The curse of the Demo Disc…

Should we play the best sounding records or the records we have as best we can?

By Roy Gregory

When I was working in retail, the curse of the Demo Disc was not only real – it sent shivers through your ears and all the way down your spine. The tales are legion of stores with signs in their demo rooms reading “No Love Over Gold” (Like the “No Stairway” signs in guitar shops). Over exposure barely begins to cover the psychological trauma imposed by repeated playing of the same section of the same track from the same album – day after day after day…

The list of offending albums is both long and (sadly) easily discerned from the offerings of the many record re-issue houses. From Love Over Gold and Brothers in Arms, to Tracy Chapman, Saturday Night Live in San Francisco, Hell Freezes Over, Graceland and Couldn’t Stand The Weather, ‘Stimela’ and ‘Die Tänzarin’ to ‘Keith Don’t Go’, ‘The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress’, ‘You Look Good To Me’ and (shudder) Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer or Eric Clapton Unplugged – offenders may come and go, but the scars linger long in the memory.

What accounts for these albums and tracks getting elevated to Demo Disc status? Clearly, they offer great sound, which is why stores and manufacturers play them to potential customers, but why do customers cling to them for assessing possible upgrades and equipment purchases? Sure, they sound great (just so long as repetition doesn’t make the appeal wear thin) but there’s a problem. They always sound great. In fact, they sound great on pretty much anything – which is why they’re so beloved of manufacturers and why so many of them persist, permanent aural wallpaper for audio shows.

Customers always used to ask me what discs to bring to demos. My response was always, “Your favourite record, the one you are playing most at the moment and the last one you bought.” It’s an entirely random selection but it has as good a chance as any of capturing the customer’s breadth of musical taste in a manageable number of recordings. Besides which, in one sense at least, it doesn’t really matter. Any salesman worth his salt is going to show the differences between the equipment being auditioned using the store’s material, before showing the affect of those differences on the discs the customer brought with them.

In the UK, there’s a long-running radio show called Desert Island Discs. The set up is that some famous or worthy person (although these days, increasingly its some worthless celebrity) is ‘castaway’ on a desert island, with only eight records to entertain themselves for their years of solitude. I guess the producers are counting on a Dancette record player to get washed up too, or perhaps a wind-up gramophone. Let’s face it – any half decent hi-fi is going to sink like a stone! Anyway, leaving practicalities aside, the record choices are often interesting if not particularly enlightening – until you get some politician being featured, trying to pretend familiarity with a piece of high-brow music s/he’s barely heard and that’s been selected for him by the spinners in his or her PR office.