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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.