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Insights from a Demo Panel

Posted by More Music on 23 July 2020

Marketing Intern Rhian reflects on the demo panel that was part of Viva La Youth 2020:

Like most Zoom calls we began with a slightly shaky start as people navigate the complexities and tantrums that technology bring with them; but, like always, it was worthwhile. Our panel today comprised off three very talented people: Shell Zenner, Courtney Askew-Conti and Ben Hall.

Shell introduced herself as a ‘radio head’ and works for BBC Introducing and BBC Amazing; it is her job to find new artists and she has an inside perspective on what it takes to get heard. Courtney characterises himself as another new music obsessive; he does AR (Artist Relations) at Warner; he is part of the team that promotes new artists and their albums. Ben Hall, from Mr Ben and the Bens, he is a musician as well as an owner of his own record label called Bingo Records. He recently signed his own band to the label ‘Bella Union’. With the panel introduced, it was time to listen to the Demo tracks.

Astrid Booth was up first and at only 11 years old she brought us ‘Comfortable’. The lilting guitar and the strong yet haunting voice sounded like someone who has had far more years to perfect her craft. Despite it being her first song, her passion shown through the track and Shell likened it to the artist’s Nina Cobbam which features the same soulful lilt. Ben, however, praised the lyricism. ‘You’ve written about something universal yet still specific; it is something we can all relate to.’ Ben also added that the stripped back production allowed the core of the idea to show; an idea very relevant during lockdown where comfort has been paramount on our minds.

Astrid then asked, ‘what advice would you give to young artists?’ Shell responded quickly to say, ‘don’t let your age hold you back!’ It is important to let your talent grow naturally and in the process increase your contacts. Further in your future you may consider musical colleges which will help you meet like-minded artists but if you decide that college choice isn’t for you, equally local gigs will also help you meet people. Just keep pushing yourself. Ben added, ‘don’t worry about immediate exposure […] what is important to surrounding yourself with people who will nurture you. The music industry is a fickle place so it is important to surround yourself with the right people: be in it for the long run.’ Courtney echoed their sentiments and added that having a ‘hub of creatives’ around you is very important; it will allow you to achieve more and get greater success.

Up next was Matthew Mason who presented a fierce heavy metal piece. Ben found this demo very exciting, noting the crescendo at the end as a great artistic choice. Shell and Courtney, however, gave specific advice about the production. Shell advised that there is specific set of skills needed for metal music and listening to the right radio programmes will help to hone in the sound for radio. Courtney equally said that the production for this is very clean considering the amount that is going on in the track. Matthew then played a remix of the song which Courtney said demonstrates an impressively broad creative spectrum whilst Shell and Ben spoke of the grooves and super bass.

In a complete change of sound, Hannah McMillan shared a stunning track called ‘Edge of Time’; she described it as a song about wishing that there were a couple more hours in the day to relax and unwind. A sentiment was shared among all the panelists that the lyricism was stunning: Ben notes that the listener was about to put their own life onto the song which is a unique and impressive skill, especially for a 15 year old. Further to this, Courtney added that there is huge scope for production and that it was an ear worm that he was sure to hold onto for the rest of the day. Shell encouraged Hannah to send the track to BBC Introducing, the voice was enchanting and the story within the song was well told.

Hannah then questioned what options are available to her for gigging at her age, naturally after Coronavirus becomes less of a threat. Each panelist gave unique advice. For Courtney, creating a community could be the best cause of action and becoming known to venues as well as other artists: a social media presence is also important. Shell spoke of coverage and trying to get heard on local radio: ‘find who is showing similar artists to you and get in touch’. Ben rounded off by saying that it is important to package yourself in a way that is relatable but yet still serious: a biography is a useful way to sell your music too.

Duncan McKenzie followed up next with ‘Unbelievable’; a song about doing something bad but still continuing to do it. The melancholic guitar and voice made for a sound that immediately makes you stop to listen. The panel admired this beautiful song greatly. Shell praised Duncan’s voice range and praised the song as very slick and well thought-out. Courtney equally said that it ‘developed how I wanted it to but also surprised me’; the voice had a spooky dimension to it. Ben also said that the singing was perfect and that, accompanied with excellent stylistic choices, made a great demo.

‘When you are in the process of making a song, should you think about appeal or just to make a good song?’, asked Duncan after the panel had discussed his track.

