. The Cactus Cafe, Chicago House, the Austin Outhouse, Ruta Maya Coffee House, and a number of other venues feature regular open mikes, spots where performers can get used to being onstage, meet other like-minded musicians, and generally see and be seen. This open mike circuit is the great demo spawning ground, especially for home demos recorded on four-track machines. Four-track home studios probably account for most of the demo tapes musicians make each year. Home studio technology is surprisingly affordable: You can get a used four-track machine for around $200, and set up an entire home studio - mikes, cables, a regular stereo cassette deck for mixdown, a few guitar effects, and a compressor - for under $1,000. A home studio of this sort, not uncommon even for amateur musicians, is in many ways superior to the Sun Records studio where Sam Phillips recorded Elvis Presley, B.B. King, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The mind boggles.

The more serious home studio engineers not only record their own material, they also develop their recording chops by making demos for other musicians, often "discovered" on the open mike circuit. "Oh yeah, I've met a bunch of people at open mikes and then recorded their stuff," says Joseph "Pinetree" Macry. Macry has a four-track garage studio, where he produces demos for aspiring singer-songwriters on a tight budget. "The way I figure it, if any of these people get famous, I've got the basement tapes," he says, laughing. "I'm only sort of kidding. You'd be surprised how many people are really good, who nobody's heard of yet. Two favorites of mine are Patty Finney, who's a folky singer-songwriter, and Mark Alan, who's a good blues picker. I also just recorded the Stark Ravens, and they're a good band." Macry, who sometimes adds a bass track and drum program to the performer's guitar and vocal tracks, says four-track demos are plenty sophisticated for most people's needs. "If you're trying to get work at the clubs, or just get a good recording of your songs for any reason, you can do that in a garage studio. People have forgotten it, but the Beatles recorded theSgt. Pepper album on just four tracks!" A sample of what can be accomplished on basic equipment, Macry will soon be releasing his own self-produced tapeMeat & Teeth & Bones.

The advantages of recording projects on home studios are numerous. For one, there's not the time pressure. If the clock is running (and 24-track studios routinely charge anywhere from $40 to $60 an hour, depending on how much time you book, etc.) bands might settle for a take they can live with rather than getting it right. At home, there's not that pressure, and the recording environment is more relaxed. Another advantage of home recording is that the musicians are learning by doing. At the end of the process, they not only have a finished product, they've also gained experience setting levels and mixing tracks. An understanding of the recording process is, obviously, something any serious musician needs to have. With that knowledge, comes higher quality home recordings. Local singer-songwriter Ned Henry won first place in the rock category of the Austin Songwriter's Competition a couple of years ago with a demo he made at his home studio. Says Henry: "You can do a lot on a home studio. It's also a good idea to have made some demos under low-budget conditions, to get a feel for how it works, before you go into a more expensive studio." Like Macry, Henry has recorded open-mike friends and acquaintances on his home studio, including Mike Jasper, the host of one of Chicago House's several open mikes. Jasper's story is instructive, and goes a long way toward showing the necessity of having demos.

"Last year, during South by Southwest, this New York agent Jamie Propp of As-Is Artist Resources saw me play," recounts Jasper. "He liked what I did, and said if I had a demo, he'd give it a listen and we could talk further. I had nothing to give him, but I told him that maybe I'd make one soon. Well, I finally did record a cassette single, "Kid off the Farm" with Ned Henry, so when this guy called me back six months later, I could say, yeah, I've got a demo. He wanted to know how many songs, and when I told him one, I could tell he wasn't too impressed. It didn't give him anything to work with, or much idea of my range. So this year, he's down for the conference again, and he just brought his own DAT machine. We cut a 20-song demo in a weekend, and he was pleased enough with it that he's going to represent me." The thought of almost losing a shot at getting a manager due to the lack of a good demo tape is enough to send many musicians scurrying to the studios and maxing out the credit cards. As Jasper puts it: "I got lucky. I could have really blown it."

