Why Are Songwriter Demos So Expensive?


This question was asked on a songwriting forum recently and I decided to answer it here. Many demo services and recording studios base prices on what other services charge and try to either beat the other guy’s price a little or up the other guy’s price. That approach reveals convoluted logic, bad business practice and is terrible for clients.

Pricing downward based on competitor’s prices forces a downward spiral in the race to be the “chief bottom feeder.” How can a studio owner be sure the prices they’re using as a guide haven’t already been through the same process?

A good businessman determines prices based on his own costs and need for profit, period. To do otherwise invariably leads to overcharging or not quite charging enough which means cutting corners to ensure a profit is made and it’s the client who always comes out on the short end of that stick.

Equipment necessary to make professional sounding music is not cheap. In the pic above taken at Play It Again Demo’s studio the two digital converters cost over $2,000 each and the high power computer, large enough to run commercial recording software, costs about $5,000. The software it runs (in our studio and most studios in Nashville area, that’s the commercial version of Pro Tools, PT HD ) is about $8,000. The software that runs in it (the plug ins such as reverb, delay, mastering tools, pitch correction, etc.) cost about $100,000. There’s also an expensive control room speaker monitor system as well as computer visual monitors, an earphone monitor system to each tracking musician station, so you’re looking at over $120,000 and that’s just for starters on the computer recording system alone. But oh it does sound good!

The building and utilities also must be paid for. Heating or cooling a building for a day isn’t cheap and electric to run all that gear isn’t free.

So studio rates are typically $50 to $150 per hour, depending on the studio, which may or may not include the engineer/producer. A professional session singer hired for a demo generally costs $80 to $175 per song but some are even higher. And musicians capable of playing at session quality, a rare commodity, are about $50 to $75 per song. The time required to take one average three minute song from rough through pre-production (writing charts), recording rhythm tracks, doing overdubs, adding vocals and doing a demo quality mix is about a one full day per song. The producer and engineer will be present throughout with each musician and singer contributing about an hour to an hour and a half.

Add it up and you can get to a relatively large number fast. That’s just reality.

But reality is also that doing a pro demo is simply the bargaining chip that gets you taken seriously. That’s because you’re not competing with Joe Smith’s home recorded demo made in Iowa, you’re playing poker with pro songwriters with previous hits who can afford to set the demo quality bar extremely high. It’s not that a demo made on a Fostex home quality 4 track recorder can’t get signed, it’s that very few amateur songwriters know how to make that Fostex generate a pro sounding recording. And perhaps not in all, but in most cases, a poor sounding recording equals “amateur” in a publisher’s mind so they can’t drop that demo in the nearest waste can fast enough.

“Expensive” is relative. Is it better to scrimp and save a few hundred dollars on a song demo only to and have a song publisher use it to play trash can Frisbee or is it more intelligent to spend what’s necessary to really get in the game, bowl the publisher over with a compelling piece of music, get signed and possibly get a hit that will return hundreds, maybe thousands of times what you spent?

Which is the better investment? Do you believe in your song or not? If you don’t, who will?

Demo Pitch Opp: Josh Thompson

Country, male vocal, Josh Thompson.

He’s on Nashville label Show Dog Universal. Show Dog is the company Toby Keith started some years ago.

The pitch deadline is March 7th, 2013 so if you have a song we’ve cut the demo on in the past you think would work for J.T. and believe we should take a look at or have a new song you’d like to have demoed for this (we’ll put a rush on it), get it on in.

Songwriting Tip: Separate That Chorus!

Nashville Trax Music Studio
One mistake some songwriters consistently make is failure to create a chorus section that’s distinctly different from the verse. You want that chorus to just about shout to the listener: “Okay now: here’s where I’m summing up what this song is about!”

How? A few good techniques to achieve separation are:

  • Alter the line length
  • Change the rhythm
  • Alter the note length

    You can use any one of those or combine as necessary. A lyric that has relatively lengthy verse lines but the chorus lines are short and powerful may provide sufficient contrast. A subtle change of rhythm can work and some recent hits take that to extreme such as Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road.”

