Getting Signed: How To Get Your Demo Past The Intern

Christine Jandreau is a production assistant at Harmonix. She was an A&R assistant at a record label and an intern at a music promotion company. She still listens to a band whose demo she passed up the chain to her boss…that band was never signed.

In my year as a record label intern, I listened to hundreds of demo CDs of bands from all over the world. Six years later, I can only remember a handful of them. Some of the ones I remember were simply good bands – like one still-touring hard rock band that sounded so rock radio-friendly I swore I’d heard them before. Others stood out from the crowd for non-musical reasons – like the female singer-songwriter who signed her letter, “May strange blessings fall upon you like cherry blossoms.” I still listen to that rock band sometimes, and I framed that letter. Neither one of those artists were signed by the label, but they managed to catch my attention enough for me to pass their material along to my boss. That’s your goal when you send a demo to a record label – get past the intern.

When sending out demos, it’s important to realize that your demo isn’t going to be placed delicately on the desk of a cigar-smoking, hotshot A&R rep at the record label that’s just waiting to make you a star. Most likely, it’s going to get thrown in a huge box of demos behind the desk of an unpaid (or barely paid) intern who delights in sending out rejection letters. Said intern will be instructed to listen to the demos “when you get around to it,” and will probably wait until the pile threatens to topple over and engulf her entire desk before she even thinks about tackling the task.

That being said, once your demo and other promotional materials are in the intern’s hands, there are a few ways to stand out from the crowd.

First of all, have a proper press kit. I once received an unlabeled CD wrapped in a piece of notebook paper. Guess what happened to that CD? It was tossed in the “write a rejection letter when you have time” pile. Your press kit should include a clearly labeled CD, a photo of the band and a letter introducing your band.

A note about formats: Don’t send a cassette tape. It makes you stand out in a bad way. Your “attention-grabbing” format choice will go right in the reject pile purely because the intern is not paid enough to hunt down a working cassette player to listen to your “clever” submission.

If you send a whole album instead of a demo with just a few tracks, include recommended listening tracks in your introduction letter. Better yet, make tracks one and two your best work. If you don’t grab the intern’s attention within 30 seconds, you’re going in the reject pile. Imagine listening to 100 unknown bands in a row. They all start to sound the same after a while, so standing out in the first track or two is crucial to making it past the intern’s desk and onto the A&R guy’s desk.

Your introduction letter is important. It gives the intern something to peruse while waiting for iTunes to load your CD. Put relevant information in your letter, such as your band name, your genre and your website address.

On the topic of web presence: have a real website. A MySpace/Facebook/other profile-based webpage is not the same thing as having an official band website. Get a domain name – they’re pretty cheap – and set up a website where interested parties can get your tour dates, news and vital info like band member names without having to sign up for a new service or deal with people throwing virtual snowballs at them.

Your introduction letter should contain anything that presents your band as unique. Do not claim to sound like the three bands that are topping the charts right now – you will blend in with the eighty other bands that claim to sound just like the three bands topping the charts right now. It is not in the intern’s best interest to pass along a band that claims to sound like the hottest band on the radio. She’d like to keep her low-paying job, thank-you-very-much.

Don’t tell me your influences. Do include any contests you’ve won. Telling me you’ve won eighteen nationwide battle of the bands contests makes you stand out in a pile of letters from bands that all claim to be influenced by The Beatles (isn’t every band, really?).

Don’t be afraid to do some research – address the letter directly to the A&R representative if you can find his name online (But don’t think that will trick him into opening it himself – trust me, his mail goes through the intern).

Include any upcoming tour dates you have in cities near the label’s offices and offer to put them on the guest list. Proving that you’re a functioning band capable of going on tour shows the intern that you might be worthy of the A&R guy’s attention. Or that you’re at least good enough to have gotten past a booking agent. (For tips on getting past the booking agent, check out Jess’s story)

Some final notes you should consider before even sending in your demo:  

1) Decide on an intriguing band name
Your band name is the first thing the intern will look for. Make it catchy. Make it memorable. Do not try to be cutesy (ie: Shred Zeppelin is not clever; it sounds like the name of a bad SNL sketch). See TheHellion’s article for more advice on choosing a band name.

2) Record a decent demo
You may be a mind-blowingly awesome live band, but if you can’t capture it on a recording you have no business seeking a record deal. See Brett’s story about the perils of recording for advice on how to survive the recording session.

3) Finally, don't forget to include your contact information
Putting a return address on your envelope is not enough. Your letter should include the name of the contact person for the band, a physical address, a phone number and an email address. A lot of record labels still send out physical rejection letters. If you only provide an email address, you’re just not going to get a letter. The intern does not get paid enough to hunt down your contact info.

If you’re very talented – or very lucky – the intern will pass your work along to her boss – the A&R man with the power to make you a star (or at least the power to get the label to shell out the cash for a professional recording session). He may listen to it, or he may use it as a coaster. If he listens to it and likes it, you might get a phone call, or “call that band” might be written on a post-it on his desk for months.

At this point, you’ve done your part. You made it past the intern. Now don’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring – get back out there, play some shows, and keep promoting the band.  You don’t want to be rusty if Mr. A&R calls requesting tickets to your show.