Social Media

The New Demo Tape

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

image from 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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  1. I think saying that “Youtube is essentially the new mix tape” is a bit dated. There are so many better options for A&R people to search new music out there. I would be more inclined to say websites like The Deli NYC or LA or whatever city you would like to search in is the new demo tape. Offering many different types of demos in one centralized place.

  2. The medium is not the message. When deciding to work with a band, my main concern is the music not where I listen to it. Whatever is easiest will always win out.
    I think that much like the fractured landscape of the Music Industry at large there is no one true demo tape anymore. I can listen to demos on you tube, myspace, as an mp3 or on a streaming service or even on a cd or a 7 inch vinyl.
    That being said since Youtube is the #1 discovery tool for music anyway you are right that bands should use it more in terms of building a fan base. Just don’t tell vevo.

  3. Thanks for your feedback on my first essay here guys. I really appreciate it.
    Corey, I definitely agree that the idea may be a bit dated, but I really don’t think it’s being utilized for music discovery as aggressively as it should be.
    And yes Frank, just don’t tell Vevo. Or MTV for that matter. Haha.

  4. For those that haven’t tried it yet, the recently funded could be one of the new emerging social media platforms useful to music discovery. It’s like an audio version of twitter.
    Mark Rock the founder is an incredible entrepreneur, putting an amazing amount of energy behind the project to get it this far, and it has superb integration into facebook and twitter thus far.
    Check it out at

  5. I guess I just don’t see the relevance of Youtube from an A&R stand point. Granted Youtube does amazing things for music discovery, the purpose of it I think is more along the lines of building a community around an artist versus discovering an artist. An A&R person whom is familiar with the digital world would be more inclined to look at different avenues for discovering new talent. Sites like The Deli, Gorilla Vs. Bear, those indie minded blogs that talk about the next big thing before it is the next big thing.
    Because let’s face it A&R is like a shot in the dark. Major labels have A&R scouts and you only get access to those through highly reputable managers or through great contacts. And the A&R for publishing companies normally have a specific type of music they are looking for which makes sites like CD Baby or Amazon better music discovery tools because you can search by genre.

  6. I think Corey is missing the point entirely. Gorilla v bear and the Deli (or for more mainstream A&R Crazed Hits) are just publications.
    They are not a musical submission entity. That is like saying 40 years ago that artists should concentrate on getting in Crawdaddy or Rolling Stone to get signed. Which is true – that would be great then and now- but how do you get the music to the publications in the first place.
    In the old days it was demo tape. Then a cd, Then it was an MP3. Then it was myspace. Whatever was the easiest way to listen to the artist. I’m not sure if youtube is the next step in musical submission, but at least it is a theory that follows the constraints set forth by the premise.
    I’m not saying any of your ideas are wrong – they just don’t fit this essay.

  7. Right again Frank…and I’m not trying to rip my fellow intern Corey, but I think we’re really talking about two different things here. Tastemaker publications have their place, but you generally won’t find the same kind of talent there that you would find on Youtube. In many cases, Youtube videos come directly from the artist – in Justin Bieber’s case, it was his mom.
    The tastemaker is also a filter. They are selecting music from submissions for a targeted audience – not just because they are good, but because they appear to be what their audience would like to hear. I’m not saying those blogs are bad, but I think they are more for building an fanbase rather than discovering the talent.
    Why drink from a cup when you can drink from the faucet?