    We need look no further than the Florida Georgia Line hit, Cruise, for a good example of altering note length. If you sing it and tap your fingers with each syllable you’ll notice the tapping is a lot faster when you reach the chorus “Baby you a song, you make me wanna roll my windows down and Cruise …” part.

    A producer has a good number of tools available to create chorus separation via the arrangement but if you can provide it in the structure of the song itself, it makes the song that much stronger and the final product that much more likely to be signed. More songwriting tips are available at the link in the menu to the right- Bill Watson

Artist’s Looking For Songs : Songwriter Tipsheets and Song Promotion

Southern Shine CHART

The “Nashville numbers chart” for  “Southern Shine” by Dan Thompson. The first indie single we produced for him blew up big time on radio in Europe and Australia. Initially played on the BBC radio network, as I write this it’s currently getting about 2.000 spins a week.

Here’s my opinion on songwriter tipsheets, song pluggers and song promotion– Music Producer, Bill Watson

Before we dive into song promotion via tip sheets and pluggers, let’s look at what you’re promoting

Almost-radio-ready is no longer a luxury, it’s the bargaining chip that gets you into the game at all. If the song demo you intend to pitch doesn’t sound like this you’re probably wasting your time.

These days many A & R people want demos they can hit the ground running with, not re-cut. Anything less gets dismissed as amateur or unusable and gets tossed in the trash can.

The musicianship should be superb, the mix professional. Near record quality. That’s not to say you must always have super elaborate demos produced.  Many songs do not need a lot of background vocal tracks, three layers of keyboard tracks or whatever to get the song across.  Some tunes need as little as a good solid guitar track and a quality lead vocal to achieve that goal.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Frustrated with the song marketing process? Have you looked at Song Rocket?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

But regardless of whether a sparse, or a more elaborate demo path is chosen, all elements must sound professional. That means similar to what you’d hear on the radio.

If you live outside Nashville it’s doubly important that you have a superior quality demo to establish your credibility. Right or wrong, most music industry professionals are more skeptical of anything not created here.

Click Here For FREE Listings of Major Label Song Pitch Opportunities

Should you do a full band demo? An all out, spare-no-expense demo? A master? Guitar/vocal? Obviously I make my living producing music so it’s easily argued, possibly with some merit, that I have an inherent conflict of interest. Kicking this question around with songwriter Denise Baldwin, who has no dog in this hunt and is experienced at the Nashville critique/workshops/pitching routine, we arrived at this:

  • Most record company A & R don’t have the experience or song sense the old “Tin Pan Alley” music publishers of the 1940’s and 50’s had. Unless you spell out every word, today’s fresh-out-of-college interns assigned to song screening can barely read the book let alone envision it fully illustrated. If they are part of your pitch plan, I recommend at least a basic four piece demo if not a full blown deluxe. Neither option costs that much more than a high quality guitar/vocal. Ditto if you’re pitching directly to an artist.
  •  A guitar/vocal or piano/vocal may be fine for some music publishers. If so they’ll generally let you know they can “hear it” by requesting a simple guitar/vocal or piano/vocal demo. They have the experience to catch the vision and mentally extrapolate your simple demo into a full blown recording.
  • Independent releases don’t run the A&R gauntlet; it’s pure art, no gatekeepers, no rules. Simply be sure your song says and does what you want it to,  then it’s fine to go straight to a limited release master or full blown master. As I write this, in fact, everything I’m currently working on is limited release or master level. With so many opportunities available for songwriters that didn’t exist prior to the Internet- radio airplay, download sales sites, You Tube revenue, etc.- songwriters are definitely turning more entrepreneurial.

Previous clients of Nashville Trax who later informed us that their song we produced was contracted by a music publisher, was forwarded to a publisher by BMI.. or got a cut, a hold, got a deal, got radio airplay etc., have never had it happen (that we’re aware of) due to simple one instrument demos.

