Before a vinyl record was released to the public, a small number of copies were often pressed and sent to distribution-company executives and radio-station disc jockeys for promotional purposes. In some cases the limited press runs of these promo records (they were called demo records prior to the 1970s) were produced so the band could approve the final layout, album-cover art, and sound quality.
Because of their small quantities, as well as the fact that changes would often be made to the finished product, these private and promotional pressings are highly valued today. Promo records that differ from the final, official release are most coveted.
Some promo records had a cutout—usually a trimmed corner—or a hole punch to indicate that they were not for public sale. Others were adorned with stickers saying, “Not For Resale” or “For Promotional Use Only.” (Despite the warnings on these stickers, in most countries it is legal to resell promo records after the stock record has been released.) Later promo records featured a destroyed barcode. In a few instances, promo records can be collected along with their accompanying paperwork, which was included with the demo so the recipients could verify their approval—such documentation generally increases a record’s value to collectors.
Pressings of British demos were usually less than 1,500 copies. In the United States, far more copies of promos were produced, which is why American discs don’t tend to be as valuable as those pressed in the U.K.
Demo records date to the days of 78s—some of the most sought-after of these are Elvis Presley promos. However, 45s are the most widely collected vintage promo records today. The first 45 ever pressed, RCA’s “The Whirl-Away Demonstration Record,” was a promo record. It featured snippets of songs, including Eddy Arnold’s “Bouquet of Roses.” Though many copies were made at the time, there is only one known version of this seminal 45 demo today.
Ironically, the oldest promo records are not necessarily the most desired by collectors. That’s because the trend of including tracks or different packaging for the promo didn’t come about until the early ’70s.
In the 1950s and ’60s, demo records tended to be identical to their stock counterparts, with the exception, of course, of the sticker, hole punch, or cutout. By the 1970s, though, bands deliberately released promo records that were never intended to make it into the mainstream. Led Zeppelin and Cliff Richards were early pioneers of this practice, while one of the famous firsts came from the Rolling Stones, whose promo-only album was aptly named, "The Rolling Stones Promotional Album."...
David Bowie released a solely-promotional EP, with two tracks featuring Mick Ronson and two tracks featuring Dana Gillespie, that was meant only for radio stations. Another method of release was to highlight certain songs on the demo, like the Kinks did with "Give the People What They Want" in 1981—only four tracks were on the promo. More recently, Oasis released a 12-inch promo covering the Beatles song, “I am the Walrus,” which never made it onto any of the band’s albums.
The Rolling Stones were also one of the first bands to use different sleeves for promo records. One of the rarest promo records is the Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request” with a padded silk sleeve. In many more cases, the covers and sleeves of promo records were colorless, hence the other term for them, “white albums.”
Some of the most fascinating promo releases came in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when record companies were switching from mono to stereo. Some artists whose music was only released in stereo, like the Grateful Dead, Cream, and Janis Joplin, actually distributed mono promos solely for play on the radio. These are fairly rare, as are mono releases such as Paul McCartney’s “Ram” and Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy,” both of which were released in mono only to radio stations.
Other promo records are desired because the order of tracks got changed between promo and stock release. This was the case with Art Garfunkel’s “Watermark” LP. On some promo copies of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” the words “white boy” were removed for radio consumption, apparently to avoid being offensive. Similarly, the first promos of Michael Jackson’s “Ben” featured rat noises in the background—these were edited from later-issue promos and all stock releases.
The charm of promo records began to dissipate in the latter part of the ’70s as bands began putting everything but the kitchen sink onto these private releases. Often t-shirts, badges, and other band paraphernalia came with the discs.
A few decades later, possibly sparked by backlash to the CD takeover of music, promo records made a comeback. They became popular in the 1990s in dance/techno/electronic music circles, as DJs spun obscure tracks that had never been released to the public. In pop music, stars like Madonna and Prince also released promotional records.