Published Dec 14, 2020It goes without saying that 2020 has been an incredibly strange one, with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting music culture on a large and small scale. For DIY artists, many of whom keep relentlessly busy when they're allowed to play shows and tour, there's been a simmering buildup of creative energy that has now found a home in the unprecedented Montreal-based project DEMO FEST.
As founder Martin Tensions tells Exclaim!, the idea for DEMO FEST was borne out of the sheer boredom that resulted from social distancing instead of playing in his multiple bands. Essentially, he set strict parameters for a timeline and invited anyone interested to submit new music to the project, which is a benefit for Solidarity Across Borders.
Unsure of what to expect, he was overwhelmed with a total of 200 demos from new projects, spanning all genres but rooted in a punk, DIY ethos. The demos will be unveiled via a livestream on Suoni Per Il Popolo's Suoni TV on December 21 at noon EST and simultaneously released on Bandcamp. They'll also be released on a limited-edition USB key, which can be pre-ordered here.
To learn more about this strange and alluring project, read Exclaim!'s interview with Tensions below.
How do you define what a "demo" is versus an actual final recording?
We used the word "demo" to convey that the idea was to record just a couple new songs for a project/band. Not a single song for a compilation, and not a full LP worth of material. Just two to five songs — the typical first release from a new punk band or punk's solo project. It's what you would pick up at a band's first show. A demo doesn't have to be fully polished, but it should be a couple of songs demonstrating a coherent band or music project.
Where did the idea come from?
Over the summer, everything here was locked down pretty tight. There were no shows and all my bands had stopped jamming to avoid risky gatherings. Everyone was cooped up inside and quarantined with too much free time, learning to bake bread, etc. I heard a lot of my friends talking about finally doing a solo project they had always wanted to do, or learning to write in Ableton, or figuring out how to do a two-piece bedroom band with their partner or roommate or "pod." But I wasn't seeing any of these projects come to fruition. Getting motivated is always difficult, but without live shows and the added conditions of the pandemic, it seemed like people really needed an external source of motivation (myself included). And, I knew that the winter here was going to be really hard. Winter in Montreal is already brutal, but it became obvious we would still be under some lockdown measures all winter. I was worrying about how to keep my friends in good spirits through a winter that was going to be extra isolating.
I first thought of doing a challenge with three of my former bandmates, where we would each have to finish a demo for a solo project. Then I realized I could just invite more people and get myself (and everyone else) a huge trove of new music to listen to all winter. Solidarity Across Borders had been trying to find new fundraising sources since the beginning of the pandemic, and had been asking me and other musicians to brainstorm ways to raise money — donating from Bandcamp sales, putting together benefit compilations etc. I realized this DEMO FEST idea could also be a huge fundraiser for them. After that, it was just the details.
It seems like there are too many submissions. Has it been daunting to listen to this much music?
Yes. I thought maybe 50 of my friends would do this. My wildest goal was getting 100 demos. In the end over 350 people signed up and 200 finished and submitted. It's a totally daunting and mind-boggling amount of music to show up at once in your inbox. Will Killingsworth from Dead Air Studios has been mastering most of the demos, so honestly, he has been deepest into the demos so far — and he isn't daunted at all!
It's easy to go first to the obvious things I know I'll like, things my friends did. But I've had to screen and listen to everything and there is so much good and interesting music. For sure not every demo in DEMO FEST is for me personally. But one of the goals was to get a huge amount of new music to dig into all winter, and that has definitely been achieved. I know I won't get bored or run out of new things to listen to and explore before the long winter is over. So that rules.
DEMO FEST feels like a byproduct of COVID-19. Do you think you could have done this any other year?
Oh yeah, it definitely is. I'm not sure I would've come up with this of this outside of the pandemic, or gotten the massive response. It really tapped into everyone having no motivation to make or place to showcase new music due to the shutdown of live music/shows/touring/jamming. It also inspired people who haven't made music in years (or had never made music before!), who have more down time, or needed new creative outlets — again, because of the pandemic.
Do you plan to do DEMO FEST again?
Not sure. I have to see if we survive this one. Following the last question, I'm not sure it would get the same response if it wasn't for the pandemic. But, winter in Montreal is always really long, really cold, and usually there are less shows and less things to do. It's a very isolating time for a lot of people, even without a pandemic. DEMO FEST 2021 could run over the winter, giving people motivation to finish winter music projects alone or with friends. But we'll have to see! Many people have already asked when they can register for next year, so...
What has been the most challenging part of the process? And what has been the most rewarding?
The most challenging part has just been winging it and dealing with way more interest and emails than I ever expected. I have mostly been making it up as I go, and dealing with thousands of big .wav files is not easy. I have had lots of help from really awesome people, though. The most rewarding part so far is just the response. I know that I'll get to personally enjoy a huge selection of new music to get through the winter and everyone else does too. Many friends and strangers were totally inspired to make great music, and figured out new ways to do it under the pandemic.