That fact alone doesn’t mean you should go more elaborate, many Billboard hits started as simple one instrument demos. And not all clients feel the need to contact us after the fact so this point is likely based on limited data, and certainly the evidence provided here is somewhat anecdotal, not empirical, take it with a grain of salt.

Regardless of your intent, do rewrite until your song is the best it can be. Then if  you intend to pitch the song to Music Row A&R, consider paying for a critique before investing in a demo. You don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars only to later hear your song lyric is flawed.

Professional critiques are only as good as the song sense, comprehension of song crafting and knowledge of what’s currently getting outside cuts, of the person doing the critique. Get two “pro critiques” and you may well get two very different perspectives that may even contradict each other on some key points; all critiques are colored by opinion. Get one, but once again, the grain of salt thing applies.

Tipsheets: There are some very good ones but those tend to be extremely expensive $175 to $1,500 per year and the best listings usually restrict submissions to professional song publishers with a track record of hits. Contact info in most is not even listed for the big name pitches, you’re expected to have a relationship, otherwise your songs aren’t welcome. The obvious tactic is to get signed with a music publisher who subscribes to the tips sheets so you don’t need to. Your time is better spent writing songs, not promoting them.

The Song Plugger: Some people around town plug songs they believe in for free hoping to get a cut and a percentage if it’s successful. One of my friends does that and she has had a hand in two Billboard #1 hits, one of which she was totally responsible for taking the song demo from the songwriter (Rodney Crowell) and pitching it to the artist who cut it (Keith Urban). In the other instance she was part of the loop responsible for the biggest hit on the country charts in over 40 years (Cruise by Florida-Georgia line). That’s clearly legit plugging.

Not so clearly ethical is the growing trend of the paid song plugger who, for a large fee, I’ve heard of songwriters paying $250 to $2,000 or more per song pitch, will take your song or “the best of your songs” and claim they’ll be listened to “by the right people.” And perhaps some do as they say. But I suspect that in many. if not most cases, it’s a bit of a scam. If you have money they’ll take your song.

But do they really pitch it? Hmmmmm.

We do pitch songs we believe in. The song has to be great, the hook superb. the lyric as good as it can possibly get. And we don’t charge big money to pitch a song, we do it because we believe in it and because successful songs help our business thrive.

As far as a directly pitching to an artist, every recording artist would love to have a hit song handed to them but not every artist or even every song publisher is eager to hear songs straight from unknown songwriters. Why?

Two basic reasons: Time and fear of lawsuits. The majority of song publishing companies and independent publishers here in Nashville are very small operations, 5 to 10 people total. They have staff writers who are paid to write and crank out a lot of songs. Between managing those writers, managing their song output, performing administrative tasks on previous hit songs and such there’s not much time to wade through 2,000 diamonds in the rough to find that one polished gem.

I read once that Conway Twitty attributed his string of #1 hits to personally screening one thousand or more songs for each record, but today recording artists rightly prefer to focus their time on other things. When they need outside tunes they’d rather check out pre-screened songs from publishers they trust to weed out the unsuitable. It’s far more efficient.

And what happens when a song an artist or publisher who is passed on, coincidentally sounds a lot like a song a staff writer wrote and gets a Billboard hit with? A lawsuit, and it can happen so easily. How many songs were written about 9/11? There are bound to be similarities, maybe even matching lyric lines. But of course an amateur songwriter is going immediately to “they stole my song.”

So, what does a songwriter trying to get heard, caught in the catch 22 of needing a hit to be taken seriously but unable to get one because no one will listen, do? The best song promotion is to move to a city like L.A., New York or Nashville and start networking. Get to know songwriters, music publishers and others. Co-write. Attend writer’s nights, etc. If you have talent, the cream always rises. Always.

If moving is impossible then you need someone on the inside to market your songs for you who believes in them.