The Other End of the Spectrum

For some musicians, especially those aspiring to record deals on a large indie label, or even a major, garage studio technology doesn't give as big or as polished a sound as they'd like. When that point comes, there are two ways to move to the high-tech end of the recording spectrum. One is to upgrade the home studio, moving to digital equipment. Of course, at the high end, the sky's the limit, but Musicmakers' Kelly Cauble ran through a list of toys that included a computer with the appropriate capacity and memory, the best two or three mastering software items, digital sound cards, reference amps (so you can hear exactly what's being recorded), higher quality mikes, yadda, yadda, yadda, and came up with $4,000-$5,000 as the range for an excellent digital home studio. On the one hand, this is a bargain when you figure that major labels routinely spend 20 or 30 times that to make one album. On the other hand, it's more money than most people have to spend. For people that want to make a top-quality demo and aren't going to shell out that kind of cash, Austin has a number of very good studios. Apart from a clearer, cleaner sound, a big advantage of using a professional studio is that you're typically provided with an engineer, someone with a very good ear, who'll notice little things, like a guitar that's ever-so-slightly out of tune, or a harmony that comes in a little flat. Ned Henry has just been recording some demos at the Hit Shack. "I'm glad I did all the home recording," he says, "but I wanted a more polished sound than I could get in my garage, and the studio is where I can get that."

Austin's multi-track studios, complete with digital editing, top-of-the-line consoles, and prime acoustics, are at the opposite end of the spectrum from garage studios. The Hit Shack, Bee Creek Studio, Music Lane, and other 24-track studios are more often used by bands who are getting regular work, and are ready to shop for a record deal or to put out a self-released CD. Wayne Gathright, who runs Music Lane Studios, has recorded a number of Austin's finest musicians at Music Lane. "Tish Hinojosa cut the tunes for her first album down here, and then got signed to a major label. Sincola's been in here to record an album, and I could name quite a few other local artists. We do everything from songwriters wanting to pitch tunes to publishers on up to finished masters for CDs. Recently, Bob Mould was in here producing a band called Starfish and that was a lot of fun." The bigger, better local studios like Music Lane cost more money than a four-track garage set-up, of course, but if it makes the difference between getting a label deal or not, it's obviously worth it to the artists involved.

Ultimately, the choice between a home studio and, say, a 24-track, will depend on the band's goals. Local musician Kevin Gant recently made the ultimate sacrifice, when he hocked his guitar to buy studio time to record his latest song "The Ballad of O.J. Simpson." "I wanted to get a good-sounding demo," says Gant, "and I wanted to record down at Wildwood Studio. I had a song I believed in strongly and everyone who'd heard it had responded really positively, so I just bit the bullet. I had no money, so I hocked my guitar, which is my baby, borrowed somebody else's guitar, and cut the demo." Since recording the song, Gant has gotten the demo to a potential agent as well as some possible investors. In both cases, he's gotten encouraging responses. "What else can you do?" he asks. "You've got to have a tape to hand to people, or they won't know what you can do and they can't help you."

Of course, it is helpful to have a tape, but Bill Carter, one of Austin's more successful songwriters (he's co-written songs with and had his songs covered by Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, among others), thinks being in bands, playing clubs, and writing with others is the best way to get your material heard. Without making contacts, he argues, demos are mostly ignored. "My first cuts with the Fabulous Thunderbirds happened because I knew those guys. Similarly, Ruth (Ellsworth, Carter's wife) and I wrote with Terry McBride - you know, of McBride & the Ride - because he'd been my bass player. Perform. `Get to know people' is the best advice I've got, because that's how most of it happens. Mailing tapes cold, whether to producers, labels, or artists, is a tough sell. When you're known, at least a little, people will listen to your tape. The most receptive audience is publishers, but then again, publishing deals often cut into your money more than you'd like."

Carter's advice for writers making demos is to use full arrangements, to produce the best sounding tape possible. "Lots of people believe in the bare bones theory," he observes, "and think you should keep things simple, so that the producer, or whoever it is you're making your pitch to, can fill in the blanks, and can have some flexibility in how they hear the song. But to my way of thinking, that amounts to trusting the imagination of people in the music business, and that's just a mistake. Go ahead, laugh all you want. I'm not joking." Carter's main points are both well-taken: A carefully arranged demo will have an edge over a rough one, and a band or writer that's well-known will have an edge over a newcomer.

