HOW TO CRAFT A DEMO REEL (part 1 of 2)

Ask yourself first:

  • WHO AM I as an ARTIST?
  • WHAT ARE MY STRENGTHS?
  • WHAT AM I PASSIONATE ABOUT?  

Ask yourself second:

  • WHO IS THE RECIPIENT OF MY ART?

 

Depending on who your recipient is, you need to craft 3 types of DEMO REELS.

1. General “INTRODUCTION” demo intended for peers, friends, business contacts, filmmakers, game makers, and anyone interested in your work. “Hello, this is my music.”

2. Custom Demo for the specific scoring job you are applying for.

3. Demo introducing you as the “COMPOSER’s SUPPORT TEAM” – for applying as a composer’s assistant or intern (MIDI programmer, orchestrator, etc). This will be in PART 2 of this blog.

 


 

PRINCIPAL STRATEGIES for Demos type #1 and #2

1. Begin your demo reel with your STRONGEST TRACK in the style that is YOUR STRONGEST SUIT – musically, thematically, artistically. This track needs to say, “This is who I am as an artist.”

2. If you are submitting three tracks only on your reel, be sure they are your 3 masterpieces. After listening to 3 cues, the listener will know who you are as a composer. Nothing bland, too generic or noodling. The 3 opening cues must be bold, masterful, memorable, and original.

3. Present a CONSISTENT VISION of yourself as an artist and your point-of-view. Do not be a jack-of-all-trades. Your demo needs to boldly announce: “This is my authentic voice as a composer. These are my strong suits.” It’s OK to have variety, and it’s not OK for the demo to be all over the place.

4. Include VARIETY OF EMOTIONS, arrangements & tempo’s to show the RANGE of your talent and skills. Yes, having versatility is a vital skill in media scoring.

5. Adding a CONTRASTING STYLE as your 2nd or 3rd track is good! “Surprise” is good and feels fresh — as long as this “contrasting” track is not incongruous with the vision you are establishing for yourself as an Artist. For instance, if most of your music is hybrid-orchestral media scoring, including a Mariachi cue would be like, “Huh?… He is joking with us.” If you like to tease your listener, that’s OK but still do it tastefully.

6. In terms of LENGTH:
— If you are submitting for film, you need to have a ~0:30 cue (to show your command of a short form), a few ~1:00 cues (to show your command of thematic development) and one or two ~1:30 cues (to show a broader emotional arc over an entire scene.)
— It’s a mistake to submit ONLY short cues (e.g., 0:30) because you are never showing development, and if you submit long cues, most people would skip to the next track around the 1:15 mark.
— If you are submitting for a game, include one Main Title (~1:30), one combat track (~1:00), one ambient track (~0:45-1:00) and one short cinematic track (0:20-0:30).
— If you are submitting for commercials – a few 0:30, 0:15 and 0:60 lengths.
— If you are submitting for trailers – a complete trailer. They need to hear your command of the trailer structure and builds.
— If you are submitting for production libraries – 1-2 complete cues (~2:00 to show thematic development) and a few excerpts (~0:30 and ~1:00 to show how you quickly establish the mood).

7. The FIRST 30 SECONDS rule. Grab your listener in the first 30 seconds. If you don’t engage them right out of the gate, they will skip ahead, or move on to the next candidate.

8. CUT OUT paddy intro’s, noodling transitions, paddy “meh” fillers. Submitting excerpts is the norm. Include thematic material that shows your ability to write distinctive, memorable, evocative, storytelling music. Paddy music is OK only if you are pitching for a SciFi/space project or if you have been asked to submit extremely subtle, non-melodic, non-orchestral, sound design-y music.

9. By the end, your demo reel – AS A TOTAL LISTENING EXPERIENCE – needs to have demonstrated both your PERSONALITY and your CRAFT. How good are you in setting a specific emotion and telling a specific story? Can you craft an emotional arc over time? Can you write catchy Main themes? Can you arrange well? I need to hear your musicality, your imagination, and also your awareness of the “current” cinematic sound.


 

MORE IDEAS TO CONSIDER

1. Picture your potential collaborator or employer sitting and listening your demo, in a pile of 100 other demos … apprehensive about picking a composer… seeking to find a brilliant talent … seeking to find a gem, truly wishing to hear something masterful, something that will elevate their film or game to new heights. Every indie director wishes for MEMORABLE, DISTINCTIVE, AMAZING MUSIC for their project. Music, created at the “studio level” of mastery and production values … for the 5 bucks they have left for score…. The best strategy for a composer is to push oneself up and up and up in order to distinguish oneself from the ocean of imitational, mediocre, meandering music out there.

2. If you are submitting for a specific scoring job, the core questions to ask of yourself is:
— How is my talent, musical style and skills A MATCH FOR THE NEEDS of this film?
— Do I have a deep understanding of how this genre, these characters and this story needs to be scored?
— What about my music is a match for the TASTE of this creative artist – the director?

You can learn about his/her taste by researching their past work, past collaborators, on Twitter where folks post about their favorite movies and music, or by reading their blogs. Snoop online as much as possible in an honest effort to learn about the aesthetics, tastes, personality and temperament of this Creative Artist you are pitching.

3. But here is the rub. Don’t try too hard to second-guess your collaborator. You truly don’t know what will resonate with them. It’s not productive to make presumptions about the movie, before seeing it and before talking with the director about their ideas. Still, begin your demo with your strongest music that ALSO matches the needs of the film. (NOT with what you think will “impress” your listener. Putting tracks that YOU think will impress your listener is an unreliable strategy because you never truly know what they will resonate with.)

4. In light of what I just said the best tip I can give you is listen to as many soundtracks as you can and watch a movie a day. Develop sensitivity about each film genre and sub-genre. Learn the vernacular, musical conventions and “sound” (style, arrangements) of each genre, type of characters, type of story. Learn the “signifiers” (tropes) in horror scoring, in comedy scoring, in human-interest drama, in fantasy, in adventure, in space SciFi, in dystopian SciFi …. Then, be open to breaking the conventions and experimenting.

5. If you are vying to score games, in games music becomes a “sound signature” that defines the brand and sets the game apart from its competition. Game scoring is about a memorable hook and “sound” (arrangement/style) that totally defines and fits the aesthetics of the game and the broad vision of the franchise. In that sense, game scoring is very specific and very particular for each game. So, when you craft your demo, you need to demonstrate deep understanding and fluency in the genres AND at the same time, your ability to write original, memorable themes (not just “generic” imitative unoriginal sound-alike’s.)

6. I strongly encourage emerging composers to cultivate “Listening Circles” with their colleagues, and to play each other’s demos, offering constructive criticism and helpful feedback to each other. Before sending your demo out in the universe, play it to a dozen of friends, mentors and teachers to see how they respond to it. Implement the feedback that you consider useful.

7. Never in my years in Hollywood have I ever mass-produced the same demo to send to all. On the contrary, each demo I send is carefully crafted and extremely well-thought-out: always putting my strong foot forward, and always considering the genre, aesthetics, story and character of the movie or game I’m pitching for. Selecting about 10 tracks, shuffling them a lot, culling out the ones I feel are not super-strong …. until I have 6-7 powerful tracks left. Check out the REELCRAFTER software available online. It enables you to do exactly that, with fluidity and flexibility.

8. I must confess that when I’m sending demos for scoring jobs it takes me hours to craft my demo. I put in a lot of thought into it. I research the movie or game, the director (snooping online, and googling them, as I described above). Then I also research how similar movies have been scored in the recent past. Then I listen to all soundtracks the director has mentioned as “style guides.” (In films, this info SOMETIMES is in the brief, if my agent asked for it. Sometimes it’s not included. In games, this info is in the brief always.) Then I spend some time thinking, trying to visualize this new movie or game I’m pitching for. What could be the most important feeling or experience the director is trying to convey? Then I consider the history of the genre and how previous movies or games have been scored. ….


 

DON’T’s. READ THIS CAREFULLY.

1. Please don’t send unsolicited demos to busy industry professionals. They will NOT listen — for two reasons. First, accepting and listening to unpublished, unreleased music has legal ramifications. There have been many lawsuits for plagiarism across the industry, not just in music (“Oh, I sent you track X, or screenplay Z, and you stole my ideas.”) Because of this, most industry professionals will not listen to unsolicited music, unless it’s been commercially released and commercially available (at least on iTunes, or at least SoundCloud). Secondly, all composers I know work 16+hour days, many have families and all are extremely, overwhelmingly busy. We are pushing our own careers, working on jobs, juggling multiple, unrelenting deadlines. We are doing “research” for scoring jobs (which is listening for hours and deconstructing “style guides” – existing soundtracks or “temp score” – in order to craft a demo, or deliver a scoring job). Between juggling numerous commitments and putting out fires, Hollywood professionals don’t have the time, nor the bandwidth to listen and critique music by young composers. My suggestion would be, first make friends with your boss and be of service. Offer your help and time. Once you are someone’s assistant, friend, or mentee …. then they will listen and critique …

2. When you send music, write specifically in your cover letter (or on the media itself – CD, flash drive): “All tracks have been released and are owned by their respective publishers.”
This is your assurance that you are sending only published music.

3. Do NOT submit medleys. No one wants to hear a contiguous Medley. The directors want to skip from track to track as they please.

4. Inquire about the format – mp3, video excerpt, or SounCloud link. There are diverse opinions on whether only music should be sent, or only video clips, or both. The best approach is to ask. Sending videos has pro’s and con’s. OK, they will see how you score to picture, but if they hate the picture, they probably would hate the music along with it. No director ever said, “The picture sucked but the music was earth-shaking.” Or if they disagree with your scoring approach in that scene, then you lose. Maybe sending videos is necessary for fresh-out-of-college composers so that you demonstrate that you can score to picture. I never sent videos past my 5th indie feature film. Only music. But this was my personal choice, take my advice with a grain of salt.

5. For a general “intro” demo – submit no more than 3 tracks. No one would listen to more than 3. The first 30 seconds of your track already tell your listener where you are on your journey.

6. For a job submission on a film or game – submit 5-7 tracks. I usually submit around 7 tracks = under 10 minutes of music.


Questions, additions and feedback are welcome.