Some song publishers and producers do listen. Find them and give them something exceptional to listen to. A pro demo may or may not get you a contract but it will keep the door open for future listens, keep you off the “direct to trash can” list and will start building your reputation. Many of our clients have had great success with getting song publishers to sign demos we’ve produced for them.

Attend concerts where you live and get your songs in the hands of band members. If you have us produce your demo, request that we give a copy to the musicians who worked on your song; most play for major recording artists. If your song is aimed at Blake Shelton wouldn’t it be great to have a copy in his fiddle player’s hands? Come in and record and you can hand her your song. Our musicians play for many different artists and we will be glad to hand finished mixes they played on to them. We have had players pitch songs to the artists they work for, but they only do so if they believe in the song.

Or simply have us cut your pro-level demo. While here at Play It Again Demos we don’t promote “just any song from anyone with money to pay” and we do not operate a song plugging service, we do promote a small portion of the songs we demo to song publishers and recording artists using several proven methods. Why? With few exceptions, by the time we take a song from the rough stage to the polished demo stage we believe in it as much as the songwriterBill Watson

Avalon VT 737SP Review

The Avalon VT 737SP is one of those expensive toys you benefit from when you hire either Play It Again for your songwriter demos or Nashville Trax to produce your project. All vocals we track go through it.

We’ve had an Avalon for years now and it’s a great microphone preamp/compressor/equalizer. At $2,400 list it’s beyond the budget of most home recording enthusiasts, and even some smaller studios, because it alone simply won’t make that big a difference. But in conjunction with the right microphone, possibly a channel strip and most definitely run by someone with talent it can. It will make an instrument punchier, make vocals clearer, and make a track sit better in the mix. Basically anything you run through it is improved slightly.

If you’re thinking of purchasing an Avalon it will certainly improve your sound some. An even bigger step up is to use session quality musicians and Nashville session singers.

You can access all of our services that interface with your pro or home studio. including mixing and mastering, by clicking on “more” in the upper right corner of the site.

I love the Avalon on a lead vocal because, by tweaking the EQ section, you can find the “edge” in a singer’s voice and bring it out just enough for the song. With the right microphone and settings acoustic guitar tracks are awesome. In fact, one Nashville session player who has worked at every studio in town remarked to me last year that no other studio delivers the rich, clear acoustic guitar tracks we do, and some of that praise belongs to the Avalon. But it’s great on snare and bass drum too.

In short there’s no way I could produce music at the level achieved the last many years without the Avalon 737SP being part of the front end chain. In fact, I’d feel naked without it, just trust me on this: you DO NOT want me doing your session naked, especially if you;re present!

A home recording enthusiast can twist and turn the knobs on a DBX 463 all day long and will never get half of what the 737 delivers with ease.

Click the pic of the Avalon and microphone above for a great deal on the Avalon plus an AT 4040 condensor microphone. We have one of those too, it’s an excellent mic we use almost daily on drum overheads.

The Avalon 737SP: One more reason to hire a real studio for your songwriter demos or producing needs- Bill Watson

The studio's Avalon VT 737SP

The studio’s Avalon VT 737SP

A Song Cut Contract for Dan Mathews

ghosts-in-swampLong term Play It Again Demos client Dan Mathews has obtained a cut on his song “Cajun Moon” which was a collaboration with Play It Again Demos producer Bill Watson. “Dan and I did a co-write on Cajun,” explains Watson, “We did the demo and started marketing it around town. The song was originally asssigned to publisher/producer Marsha Brown but the contract expired without a cut and rights reverted back to us. We didn’t promote it after the that figuring Marsha had shopped it thoroughly and there was no point in pitching it to the same companies/people again.

Then back in fall Marsha contacted Dan about a band she’s producing she thought Cajun Moon would be perfect for. We signed off on the deal with Heath Brown Music (ASCAP) two weeks ago (in early February ’13) and it’s being recorded now. We’re just waiting for the CD to come out this summer. The lessons here are it’s all about timing and it ain’t over ’till it’s over.”

