The Death of the Demo Tape (At Last)

by Dave Mandl

Even more than their counterparts in the publishing world, giant record labels have long enjoyed a near-monopoly on the means of producing, distributing, and publicizing people's creative work. Along with this monopoly comes the freedom to decide what is and isn't worthy of release, and consequently to define the very rules of the game. This industry stranglehold determines a lot more than simply which bands get money to put out records and which don't: the drive to "make it"--to get signed to a major label--has always had an enormous effect on everything from the clothes and haircuts bands wear, to what they say in interviews, to minute details of the structure of their songs. The influence of the majors, while not always obvious, has been all-pervasive, and countless musical artists have fallen under their sway merely by following the received rules of the business. Of course, with no other options, many have chosen to play along--using their time and energy to court record companies and make the kind of music that they are most likely to take notice of; either way, the results have been stunted creative growth and, especially, mountains of bland, formulaic output--the product of self-censorship and compromise.

But all that is changing. At the same time that the revolution in self-publishing has allowed anyone with a couple of stamps and access to an office xerox machine to declare herself a publisher--free from the constraints of the respectable print world--the advent of the cassette studio has liberated the musical masses from the nightmare world of demo tapes, press kits, and $150-an-hour recording sessions. With the freedom to produce and control one's own recordings also comes freedom from censorship and self-censorship--and altogether new forms of audio expression.

Just as there is no point in being a journalist without a newspaper to publish your writing, unsigned musicians--that is, artists with no clear avenue to release their work--historically had no real reason to make recordings as ends in themselves; when valuable studio time could be scored, it was used to produce demo tapes. Since the goal of most bands was getting signed (in order to make records), and since the major labels had nearly complete control of record production and distribution, budding artists often spent years making demos and shopping them around to representatives of these labels, in the hope that one would show interest and eventually offer them a contract. Much money and effort were expended in compiling names and addresses of people who might be looking for new talent, and shipping tapes off to them. With such a strong desire (and need) simply to be accepted by an industry figure, young aspirants assembled these tapes with the utmost care. There were books of advice written on the subject: how many songs to include on the tape, the best sequence for them, how to put together an accompanying press kit, etc. As for the music, any band knew what the basic musical and lyrical formulas were, who the current hot artists to emulate were, and what styles record companies were interested in at any given time. Needless to say, the vast majority of demos were rejected (and often not even listened to).

But concentrating so completely on the demo-making process often meant devoting most of one's time to learning the tricks of the trade, to studying how the industry prefers things, rather than experimenting and developing musically (a luxury denied even to many big money-makers). The band's primary mission often became "trying to get signed," rather than creating new music (and while ostensibly bossless, most bands were in effect working for the boss--for no pay--all the time). It was not unusual to see a long-surviving band go through multiple, sudden transformations--progressive rock, folk, punk, new wave, funk--as styles changed, keeping their record company feelers out all the while. Paradoxically, as a band got closer to their elusive goal (after getting a nibble from a record company), they often tried even harder to conform, not wanting to make a wrong move and destroy the progress they had made so far--a gang of starry-eyed nineteen-year-olds playing a command performance for the man with the keys to the universe is not going to do anything foolish. In general, experimentation (outside certain "safe," prescribed boundaries, which changed slightly over time) was dangerous and not recommended. Most bands serious about getting signed were aware of the basic rules, and careful not to violate them. When a band did get signed, often after years of grueling work, they were not eager to take a chance and risk losing it all. Like a dedicated young journalist who would rather toe the line and keep her job than write hard-hitting stories that no one will ever see, artists eventually internalized the rules--often unconsciously--and kept their fingers crossed. Big record companies, by virtue of their great power, defined the standards, which they scarcely needed to enforce.

