It isn’t hard to begin a new piece of music, because you can begin anywhere and build out from there. But what is hard is the self-imposed pressure to make what you’re working on a polished piece—a piece that sounds finished. I sometimes feel this pressure way too early in the production process and find that the best way around it is to treat what I’m working on as a demo.
Demos have a long history in popular music. Demos are what every basement band from every era was always working on, in the hopes of either getting noticed, or getting a record deal. (Remember records?) Demos were sketches of songs you recorded on cassette to show others. Sometimes a demo, with revisions, could go on to become a real song, and sometimes a demo could be released just as it was. Bruce Springsteen released the demo versions of the songs for his album Nebraska once he realized that he couldn’t recreate their feeling on “proper” versions recorded in a studio. As Bruce allegedly said to his engineer, Toby Scott, “there’s just something about the atmosphere on this tape. Can’t we just master off this?”
Along with an atmosphere they capture, what makes demos powerful is the demo thinking that goes with them. When I’m making what I consider a demo, I’m just trying to get down (record) the essence of what has captured my attention. I’ll think, I can always improve it later. In the meantime, I make sure to get an initial part right (or right enough), and then swiftly flesh out some supporting parts. Rather than spend a long time getting just the right sound, I settle on the first one that gets the job done because I can always improve it later. Since it’s a demo, I may even quickly arrange the parts into a rough form to hear how they move together and how long the piece wants to be. If a little sound design or effects are needed, I’ll add those as I go, using whatever is closest at hand—or what comes to mind because I see it first—to sharpen or blur what I have. The whole demo process is often done in a single session and I stop when either (a) I run out of ideas for what to do next or (b) the piece doesn’t seem to need anything else for now. I can always improve it later, right?
The value of demo thinking is that it prevents us from getting ahead of ourselves and obsessing over possibly more refined future version of the music. So far, nothing feels refined about how I’ve gone about this demo and most of my musical decisions have been guided by a quiet desperation–a sense that since nothing is working convincingly, don’t worry about where the music is going. In sum, believing that this version is a demo frees me to play with what I have. Ironically, thinking about a piece in progress as a demo to keep the stakes low leads me to polish it because, after all, it’s a demo and I can always improve it later.
But here’s the thing: I may not go back to the music. Sometimes demo thinking is a necessary fiction to get a piece done.