Why the Demo Reel Trap Holds Most People Back (And How to Avoid It)

Back in 2016, the Washington Post ran an experiment: they asked Joshua Bell, one of the greatest violinists in the world, to busk in a subway station and watched how people reacted.


Of the 1097 people who walked by during the experiment, only 7 people stopped to listen.


And during his 45 minute performance, he made a whopping $32.12. Far less than his typical several-hundred-thousand-dollars-an-hour rate.


Joshua Bell playing in a Washington D.C. Subway Station

So why did people refuse to listen to this genius violinist? Well, it's all about context.


In a concert hall, everyone is there for him. They're primed, they're ready, they want more.


In a subway station? People just want to get to where they're going.


Unfortunately, almost nobody in our industry ever considers context. We just want people to listen to our music and our sound, no matter what.


So we make our demo reels and we blast them to everyone we can: AAA companies, random people on social media, our accountant, and our local ice cream merchant. Then we're shocked that nobody cares about it.


That's because we get the context all wrong. We get stuck in the demo reel trap: doing the equivalent of playing in a subway non-stop for people who don't care, hoping to get noticed. Let's talk about how to avoid this trap, and what to do instead.


Here’s what we’re covering today


Part 1: The Demo Reel Trap

Part 2: When demo reels become necessary

Part 3: How to use your demo reel wisely


Many budding composers and sound designers fall into the demo reel trap

Where they focus 100% of their time, energy, and self-loathing on the fact that:


1) They don't have a reel, or

2) The reel that they do have isn't good enough


They tend to think that their reel is everything, and that once they have it done, then they can start networking, looking for work, and start making the moves necessary to become a professional in the game industry.


Nothing could be further from the truth, however

When we're first starting out, almost nobody will care about our reels. No one wants to hear them, no one finds it fun to listen to them, and no one wants to make them.


It's an all around horrendous experience for everyone involved. Think of a reel like a boring 8th-grade math textbook: No one wanted to make it, and no one wants to go through it.


However, if we network, make friends, and build connections, while working on our reels, then people will be far more receptive to listening to them, or hiring us outright without even listening to our work at all.


Now, demo reels are necessary in a lot of cases

So don't take this as me telling you to never make one. They're quite handy, and pretty much every AAA game company will require you to have one when you apply for an in-house audio role.


Having a quality reel in those cases is key, especially because they're going through hundreds (if not thousands) of applications from people they've never even met and need some way to vet them all.


Even so, there are some wiser ways to use your demo reel than just shotgunning it out to countless sound designers for feedback, or just throwing them at every AAA company on the planet hoping you'll get hired.


So, make sure you make friends in the field

95% of audio people will ignore me on this one, but hear me out: if no one knows who we are, the odds of people hiring us are drastically reduced, amazing reel or not.


You can send a pro the greatest reel on the planet, but unless they know you or are expecting something from you, your reel is likely going straight into the trash.


But if you bothered to make a connection with someone over a long period of time, THEN asked them to listen to your reel? Well, then you're in a much better spot. They'll be far more receptive to giving feedback, or even recommending you for jobs.


Heck, if you bothered to make long-term connections with a few people at a AAA studio, there's a chance that they'll just trust you to do the work, even if your reel isn't as good as someone else's that they don't know.


Think of your reel as a nice addition to your networking efforts, not a replacement for them.


"But Akash, you upside down chocolate espresso torte," you ask "all these job listings say I need a reel so I NEED TO MAKE ONE RIGHT NOW!"

Yes! That's true! Many public job listings will require you to have a reel, which means you should definitely have one for when you apply.


And it will help a great deal to also have networked with that team, so that when you apply, they'll be more receptive to the reel/resume that you do send.


Again, don't think of your reel as something that you must focus on to the exclusion of everything else. Make friends, build a presence, work on small projects to start, practice your craft, AND have a reel.


You'll find, eventually, that your long-term networking efforts may even reduce your need for a reel.


Even with a reel, though

It would be wise to show your work consistently in some other way. A reel can only do so much to garner interest.


I know countless people (myself included) who get work entirely off of the fact that they regularly post sound design videos online.


We have to show our work constantly, and a reel is no replacement for that. We can't make the mistake of finishing our reels and then taking our foot off the gas.


Let's cover what we learned today:

  1. While demo reels are useful, they're not the end all be all that most composers and sound designers think they are

  2. Even if we have the best reel on the planet, it won't mean much if we don't also network within our field

  3. Eventually, as you grow your network and your reputation increases, you'll find your reel becoming less