Congrats to Tyler Hubbard Fla-GA Line on #1 Billboard hit Cruise

The American Tavern Gig in Loganville.

The Watson brothers, (l to r) Bill on guitar and Jim on bass, playing for FWD at the American Tavern Gig in Loganville, GA. the evening prior to The Concert For Gracyn.

Congratulations to Florida Georgia Line and specifically to Tyler Hubbard on his Billboard #1 Country hit, Cruise!

Tyler is a friend of the family of Play It Again Demos and Nashville Trax owner/producer Bill Watson. In fact, Watson’s brother Jim Watson arranged for then-unknown Tyler to open a benefit, A Concert For Gracyn, in the Atlanta, GA area for Jim’s headlining band, Fishing With Dynamite, on which Bill was playing lead guitar as a fill-in. Tyler also played at another gig with FWD at The American Tavern in Loganville, GA the night prior.

As Bill Watson tells it, “My brother Jimmy was a good friend of Tyler’s Dad, Roy Hubbard, and did various business co-ventures in the Loganville, GA area with him until his untimely death in a helicopter accident a few years ago. It shocked us all but young Tyler actually witnessed the fiery crash as it happened in the Hubbard family’s back yard. From what I was told by my brother, Roy had a mechanic in to work on his chopper and they were test flying it, just taking it up and hovering, as adjustments were made. Obviously something went horribly awry on one of the tweaks and it came down hard and burst into flames. Both Roy and his mechanic died in the crash. I can hardly imagine what Tyler went through growing up with that memory.

At the concert, which was a benefit for a little girl named Gracyn who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, after watching Tyler perform and meeting him, I remarked to my brother that he definitely had the tools and songwriting chops to get a deal. He was more than ready.”

I didn’t understand it then, why my brother was so persistent that I play the show and the bar gig the night prior, as if I was the only guitarist in the Western Hemisphere qualified to do a fill-in gig, yeah right. But I think I understand now.

When I got back to Nashville, on one of our regular walks together in the local park, I discussed the concert and Tyler’s abilities pretty extensively with Lisa Malone of Full Frequency Music. Lisa, a songwriter, song plugger and music publisher was the principal reason Rodney Crowell’s song “Making Memories” was a Keith Urban #1 for four weeks back in ’05. And Lisa is majorly plugged in to the Nashville scene through both her music and regular reflexology visits to Music Row professionals, with an open door to about every big label and music publisher in Nashville.

All I can say openly beyond that is, the Nashville music community is very small and word, positive or negative, gets around fast and Lisa helped spread the word. By no means do I want to suggest Tyler didn’t mostly make his own luck through discipline and hard work in terms of songwriting and building a fan base, and certainly his collaborating with Brian Kelley was destined for greatness, but no one achieves anything alone and whatever small part Lisa played in making sure the right people got out to catch their show when they were unknowns, I’m thankful.”

Weeks after the Gracyn concert Tyler inked a songwriting deal with Craig Wiseman’s Big Loud Shirt. A couple years of hard work and career building later, the Tyler Hubbard penned “Cruise” featuring Tyler on lead vocal hit #1 on Billboard’s country charts with a second hit, “Get Your Shine On” now moving up behind it.

“Tyler is a Christian,” Watson continued, “He attended Loganville Christian Academy and he and his family are members of Loganville First United Methodist Church where he was a youth pastor. He and his duo partner pray prior to every performance and have from the beginning.

I’m sure there are a lot of atheists out there who would dispute this but it’s abundantly clear to me that so many positive things that happen both in this business and in life are the result of God working through people, both believers and sometimes even non-believers.

He places individuals with certain talents and resources in your life when you most need them. He blesses His children through others…I’ve seen it happen very dramatically and absolutely undisputedly in my own life several times and I’m sure that what’s occurred for Tyler is exactly that, I mean, normally it takes several releases and considerable time to build a career, you just don’t go from unknown to #1 hit on your first shot so it’s sort of a minor miracle. In this instance I can assure you it couldn’t possibly happen to a more deserving individual.”

Amazon.com Has Guitar Shop by Bill Watson

419G44RP69L__SL500_AA300_ Guitar Shop by Bill Watson is available once again at Amazon.com

Both bound and spiral bound (lays flat for lessons) editions are available.

ISBN # 0-9670751-8-1

Multiple copies are discounted starting at 5 copies for libraries, private instruction by guitar teachers or schools through Ingram or Baker & Taylor using the ISBN #.

Libraries should order through: Baker & Taylor or Midwest Library Service using the ISBN #.

Client Jessica McNear shooting video for OMG


Jessica McNear is in the middle of a video shoot for OMG in Nashville featuring her song “Leavin’ Home”. Jessica’s push for a career in country music started out with Bill Watson producing her on ten songs in two 5 song sessions at Nashville Trax Some great Nashville session players were on those recordings including drummer David Northrup, Wanda Vick on fiddle, mandolin and dobro, Mike Duchette on harmonica and steel and others. Awesome sessions with a lot of exciting moments. Watch for the video, hopefully it will be on CMT shortly.

The Power of Prayer = The Power of Love = Jesus

A woman who is a member at one of the churches I attend was visiting her Dad at the hospital about two weeks ago when her father was rushed into surgery. After a while on the operating table his heart stopped and the nurse came out to tell her that unfortunately, there was nothing they could do. (Later, the surgeon said sewing together what was left of the father’s aorta was literally like sewing two pieces of wet toilet paper together, they couldn’t do it.) A team was still working on him, the nurse revealed, but it was a legal formality.

The daughter started texting to all church members saying her father’s heart had stopped while being operated on, asking for prayer (her husband who was at the church that evening receieved the text, as we all did). As the pastor told it the following Sunday, the husband got the text, immediately asked for prayer and the whole church hit their knees until a text came in saying Dad had revived. Three times Dad’s heart stopped. Three times he revived, each time after a prayer request was texted by his daughter.

He’s alive today. The doctors are dumbfounded, They can’t explain it as medically it was not possible.

That’s not to say every prayer or even a group prayer evokes a miracle but I do believe Paul Stookey had it about right when he paraphrased Matthew 18:20 in The Wedding Song (which he wrote as a gift for band mate Peter Yarrow’s wedding): “Whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name, there is love.”

That’s one of the most beautiful lyrics ever written I think.

The Wedding Song Lyric

Thought provoking intelligence and innocence working in parallel. I’m not positive the human mind can create that level of art, alone.

But yes, whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name, it’s there alright. The serendipity for us is how that love plays out- b.e.


Need Songwriting Ideas? Try This!


Every songwriter needs help with finding powerful songwriting ideas now and then. Playing with alliteration can be a powerful tool to open up shorted songwriting circuits. It can get your creative juices flowing when you’re stuck, have writer’s block or have exhausted your stock of song ideas.

For those who don’t know alliteration is simply two or more words that hit a listener with extra resonance because they start with the same consonant. They can be adjacent words or separated by a word or two. For example: On A Road with Room to Roam has three words starting with the letter “r” separated by one word.

The purpose and effect of course is impart the “it has a ring to it” effect. Beyond trying to achieve that there aren’t any rules. You could do many alliterated words separated by various numbers of non-alliterated words, back-to-back alliteration is fine too with no words separating the alliterated ones. Or how about compounding the technique: I left my Happy Home for a Road with Room to Roam.

Play with this idea and before you know it you’ll have a great line to start a verse with or perhaps even your next great song title!

New pics at Play It Again Demos

Music Row, Nashville

There are some new website pics taken by David Watson and Bill’s wife, Cindy Watson posted at Play It Again Demos

Take a look and see if you don’t think it improves the site!