Their promotional arm, radio, has always been a big help, with its virtual blackout of music that doesn't meet the industry's stringent criteria--and just doesn't exist, for ninety-five percent of the population or the history books. Even when, in the late seventies, the industry was forced to acknowledge the punk movement (which offered a genuine challenge to the ossified monopoly of the majors, and put the fear of God in them, if only for a few short years), the radio world continued to view music through the eyes of the big labels. (To a smaller degree, this is also true of the music press, where even tiny, marginal publications have their own personality cults and star systems.) When radio shows spotlighting "independent" artists began to appear, the latter were usually defined as bands that had not been signed--that had been unjustly overlooked. One of the first such shows to appear in New York City, for example, had the revealing name The No Major Record Show--defining the featured artists by what they weren't, a stigma like "single mother," "virgin," or "black female vocalist." (It was a good sign, of course, that shows like this were appearing at all; no one would even have thought of the idea before 1978 or so.)

Listening to these shows (which were in fact few, and limited to "hipper" stations) was a lot like watching TV's Star Search, or a semi-pro baseball game--forums where talented young performers could show their stuff for the professional scouts they hoped were in the audience. The bands featured were generally the ones that went by the book--the right instrumentation, the right chords, the right lyrics--and the producer of at least one such show in New York City made it clear that she wanted "rock 'n' roll only": that is, bands that sounded just like everyone else; presumably, listeners could hear the featured performances and bewail the injustice that had been done to these hard-working souls who were, after all, no less deserving than the other bands just like them that had been signed. So much for "alternative" music...

But there was no denying the great possibilities inherent in the new technology that allowed all this to happen. Just as the punk movement created new musical models (though it was unfortunately absorbed to a great extent by the majors themselves, who eventually adapted to the new aesthetics and restored things to "normal"), the availability of inexpensive home recording equipment gave more musicians than ever the opportunity to try their hand at what was formerly the exclusive preserve of those with the blessing of a record company. Perhaps more important, it gave this opportunity to non-musicians--those who never would have thought seriously about making music in the old world. With the new compact, inexpensive, and easy-to-use multi-track cassette decks, anyone could put together a serviceable recording studio at home for under $1000. And with the price of forty-five minutes of chrome cassette tape hovering at around $2, compared to at least $30 for an equivalent amount of the half-inch reel-to-reel item, tape was as free as studio time. There was no longer any need to beg for a few brief hours in the studio, or to do anything other than what you felt like doing once the tape was rolling. People soon began stretching out and trying things that would have been considered madness just a few years earlier--or more likely, would never have crossed their minds. Before long, it became apparent that there was nothing sacred about LPs. In fact, an all-cassette format made more sense for many reasons: cassettes could be duplicated easily and cheaply (one at a time if necessary); great individual care could be given to their packaging and decoration; and they could be distributed anywhere in the world via the public mails. The new medium also made new approaches to recording possible: international mail collaborations (with each participant contributing one track and sending the tape along); cassette magazines; audio diaries and letters; home-spun musique concrète of all descriptions; new mutated song-forms; and other angles never considered by the old demo-tape generation. Far from being hobbled by explicit or implicit censorship, cassette recordists were free to try anything they damn well pleased. Some of it was awful, but some of it was brilliant, and most of it was different. Instead of serving as part of a permanent volunteer farm team for the record companies, the new cassette artists reclaimed their independence and created a worldwide, decentralized communications web like those of the parallel mail art and self-published 'zine networks--and laid the foundation for a new autonomous world of sound.

Though many long-time cassette networkers have moved to vinyl or even CD as those formats have become more accessible, the principles and spirit of the network, if anything, have become stronger. Though the major labels are still getting the airplay, shelf space, and money, a larger and larger chunk of the total territory has been ceded to independent artists, operating in the shadows, in home laboratories in unheard-of places not in the official guidebook. As the price of the new recording technology continues to drop, the grip of the majors--which once reached all the way from carefully staged showcases in glitzy nightclubs to your fourteen-year-old nephew's garage-metal band--will be further broken. I won't miss the old days.

[Previously published in the book "Cassette Mythos"]

Back to Dave Mandl's home page
Back to writings index