It’s amazing that any wannabe artist thinks that they could be signed on the strength of their demo recordings. And maybe nobody ever is. Perhaps the procedure exists in order to give musicians (and audiences) the impression that success is the result of music alone.
There are at least two reasons why it’s impossible to judge an act’s potential from its demos. One is that the success of a recording is overdetermined. Record companies line up a number of causes in order to effect a hit. The music if obviously important, but so are the various promotional activities that are put in place. Chief amongst these is the creation of a ‘star text’. As Andrew Goodwin has pointed out, there are various narratives at play in every recording. One of these is the narrative of the song; another is the narrative of the star. They reflect upon each other. The star’s life forms part of the story of the song, and the song forms part of the star’s story. Unsigned artists face a problem: they have no narrative depth. Hence the record companies’ conservatism when it comes to signing acts. Hits maybe the surest way of creating stars, but stars are the surest way of creating hits.
The other difficulty in judgement comes from the fact that hits are underdetermined. They are launched into the world with no guarantee that they will be a success. This isn’t just because artists and record companies don’t know what they are doing and can’t judge the mood of the public. On the contrary, the most knowing popular music is made with full consciousness that it can’t assume the activities of the public. It is deliberately unfinished. The skill lies in allowing some room in the music for ‘articulation’, ‘participatory culture’, and all those other re-appropriative tactics that cultural theorists delight in, while at the same time ensuring that this audience activity doesn’t lose cite of the original recording. Here we come full circle. A star text both helps to make these reworkings possible, as well as to keep them grounded; just think of all the audience activity that takes place around a Madonna or a Morrissey, as well as the sales of recordings that these artists generate. Once again, this causes problems for anyone judging a demo recording. How on earth can they foretell the audience’s interest, not just in taking the music up, but also in taking it over?