The Demo: an apotheosis

In a previous module of my life I had the privilege of working with a rare talent, a musician and songwriter of incredible gift, who happened to be my late former father-in-law. I was involved to a degree in the management and administration of his successful career in Ireland, including PR and tours (and on one memorable evening as guitar tech). My two songwriting credits are courtesy of his faith in my lyricising – technically I believe I still have a publishing deal. Yet the overriding memory of this time centres on the creative process.

He would share with me his demos. They were recorded on cassette, using one of those ubiquitous  A5 sized machines I remember from my childhood with the built-in speaker and where you pressed the Record and Play buttons simultaneously dislocating your elbow in the process. It was just he, his guitar and voice, no other tech. The reason they are so memorable was for the honesty, the vulnerability and humility. They contained probably 95% of the creative process involved in the final disc – melody, lyrics, meaning and emotion. It was the medium through which the songs were invariably initially heard – the first contact, the first goosebumps. The errors, the background noises, the uncertainty, all were central elements of the charm. The version of the song that left its imprint was always the Demo. It actually didn’t matter whether the music was to my taste or not.

And then what happened, was the studio. The enormous mixing desk, the whitewalled Yamaha NS10 monitors, a conveyorbelt of session musicians on MU rates, a recoding budget flushing faster than a megaflow, columns of used silver takeaway cartons, and layer upon layer of overdubs and tracks that finally yielded a sugared, micron-perfect cashmere-codpiece of a recording that was suitable for broadcast and retail. It’s interesting that the person responsible, with their feet on the desk and cans around their neck, was the Producer, managing a process called Production. Yet it had already been “produced” in the first place. And so gone was the honesty, the vulnerability and humility. I often asked hopelessly naively “why can’t we just release the Demo?” – everyone looked at me in a way that simply confirmed my hopeless naivety. But I meant it.

In most aspects of creative life I still just want the Demo tape: fragile, raw, unpolished. Its why I prefer my workplace plans hand drawn, artwork with the pencil lines still showing, handwritten notes and sketches, and fountain pens over tablet computers.

When you create your own work, don’t polish, layer, edit and re-edit the heart out of it. Its invariably not the process of improvement you believe it to be, but a destructive dismantling of what made it creative. Remember and preserve that which brought it to life in the first place.

No overdubs here.

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