Not Done Yet

Regardless of whether tapes have been recorded at the best studios in town or on a four-track machine at home, regardless of whether the tape has a nine-piece band or just one singer-songwriter strumming an acoustic guitar, post-production is an important part of the demo process, especially for artists hoping to get airplay. One of the busiest digital mastering facilities in town is Terra Nova, run by Jerry and Diane Tubb. Mastering studios have an array of software that allows engineers to do "microsurgery" on the tape explains Diane Tubb. "We can take out trash and incidental noise, get rid of the crackles and pops, generally clean it up," she says. "The other thing we can do is get it to sound more like a major label release by setting levels and compressing the sound to get a denser feel. We make sure your fades sound good, your between-song time is consistent and not too long, and so forth. When we're done, it's going to sound much more radio-friendly and professional. Also, we can press it onto a CD for you, too, which makes a much better impression than cassette - especially for the radio stations. If you don't have a CD, most of them aren't going to be willing to play it." Cotton Mather was in Terra Nova the day I talked with Tubb, mastering a four-song demo of material for their next album.

Having written and recorded the material, cleaned it up, and mastered it, the band is now ready to have duplications of the tape made. Sound Recorders and Lubbock or Leave It both provide duplication services, and both get lots of work from in and around Austin. "They keep me busy!" says Barbara Roseman at Lubbock or Leave It. Roseman points out that most bands now have multi-purpose demos. "Well," she said, "they're going to sell the tape at one of the local stores that takes things on consignment, Waterloo or Sound Exchange, say, or they're going to send it to the radio stations that play local artists, or they're going to send copies to the clubs where they'd like to be playing." For tapes given to anybody other than consumers, Roseman recommends putting the whole program on each side, both because people deluged with tapes aren't going to fast forward or rewind to find a particular song, and so that the first song (traditionally the best song on an album) can make it's favorable impression twice.

Hitting the Airwaves

So now you've made your demo tape, you no longer live in the fleeting world of live performance, and you're not stuck between gigs just telling everybody how great you are. You've got a product! What can you do with it? One of the best things that can happen for a band is to get airplay on a local radio station. Several stations play local acts to one degree or another, but most will not heavily program music that is only available on cassette. Andy Langer, a Chronicle writer as well as a music consultant and on-air personality for Z-Rock, plays a lot of local music, and has this to say: "For radio, the bottom line is sound quality. Get it mastered. Put it on a CD so it's formatted friendly for radio. Even if you've got a terrific song and it's a great band, it doesn't matter. If the tape sounds bad, we can't use it - even if Gibby Haynes himself brings it down here." Langer's been favorably impressed recently with packages he's received from Seven Stones and Velvethead, as well as Pariah. "It's great when you get advance tracks," says Langer. "We've been playing demos from Pariah which sound really good, and are not anywhere near being released yet, as far as I know. For lesser known bands, though, it's best to send it to the stations when it's also available at local stores. That way, if we plug your work, it can translate into a sale or two."

Jody Denberg, program director at KGSR, hosts a feature called The Daily Demo. "When we started back in December of 1990, we knew we'd be playing a lot of local music," says Denberg. "Plenty of local artists are signed to labels of varying sizes, and we play their stuff as part of our regular programming. But for the people who had good songs, or a good band, who just didn't have anything recorded with the sound quality to go side-by-side with a major label artist, we wanted a special place to play that." Denberg receives anywhere from 10-20 tapes in a week to be considered for The Daily Demo. "I'd never heard of this band called Correo Aereo," he says, "and they're very talented. They play acoustic guitar with a Central American sound. I also liked what I got from the Sleestacks, Meredith Miller, and several others. Walter Tragert is a favorite, and I enjoyed having cuts from Storyville well before their disc had been made available."

Another outlet for bands and songwriters to play their demos is on the "Ego Complex," Friday mornings, 9-11am, with Ponty Lox on KOOP. Lox has people play live on the air, chats with them about their work, and plays tracks from their recorded material. "Aunt Beanie's 1st Prize Beets were in here," Lox says, "and they were excellent. Quatro Paw, Kevin Gant, Ned Henry, Seela, and Cool Beans have also been on the show, among others." Lox is one of those open-mike musicians described earlier, and has met a bunch of his guests from the open mikes. "I prefer it when they've got demos," he says, "because if they just play live, the whole time they're on it all sounds too much the same. That spare sound of just a singer and guitar works best when it's in contrast to something more arranged and produced. Most of the guests do have tapes or CDs, usually self-released, usually available at their gigs, or even in the local stores."