  8. I respectably yet completely disagree with both comments, though in retrospect I didn’t make my point clearly enough.
    Youtube is used to build an audience around someone and surely for music discovery but not for submitting to someone as a “demo tape” which is the analogy used in the argument/premise of this essay. I think it is far more relevant for an artist to submit an mp3 versus just a Youtube video as the new demo tape. Though a Youtube account (channel) should be included in the music 3.0 version of a “demo tape”. Myspace, despite it’s decline, is still a way for artists to display their music online as is Facebook.
    Nowadays the “demo tape” or idea of one is more of a social media mash up. The number of streams online, the number of video plays, the number of comments, the number of fans. Basically an assortment of different factors that reflect the changes in music due to technology. Surely a good MP3 will still catch attention but I think it is more relevant nowadays to look at an artist’s online media presence in it’s entirety when talking about a “demo tape”.
    For instance, an artist who is signed to a major label nowadays has to have a good social media presence to get the attention of an A&R scout. How else did Justin Bieber get the attention of Usher? Yes it was a Youtube video but also the community built around this kid already without the help of a major label. What about Felicia Day? Or even Sara Bareilles or Ingrid Michaelson? All of these artists had a great social media presence before being signed to a major label.
    On the point I was trying to make about A&R which you address in your essay with the points below:
    YouTube allows A&R departments to see videos of these performances from their offices and to see the potential in an artist…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
    I think that the new digital native version of A&R has many different and better channels to discover new music with than Youtube. Bands who might have a live performance video on Youtube with 20,000 views could have the inability to connect with an audience live, which is what any A&R person wants. That inexplicable feeling of connecting with an artist through live music. The greatness you can spot, that grabs you from the audience and puts the music in your ears.
    The new A&R digital native can do a search for an unsigned band who sounds like a popular band of the day say Phoenix on CD Baby and find an unsigned band Pet Lions. Upon further looks at their Myspace, Facebook and Twitter pages you see they have a decent following in Chicago and through their free EP download see that their entire EP is full of music that would easily get airplay on Triple A radio with a decent indie label behind them.
    This is how the new A&R person should find music and how most that I know of do. It’s an assortment of things and steps that end up in the same place with new steps: a record deal.
    The things that The Deli and Gorilla Vs. Bear (one of which I used to write for) offer the reader/A&R person is bands who are unsigned and normally who don’t have limitations for potential record deals. Bands who are playing in their area as well they can check out. A&R Crazed Hits just tells you of breaking bands whom everyone is going after not so much for music discovery which is why I didn’t list them in my previous comment.

  9. First let me point out the obvious by saying A&R Crazed Hits is headed by a guy who gets sent bands from other managers and features them on his blog. It doesn’t fit the same category as The Deli and Gorilla Vs. Bear. Both of which feature listings of not only band shows but popularity rankings of bands based on social media streams. The latter of which is completely relevant to A&R nowadays.
    I don’t think Crawdaddy can be compared to Rolling Stone. If say Cream and Rolling Stone were compared then I would absolutely agree.

  10. Well First Attacking my use of Crawdaddy vs cream is completely irrelevant. Its a publication that wrote about music in that era. I could have picked any of them. I wasn’t comparing them to eachother. This was my point in the first place that you are speaking about publications, and are disagreeing without staying within the premise. In debating circles this is called “poisoning the well.”
    I agree with Crazed Hits lack of credibility I put it in there because he touts very mainstream artists which the deli and gorilla v bear do not.
    In fact my challenge to Mike as the A&R writer is to do the numbers on Crazed Hits. He has featured about 800 bands of which maybe 100 have been signed. That’s not a very good success rate. Then take into account that the average label isn’t looking to just sign an artist but have them become successful and his percentage is worse. Assign a dollar amount to each signing in cost – and a corresponding one to any that have become successful and see where you end up. I’m guessing that if Crazed Hits signed and released everything they touted they would make Enron’s numbers look desirable.
    Most of what else you are saying makes sense, except that youtube fits into that too. It was something that is largely ignored with potential and I think Mike in his first essay deserves credit for that. I don’t understand why you are trying to fight that and saying that it has no merit. It is not the complete solution, but it is as valid as everything else in a fractured landscape.

  11. So basically what you are really trying to say is I was right. My response would be thank you sir!

  12. Your welcome – I’m glad that being right is so important to you in a place that is really about exploring options for a changing industry. Since you know all of the answers already as an intern I am sure you will have a great career, Because let me tell you there is nothing the traditional music industry loves more than someone who thinks they are always right.

  13. You know I think you may just be right about my career. Did I mention that I have already interviewed Lady Gaga?

  14. Just curious to know what is the best route to becoming an A&R scout for a major or even indie label these days?

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