When A&R people listen to an unsolicited demo--one that does not arrive by personal acquaintance, as in a manager, lawyer, or other artist--the listening circumstances are far less than ideal. A&R people rarely sit in vacuum-sealed rooms with no distractions. Instead, our pones are ringing, people are walking into our offices asking us questions, and we're trying to eat some kind of lunch.
We certainly wouldn't be just listening to demo tapes. A&R people seem to always have to be doing more than one thing. Eating lunch is so far down on the list of priorities that if we have enough time to eat, then we're probably already feeling guilty, and when we're feeling guilty, we are more likely to try to make progress on some of the other things that are making us feel guilty--like those huge stacks of unlistened-to-demos. Most likely, we are grumpy, because at this point, with the way the record business is, everyone in it is grumpy. And certainly, we are focusing on something else, like writing e-mail.
So your demo better be pretty amazing, if it's going to pull as away from all of these distractions and make us go, "Hold on a second, what is that?" If there is something so potent that it knocks through all the distraction, we really will shut everything else out and listen.
Additionally, the process that most A&R people use to listen to demos isn't as asinine as it seems, at first. In fact, this process gives the demo a fair and realistic chance, and it allows us to be forthright and honest with its creator. And while this may not be as "nice" as if I said that we give our undivided attention to every demo, it actually is a much more compassionate and kind way of assessing what we're listening to, in the long run.
Hear me out. If you think that listening to demos in the manner described above is disrespectful to the music's creator, or that it doesn't give the songs a fair chance, try thinking of it this way. A&R people actually care about the people that make demos. Artists are our lifeblood. Without you, there would be no music to sell. For that reason alone, we are far more predisposed to listen--even if it's only with half an ear--than the person who is in the car with the radio on and the kids screaming. We are also more predisposed to listen than are the people who program the radio stations. Radio programmers don't want to (or are not allowed to) play anything that would scare off potential listeners (and hence advertisers), and therefore, they can never program anything that isn't familiar to the average listener--that is, anything new. And A&R people are more likely to listen than are the poor reviewers for Rolling Stone, who have to choose one of the 700 albums they receive each week to review. Because they have to sell magazines, they are almost definitely going to write about someone that people have heard about. Do you see what I'm saying? There's so much music out there. People aren't going to listen unless it's something they already know or unless it absolutely cuts through.
Of course, it is not just A&R people that listen in this manner. Do you really think that the guy who books the local club is going to turn off the lights, lock the doors, unplug the phone, light some incense, recline in a supine position, place the headphones on his head, and then press play and eagerly await the dulcet tones of your demo? Come on. This just isn't going to happen. Therefore, the same rules apply to virtually everyone (except your mom) who will be listening to your demo.
The way most A&R people listen to demos is reflective of the way the real world listens (or doesn't listen). If it's able to cut through and get an A&R person's attention while we're in the middle of dozens of other things, that means it may be able to get the attention of a radio programmer or a reviewer, and ultimately, the public.