Sunday, August 26, 2018

"What Happens to Rejected Demos Sent to Record Companies?" by Newamba Flamingo


Hamlet was a rosy-cheeked, slender, tall and handsome young man, nearing college graduation.

As a youngster he’d been interested in the performing arts, trying his hand at acting, singing, and rapping, but never had much success beyond community theater and school talent shows, eventually losing interest and giving up on it in his early teens.

Told he resembled a young Ashton Kutcher, a frat brother scored him some low-level modelling work for a local restaurant and clothing store and a gig as a dancing extra in the background of a Spanish language variety show, clapping his hands red and smiling and laughing on command, take after take.

Through this show he became chummy with a producer, a chunky 30-ish lady, who wore lots of make-up, and always called him “sweetie.”

She had a cousin, a VP at a record label, also a chunky 30-ish lady with ample make-up (perhaps tattooed on) and this lady had as well taken a liking to Hamlet.

She recruited Hamlet to do an internship at her record label, which had recently scored a major distribution deal following its spawning of a series of pop and hip hop stars.

Hamlet accepted the position, eager to soak up its perks, such as free entry to nightclub VIP sections, concerts, meeting famous people and getting free CDs and merch (some of which he could maybe sell on eBay).

His duties at the record label included the usual gopher tasks, fetching coffee, making xerox copies, answering phones.

The most exciting work he initially had was being posted to the front desk, filling in for the secretary.

There he’d not only answer calls, but register visitors, many of which were uninvited artists who’d show up to the front door of the label’s office and immediately begin singing, dancing, rapping, strumming a guitar at Hamlet or whomever was manning the front desk or happened to be in the lobby.

Such encounters required dispatching security, sometimes with the assistance of label staff, Hamlet too a couple times, literally dragging or pushing the aspiring artists into the street, guitar in hand, rapping, singing as the door slammed in his or her face.

They’d sometimes be in tears, confessing to having taken a bus for 10 hours, with no money for a return ticket.

But they’d always be told the same thing. Hire a manager and send us an official demo, registered mail.

Not every aspiring superstar showed up at the door or had a manager send their demo. Many demos were in fact mailed to the label, directly from the artists themselves, often crude home recordings, but sometimes high quality, professional looking CDs, tapes, and occasionally vinyl, accompanied by press kits and merch.

The label’s official policy, such as that of many large, successful record companies, was not to listen to any “unsolicited” demo, that is, one sent directly by an artist and not a reputable manager, lawyer, or industry insider.

However, the label’s top A&R department was always hungry for the next superstar who could emerge from nowhere, and, would in fact have any demo received via mail screened and any promising material forwarded to the head honchos for further review.

But screening these demos was no simple task. Thousands were received weekly. Huge piles stacking up in the corner of the low-level A&R execs’ offices.

Screening the demos was tedious, extremely so, sorting through the piles, hearing endless hours of things resembling Tourette’s syndrome sufferers, banshees, bathroom recordings, out of key singing, animal sounds, horrid wannabe rappers and boy bands, and so on.

Only maybe one of fifty demos were at all decent, only one of a hundred actually good.

After careful, painful screening, the demos were filtered into two final heaps.

One heap being the “promising” pile that’d be forwarded on to higher level A&R or label personnel. The other heap being the “pass” pile that’d be destroyed, either by shredder or smashed up with a blunt object before thrown into the garbage.

The reason for destroying the demos was simple. It was to avoid lawsuits, so that no artist could claim they sent their song to the record label and then a similar song comes out later that sounds the same.

If somehow that did happen, coincidentally or otherwise (this being the music business!), the record label wanted no proof of the demo being in its possession.

So here’s where Hamlet came in. The label execs had been quite pleased with him. He was a hard-working, punctual, and polite young man. But most of all, he was calm, patient. They never once saw him get riled up about anything.

