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?