The short answer to whether you need a professionally recorded demo is a resounding NO! That said, demos are pretty important which is why musicians often run to the studio to record them as they're used to:
- Get a record deal
- Get a promoter to book your show
- Get a manager to represent you
- Get an agent to represent you
Should a Demo Be Perfect?
It seems logical that something so important needs to be in perfect shape to get the job done. In reality, that's not the case. People expect your demo to be rough. It's a taste of your songs and musical style that's not intended to be a finished product. Everyone who receives your demo is well aware of how expensive recording is and that you're an artist trying to get started - they don't expect you to invest thousands of dollars in a professional recording and you're simply not going to be turned down based on its recording quality.
In fact, a swanky, professional demo could actually hurt you. It may seem like spending a lot of money on a professionally recorded demo sends a message that you're serious about your music and you're confident enough to invest in yourself. In reality, when a label receives a demo with 15 studio recorded songs and a 16-page full-color booklet, the reaction is eye-rolls all around. It's a bad investment, and it says that you're naive about the music industry. It also opens up the question as to whether or not you're ready to undertake the humbling process of trying to get a music career off the ground which involves much more than kicking back in a posh studio.
Demos vs. Promos
There are some instances in which the demo vs. promo debate is blurred and professional recording can be relevant. This happens most often when:
- You're planning on self-releasing your album, at least on a small scale, while you're shopping it to labels.
- You're trying to get signed to a very small label that you know doesn't help out with recording costs and you want to show them that you can deliver a finished product.
Before you hop on the phone with the studio, however, keep these things in mind:
- Neither of the above reasons applies to a band just getting started. Taking a gamble on paying for recording can be worth it if you are already established to some degree—you've had interest from labels, you've gotten good press, and you've toured extensively. You need to be in the position to exploit your album so you can make the expense of recording it worthwhile.
- Showing that you can deliver the finished goods is one thing but make sure that the label is actually interested in the finished goods first. Even with a small label, there's no need for your first interaction with them to involve presenting a professionally recorded album.
- You can pull off some pretty professional sounding recordings at home, allowing you to straddle the rough demo/release-ready recording while staying within a budget.
The Bottom Line
Music is extremely expensive, and unless you have deep pockets, stick to spending your money on getting your music career off the ground rather than a slick demo.