What is a demo? I know this sounds like a dumb philosophical question but it's honestly worth thinking about.
A demo is basically a demonstration or blueprint of a record. The film equivalent I suppose would be storyboarding a movie or rehearsing scenes on video and then making the real thing on high end cameras.
In the now defunct model of the music industry, a demo would be recorded at a cheap local studio or home four track and then the big label money would go into making a proper record in a proper studio. But of course things have changed massively. Massively. With the recent advent of convolution processing (building exact replicas of classic expensive studio equipment purely with zeros and ones) and with computer processing power doubling every 18 months, much of the audio jiggery-pokery previously exclusively available to major labels is now available to everyone on their smart phone.
Any local studio is now capable of recording a world class album if the right producer and engineer is at the helm so it's no wonder that the large studios are going under. The National Trust recently had to step in to save Abbey Road Studios as a historical relic. Abbey Road!
Some might argue that you would want to pay those extra two or three noughts to capture the sound of the top studio rooms, but now savvy producers can get the sound of those studios using the aforementioned convolution processing. I don't just mean replicas of the gear with the flashing lights and knobs on. You can actually download the rooms. Want to know what your acoustic guitar would sound like in a Nashville studio? You can do that on your laptop now. Really.
The only argument that the big old studios have is that they have world class microphones and pres. Fair one. However, since everything else has become so much cheaper and accessible, your local studio more often than not forks out on those same microphones and press instead of mixing desks and recording mediums. And if not, they will more than likely use the increasingly affordable (and almost exactly the same) Chinese versions.
So what am I getting at? I guess what I'm trying to say is that since technology has shifted hugely in unsigned and small bands' favour and the music industry is on teetering its last legs, then why should bands insist on sticking to the old model? Many records, particularly pop and dance, were produced on nothing more complicated than the thing you are reading this on now. Unsigned bands that still believe in the local studio = demo and big label studio = real thing system have to shift their attitude. Why wait for the world to come to you when you can now take it to the world so easily? As I hinted at in my last post, spending your money on recording a half-arsed demo that sounds like someone else, sending your CD to a label and hoping Mr Big might just turn up at a gig is ridiculous.
When it comes to recording, the thing you want to look for is not where you record but WHO is recording you. Its a mistake to fork out your well earned cash at the cheapest local studio to "demo" in the hope that a record label will appear and pay for the 'real thing', when - if you look around a little - you can probably find a great producer and an affordable studio and and come away with the 'real thing'? Which you can then release and promote to potentially billions of people without ever leaving your computer. The key is to look for their track record and listen to their sounds, rather than be swayed by the cheapest or the flashiest in your area.
We all know (sadly, or I'd be writing this beside my pool right now) that hardly anyone buys records anymore. Consequently there is much less money in the industry. Most current touring bands that have screaming fans make the same money as someone who spits in burgers for a living. I myself been all over the planet and played to hundreds of thousands of fans and have nothing but my experience to show for it. This is why bigger labels have to put their money into sure things. Lowest common denominator music. Xfactor style fodder and easy to market durge for those people too stupid to work out how to download music for free. It really irks me that there is probably the next Pixies or Bjork somewhere out there who is unsigned and waiting for a label when we could all enjoy their music. Instead we have to listen to safe pop and safe indie on the radio and hunt like crazy on the web to find something new and interesting.
So if labels can't take a risk, then you as an artist have the choice of either selling out (and trying to make music for the dumb masses), giving up (and getting a proper job), financing your release yourself (yay) or going down the label route (hard). If you do go down the label route, approaching them with something that you and they consider a 'demo' is one thing but approaching them with a finished record ready to go to press is another thing altogether. In any event, if you are making great records and putting them out yourself then labels will eventually want a piece of you. If you're making money already, they will have to make you some pretty useful offer.
So what of the demo then? Is there any point? Of course there is. Films still need storyboarding and records need demoing. Demoing on your phone at the rehearsal room or on the cheap 8 track in your spare room and then listening, really listening to them, will force you to assess it before the studio. It will mean that all the major mistakes have been ironed out and some new ideas will appear in the process. Once it's down you might decide the structure isn't good enough or that you need to change the rhythm or words or add a hook.
Since ITS ALL ABOUT THE SONGS, the demo process is vital in picking your material apart and putting it back together again until it is a better song to record. Demos give you an excellent chance to separate the wheat from the chaff. You may only be recording a three song EP but why not demo ten songs at home first, then pick the three? If you're recording an album, why not go down the Michael Jackson route and demo hundreds? Not just rehearse them, actually put them down. You might find that on listening back that the song that is most exciting to play is actually a complete emotionless dud when you listen back. And the one that you find utterly tedious to play makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck when it comes flying out of your speakers. If you get the song down in some form or another then you will be able to let the bad ones go much easier.
I truly believe in the theory that the difference between successful artists and unsuccessful ones are that unsuccessful ones refuse to write enough and let the bad songs die.
Lastly, it's best to discover you were wrong about something before making the record instead of afterwards. Even if you're a rare genius and the songs do stay exactly the same, the demo will help dictate to the producer the feel of the song and give you the blueprint of how the recording process should be tackled.
Disclaimer: as the late great Martin Rushent said, "the only difference between a record and a demo - is simply what you call it". So you might just find that the throw-away crap you recorded in five minutes on your iPhone has so much magic wrapped up in it that it IS final record.