The longest-running of the local features, however, is KLBJ-FM's Local Licks, which has been running for 13 years now. Program Director Jeff Carroll speaks with well-deserved pride about the artists who've received some of their earliest airplay on Local Licks. "Probably one of the first places anybody ever heard Timbuk 3 on the radio was when we played their demos," points out Carroll. "So many great bands have been featured: Charlie Sexton's new band, Ian Moore, Ugly Americans, tons more." Carroll, like the other hosts, says sending something on CD definitely improves the chance that it will rise to the top of the pile, and be played on the air. "Mostly we receive cassettes," he notes, "because that's what's easier and cheaper for bands to make." Technology having advanced to the point it has, however, bands should know that it's possible to get a mastering studio to make one or two CD copies of whatever you've got on DAT. If it makes the difference between getting airplay or not, it's probably worth scraping together the money to do it. As Z-Rock's Langer argues: "If that airplay gets you a few extra people paying $4-5 at the door for your shows, you'll make the money back, as well as develop your fan base. It's the smart way to do it." In any case, there are a variety of options for local musicians to get airplay on Austin radio, and the potential exposure is one of the best reasons to make good clean demos of your work.

Aw C'mon, Book Us!

Demo production is the second busiest aspect of the local music economy, whether it's hiring Gene Elders or Champ Hood to play fiddle on your cowboy songs, or getting a pal to do it for a six-pack and a burger. The most lively component of Austin's music business is, of course, live music. The two intersect when bands send their demos to the people who book the clubs, hoping to get a chance to play, to build a following. Ed Bradfield, who books the Austin Outhouse (a good starting point and springboard for a number of local bands), points out that the pristine sound quality sought by the radio shows doesn't much apply to demos bands send in to get live work. "If it's got a little hiss on there, or isn't mixed all that great, that's alright," he says. "I'm listening for the songs and the band's ability to get a groove. That's not about who's got the cleanest tape." Bradfield estimated that he gets 15-20 tapes a month, and "maybe three impress me." Potter's Field is one of the bands that has earned a regular gig at the Outhouse.

It's a common complaint among musicians: Bands suspect that the tapes they have worked hard to produce, arrange, master, etc., are tossed in the back of a drawer and never heard. According to Gigi Vick, who books bands for the Saxon Pub, that happens pretty often, but it's the bands' own fault. "Look," she says, "you've got to pick an appropriate venue. I frequently look at the band's promo kit, and know, absolutely know, that they're not right for this club. They're gonna be too rock, too loud, too abrasive. I don't listen to half the tapes that come in, or all I'd ever do is listen to tapes. I'm not in the artist development business, you know? My obligation is to the club. I want bands to fill up the club and sell a lot of drinks." The bottom line is that bands should scout the clubs, and send their promo kits and tapes to clubs that frequently book bands working a similar vein. This seems obvious, but it's apparently not. Your demo does you no good unless you pitch it selectively and smartly.

Yammering Twits

In dystopias like 1984 and Brave New World, quite a few 20th-century writers have predicted that technology would bring about an age of tyranny to a degree never seen before in human history. Individualism, they thought, would be extinguished in an ever-more-centralized world in which the sheer speed and pervasiveness of information systems would effectively stamp out privacy, or, as Robinson Jeffers put it: "Add to kept bodies kept souls." Wouldn't Jeffers, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley feel like a bunch of yammering twits, then, when faced with the indie revolution? The growth of technology has actually decentralized the music business. It's no longer only the giant corporations that can make quality recordings. Home studios keep popping up like bluebonnets, many of them with capabilities beyond what the best studios could do even 15 years ago. Drum machines, electronic keyboards, mastering software, and the like, enable people far from the major music centers to create sounds and textures that most ears can't easily distinguish from a major label release. In short, technology has actually democratized music.

In all the discussion about whether Austin is ever going to get a world-class studio so that more major label albums will be recorded here, etc., it's easy to forget that most of the recording industry in this town gets its bread and butter from people still on the low rungs of the ladder; people making demos, from four-track set-ups in garages on up to the numerous local multi-tracks. Some of these demos are truly terrible and a few are outstanding. A few of the people involved will go on to careers as producers, songwriters, even as signed label acts. Most will settle into other jobs, other lives, after a few frustrating years. But they'll still have that tape, they'll still have that hedge against the ephemeral, and, for better or worse, they'll remember just how they used to sound.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle