Making a Record? Or Making a Demo?

Last night as I was driving home, I heard Bryan Adams interviewed on the CBC’s program q.  In the course of that interview, he went into some details about his three-step process for making a record:

  1. Write the song
  2. Record the demo
  3. Make the record

His 12 studio albums have been extremely successful, with 11 going at least Gold, and Reckless going 5x Platinum.  He’s also charted more than 10 #1 singles.  Clearly he has a talent for writing and performing, but he has also learned to follow a process that helps good become great and great become the best.

Bryan takes collaboration as a given.  Just as Design Thinking teaches that “the best idea wins”, so, too, does it apply to songwriting and producing.  When he was just getting started, he felt his initial drafts were “precious” and wanted to retain the purity of his authorship.  But, as he says in the interview, “Mutt Lange beat it out of me.”  And as Wikipedia reports, they co-wrote “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You“, a hugely successful single written for the Kevin Costner film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that currently holds the record for the longest consecutive Number 1 UK chart single with 16 consecutive weeks at the top of the charts (7 July-26 October 1991).  They clearly worked well together!

After the songs are written, demos are recorded.  The demo is the first really concrete representation of a song as it might be played and recorded for real.  Demos are not low-quality sketches, but an honest first draft of the real thing.  They are also a baseline for quality: when recording a record, Bryan’s goal is that each “real” song be better than the demo.  In cases where that doesn’t happen, the song is likely going to be left off the album.  The demo provides an objective way to tell if they are really knocking the ball out of the park or if they are just making another version of the demo.

When enough material has passed the demo test to fill out an album, and when that material all fits together coherently, then it becomes possible to make a record that will be successful.

Obviously Bryan Adams has had a very successful career as a musician.  In his telling of his own story he is humble and humorous, but it is also clear that he follows best practices rather than ignoring them.  And this has certainly served him well.

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