Not the weekly intrusions of wannabe Jay Z(s) and BeyoncĂ©s bursting into the office, singing, dancing and rapping, or even the daily explosive, screaming, every so often physical, intra-office arguments between rival departments, or high decibel phone calls from outraged parents’ groups, pushy managers; nobody and nothing got under the kid’s skin...

Perhaps it was Hamlet’s upbringing, always watching zombie movies with his older sister, but never having any nightmares like his classmates would.

Or maybe it was seeing his parents in violent confrontations, his father once holding a knife to his mother’s neck in the kitchen, before Hamlet’s sister chased their father away, wildly swinging at him with a frying pan, Hamlet standing nearby, calmly watching, head tilted, as the drama ensued…

After his parents’ divorce, Hamlet was diagnosed as “depressed” due to his apathy about the divorce and lack of motivation in school. He’d been on Zoloft since his early teens.

Though he’d been addicted to violent video games, gangsta rap, death metal and horror movies, pretty much since he remembered, he never got into fights or disciplinary issues at school, not even when people teased him about his name. It never fazed him.

He was always remaining aloof, quiet, and maintained a B to C average, was a reserve on the high school basketball team, had a group of casual friends, a couple girlfriends, and later got into a state college.

He never became too close with anyone, however, perhaps because of his demeanor, being so emotionless.

Like one time he and classmates drove by a fallen motorcyclist, head split open, on the side of the road. Everyone gagged, a girl threw up out the window as they passed by slowly, rubbernecking. But Hamlet glanced at it and wasn’t affected in the least…

His only real tick was his bizarre hatred of the band Alice in Chains. He claimed that anytime he heard their music he’d have bad luck, and he was always storming out of the room or shutting off MTV or the radio if they were on.

(Although he actually liked their music he’d once confided to the goth girl sitting next to him in study hall.)

Aside from that, the only other time anyone saw Hamlet affected was when a serial rapist was loose in the neighborhood and had raped an 11-year-old girl, in the daytime, in a thicket of bushes only a couple blocks from Hamlet’s house.

Hamlet spent the next few days and nights, clutching a baseball bat, roaming his mom’s house, looking eagerly out his windows, at times sitting on the front porch, scowling, hoping for a meeting with the perp…

Due to his steely resolve, A&R staff figured he’d be the perfect person to take on the task of filtering the demos – and destroying the unwanted ones. Most interns and lower level staff dreaded doing so, but Hamlet took it on with no complaints, and was to be hired as full-time, paid staff after graduation.

Soon enough, each week, he was taking the rejected “pass” pile onto the balcony outside the A&R office and smashing them up with a sledgehammer. The press kits and paper materials he’d feed to the office document shredder.

One afternoon, Raya, a spunky college girl, newly arrived intern, who was always trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to make conversation with Hamlet, stopped by the balcony, slid open the glass door, smiled and asked him, half-jokingly, nervously giggling: “Doesn’t it bother you, smashing up all those demos? Literally destroying and crushing all those people’s hopes and dreams?”

Hamlet, resting the hammer on his shoulder as he readied up another pile, just shrugged.

She continued, her tone sobering, and she pointed a particular demo out: “Oh, I like totally remember her. That girl called here the other day, crying and freaking out, saying she’d like sent us her baby photos, along with her demos. She was all begging us to mail them back to her.”

Hamlet peered down for a second at the demo in question, a cute teenage Puerto Rican girl in a pink halter top and black miniskirt, sticking her tongue out on its cover.

“I remember that,” he said. “Pictures already been shredded. Lawsuits, you know…”

Then he adjusted his goggles and resumed bashing the demos, mostly CDs, and the crunching sounds they made as they split apart were quieter than Raya expected.

Seeing his stern, unflinching face as he took aim at the Puerto Rican girl’s CD, Raya forgot her smile, slowly backed away, and didn’t talk much to him afterwards.

A few years later, as file-sharing bit further and further into profits, the label went bankrupt.

Hamlet got a job in administration at the local school district and later went on to become a high school principal.

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