‘By focussing on yourself, you’ll create something original. Forcing an idea or a sound will come out in a track’, Ben advised. Courtney then said that in worrying too much about appeal it is easy to get bogged down in formulaic writing. ‘You need to find a balance between it being accessible and being yourself.’

‘Take Ed Sheeran,’ Shell said. ‘ He is honest and just being himself and that why people want to listen. If you try to come across in a certain way then eventually that will come undone.’

Grace Monaco, a rising young artist from Lancaster, is a DIY musician. She shared ‘Pedigree’ to the panel along with the music video she made for it. Pedigree’s infectious message and brilliant musicality and lyrics sets this artist apart. Ben first praised her DIY approach and how she is not simply learning and perfecting one facet of the process. Courtney praised how the track had so much sparkle and again commented on the lyrics and the social commentary that ran through them. Shell said, ‘I have so much respect for people who try to understand the whole of the industry. The lyricism was amazing and clever: keep learning and finding out more.’ This lead to a discussion about labels and when it is the right time to sign. Shell commented, ‘take your time remember that record label will have a degree of creative control. Signing too early may not be the best route for you so make sure that you make the right decision for you.

Jack Williams’ ‘Cordelia’ was his first go at solo recording. Based on King Lear, it features a unique combination of instruments and vocals; as well as strange rhythmic structures. ‘Interesting chords rang out and produced strange resonances,’ said Ben. ‘Quite a classic sounding music so there will be great opportunities when you tap into the market. Courtney said that the texture was fantastic, ‘the closed mic allowed us to hear the trembles in your voice’. Shell said it reminded her faintly of Nick Cave and the track was kind of haunting at times. ‘There was such a broad range in instrumentation and the fact it is a bit unusual will bring some great chances for you.’

‘My Mind Won’t Do’ by Lawrence Diffey was a great finishing piece: a sort of psychedelic rock  track about a grumpy man. Shell described it as ‘strong’ and praised the melody that ran through it and the bass was great too. ‘The switch from half-time was a great touch’ said Courtney. For Ben once again the DIY musicianship came through as a major success. The ability to make-do in these difficult times demonstrates the resilience and determination needed for success in this industry.

A few questions followed before the concluding remarks. How can we find new band members as we begin to go our ways, such as at university? Do you have any tips on finding new people? Sometimes the simplest ways are best, ‘putting notices up at studios will always work’ notes Ben. Shell and Courtney both suggested the site, however, the resounding advice is to trial people to see who works well.

The second question was concerning bridging the gap between local radio to national ratio. Shell mainly answered this question, first saying that listening is the first step. Paying attention to what DJs are playing on their stations and the sort on music they are looking for will help to refine where to send your demos.

Likewise, follow fellow artists to see who are playing them; venues and radio stations will tend to prefer certain sounds so spend some time finding artists similar to you. Building relationships is so crucial so spend time on cultivating them and it will benefit you later on.

Finally, sending into local radio stations or programmes such as BBC Introducing will help you in two ways: first, it will look great on your biography and second, there is a chance that your work will be forwarded on or picked up by national programmes. Overall, just be proactive and look for opportunities.

As the time slot drew to a close, Rachel Parsons asked from final advice from our panelists. Courtney advised to think logistically about when to release music and think carefully about what you put out and when. Shell gave some essential advise, ‘Be nice’. Simplistic though it may seem the music industry is very small and a bad reputation can come back to haunt you: good communication is important and often overlooked. Ben, however, said make what you want to make and don’t feel pressure to produce what you think is expected of you: finding your sound and your niche will ultimately suit you better in the long run.

It was incredible to see the sheer dedication and determination from these young artists: whilst all of them were at different stages in their musical journey, some writing their first song others looking at record labels, the advice given could apply to all. Such useful insights into what can be a rather elusive industry are rare to come by and so a huge thank you must be extended to our panelists for taking the time to listen and advise these budding musicians. On a more personal note, I felt incredibly honoured to have had the chance to sit and listen to these fine young artists and very humbled to see them nurturing their craft so well at such a young age.

It is inspirational to see what people can achieve, especially during these challenging times. So, for those who are struggling to remain motivated as the music industry struggles to return to a degree of normality, I urge you to take a look to see what some have been able to achieve and what they have learnt over these past months and I can assure you you will be just as inspired as I was.

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