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.