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Demo and backing singers tell their stories

By Joyce Cheng

Inside a room with well-equipped audio equipment and soundproofed walls, a vocalist is recording a song just as any other professional artist would, except the song she is singing may never be heard by anyone except a few staff at music companies. She is singing a demo.

When a songwriter wants to sell a new work to a record label or music producer, they cannot just present the sheet music or a recording of the instrumental tracks; they have to produce a demo with a human voice.

Songwriters look for demo singers after they have completed a song. “The easiest way to find demo singers is at singing contests. We are often invited as judges in different singing contests, such as those organised by universities, companies or even legislators,” says Alex Lung Sai-leung, a part-time songwriter. However, he notes that singing well in contests does not imply the ability to sing well in demos.

Apart from singing contests, Lung says there used to be another channel through which songwriters could find demo singers – dedicated online forums where songwriters and lyricists could interact with demo singers. He still laments their passing. “At the time, the relationship was great, it created a group of friends… [But] no one has the courage to post anything online now because the remarks made [by netizens] are very cutting.”

With the loss of one of the major platforms for finding demo singers, songwriters now introduce or recommend the demo singers they have worked with to others.

Phoenix Yeung Hoi-ching is a full-time foreign exchange dealer and freelance demo singer who loves singing and has sung over 200 demo songs. She was “discovered” as a demo singer seven years ago after posting a cover of a song on the internet.

“[We] use the human voice to present the melody because music companies cannot imagine the outcome by only listening to the melody guide. Listening to plain music and those with human singing is different,” Yeung says.

Much as she loves singing, Yeung found she could not pursue it as a career. “There was a time when I tried to do this [being a demo singer] full time, but, firstly, it turns night into day because songwriters usually like to record the songs at night,” she says. “And actually you cannot make a living doing this full time.”

Demo singers sometimes sing without charging or they only ask for travel allowances. When they are paid, the rate can depend on how much the song is sold for.

Interestingly, a demo does not necessarily have lyrics, as those would usually be rewritten by another lyricist anyway after the music has been purchased. Singing a song without words can be challenging, as the singer needs to interpret the song and find a way to express the message or the tone of the demo. “I think one of the conditions of being a demo singer is to be able to pick up a song quickly,” Yeung says.

Singing demo songs also gives singers a different perspective. Sophia Wong Ka-yee, a law student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was approached to sing demos and perform at small shows after becoming a finalist in the debut season of the TV talent contest The Voice in 2009.

“[Singing demos] gives you more room to focus on how to interpret and sing the song,” Wong says. “When you are on stage, you have to pay attention to the environmental factors, to the audiences and to your stage presence. But in the studio, you can focus solely on the interpretation of the song and how to communicate with the producer, how to express the message of the song.”

Viki Chan Wing-yu, who works on copyright issues for a major record label, also frequently sings demos for songwriters. She gets a sense of satisfaction and achievement from demo singing. “You can listen to your most truthful voice… If you have a demo which is heard by many music producers and artists, and you can have it as a souvenir, I think this is the most enjoyable thing about singing demos.”

Demo singers are sometimes also invited to work as backing singers. A backing singer provides vocal harmony with the lead vocalist or other backing vocalists in both recording work and concerts. They are described as “vocal instruments”.

Shiren Ho Mei-yan, an interior designer, often sings demos and backing harmony in her free time. She first started singing in Backstage Live Restaurant, a restaurant and music space where mini concerts are held regularly for amateur singers. Not long after her first performance, a songwriter approached her and asked if she would be interested in singing demo songs. After that, she began to sing backing vocals too.

Ho thinks singing backing vocals is more fun but also more challenging than demo singing. “There is more variety,” she says. “When recording in a studio, you may need to repeat the same line again and again until the producer is satisfied.”

Backing singers have to handle many different elements when singing live, including their on-stage performance and modifying their voices when harmonising with the lead vocalist. So listening is crucial.

Not all these behind-the-scenes singers have had professional training. Some of them are naturally gifted and others practise hard. Yoyo Sham is a gifted singer who started singing as a backing singer before going on to be a solo artist. She has been interested in singing harmonies ever since she was small.

“When I went to see concerts, I’ve always paid attention to the backing singers and the band. I’ve also enjoyed listening to a cappella groups. Ever since I could remember, I’ve been intrigued by harmonies and appreciated backing vocals,” says Sham, in an email response to Varsity’s questions. In addition, she thinks learning instruments and music theory definitely helps a singer to develop and improve.

Although Sham is a student of renowned Taiwan singer-songwriter Jonathan Lee Tsung-sheng and is now an established singer with two albums under her belt, she still enjoys being a backing singer. “It pushes me out of my comfort zone, forces me to try singing differently for different purposes. It requires precision, and I think it’s excellent training,” she says.

If people notice backing singers at all, they may have the impression that they are the performers who are always singing at the back and the spotlight is always focused on the lead singer. Sham thinks this is an underestimation of their contribution.

“What does bother me, sometimes, is when I realise that not many people fully understand the significance of harmonies or know how to appreciate backing singing. As a result, this role is often underrated. This is why I take every opportunity I get to express my point of view about this job,” Sham says.

Apart from demo and backing singers, music producers also play an important role off-stage. From receiving a demo to recording the final version of a song that is ready to be released, a music producer supervises the whole process.

“Basically the song begins from zero. Before it reaches the audience, a music producer needs to be responsible for every step in the music production,” says Edward Chan, music producer of Warner/Chappell Music.

When a demo is accepted for development, its style may be altered or changed completely in order to fit the artist. The music producer also needs to take care of the backing singers engaged in the recording process.

A song needs to go through many stages in the production process before it is released. It is the result of a joint effort involving many unsung heroes. While some people want to be leading vocalists, others choose to be demo or backing singers. Without the trappings of celebrity or the laurels of fame, what drives these usually uncredited singers is their passion for and appreciation of singing. “I really love singing and I don’t need to be a singer or a star, but I still have my own recorded music,” Shiren Ho says.

Edited by Natalie Cheng