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A session musician works on creating or recording specific musical parts for a composition, usually specialising in one particular instrument. They are hired `per track’, and are not in the continuous employ of the artist or studio who requires their services.
A session musician is the “gun for hire” of the musical world. Often in a recording or touring situation, an established artist or band will require a musician to fulfil a certain (limited) role. It could be that a rock band wants to use a piano part in one particular studio track but the band does not have a pianist. In this case, a session player would be called in to record the part, and maybe contribute to writing or changing the arrangement also. Most session musicians are freelancers.
Due to the ad hoc nature of requirements placed upon the sessionist, the payment received for one recording job can range from nothing for new players seeking studio experience, up to £3,000 to £4,000 for renowned session musicians with a glittering past portfolio of collaboration. Normally the payment arrangement will be `per track’, so if the part takes a week to record, the session musician will receive the same remuneration as if the recording had taken two hours to cut. As the sessionist is freelance, they are able to set their own rates. A lower rate is helpful in attracting more work to those who are just starting out on the session circuit.
- Timely arrival at recording studio or rehearsal studio.
- Effectively commit bespoke musical arrangement to mixing desk (or perform live).
- Contribute partly or wholly to the writing of the specific arrangement.
- Provide musical instrument and associated equipment to complete the task.
- Assist sound engineer and producer with recording and mix-down.
- Work tirelessly, often for long hours, until the part is completed satisfactorily.
There are no formal academic barriers to entry. However, whilst a GCSE or HND in music production are not particularly relevant to a band performing original material, session musicians are more thoroughly scrutinised by studios or agents looking to hire them. For this reason, some form of academic qualification can set the musician apart from those with just studio experience. This is particularly relevant for session musicians who are looking to work with major labels.
- Theoretical knowledge of the building blocks of musical scales, keys, tempos and signatures.
- Often a wildly diverse range of musical styles will need to be understood, as musical genres span many types of music, and some session musicians are expected to cover all of them.
- Detailed knowledge of how the sessionist’s own equipment functions, and what its capabilities and limitations are.
- Good knowledge of recording studio working practice, or, if in live situation, the gig process.
- Ability to conjure sophisticated musical parts, often on the spot and under intense scrutiny.
Most band members who go into the studio for the first time find it a daunting and potentially fraught experience. Playing live often masks inaccuracies in the player’s ability. When they plug into a high-quality studio console, their every fingernail articulation is there for everyone to see: producer, engineer, managers. It can be a potential nightmare. Others thrive on the experience, and confidence grows on subsequent visits.
The main pressure for a sessionist is the fact that they are being paid to deliver a very specific arrangement, so it must be of exceptionally good quality to justify a pay cheque. Also, that one recording track may be holding up the rest of the band from recording additional songs or parts, so it can consequently cost the record company thousands of pounds a day in lost time.
This is the catch-22 situation. Nobody will hire a session player with no experience, but how does one get experience without bookings? The best advice that established session musicians offer to new people is to offer their services free of charge to a local band who may be struggling with certain aspects of studio work. This will at least start to build a portfolio of references, which can then be used as part of the session musician’s own website and printed marketing material. Simply leaving a business card with several local studios can be a great way to get started. If you’re the only Shamisen player in South Wales, then you will probably get a call from a producer at some point.
Long-established session ‘stars’ can bring in huge sums, so it pays to invest many months of unpaid time in order to secure a more profitable future later in one’s career. Also, there is much to gain, should the session player be recruited by a label to support a major act or star on an international tour. This is many a musician’s dream, and session playing can be an unorthodox route into a jet-setting recording career. Many bands try to achieve this by recording and performing their own material to little avail, yet session players often have big labels knocking on their door instead.
Also known as…
- Session soloist
- Session maker
- Session player
What’s it really like?
Maz Marriott is a well-known session musician from London, and has worked with legendary producer, Tim Lever, and indie band, Little Man Tate.
What made you decide to choose to get into this sort of career?
Initially, I was studying music at Salford University which involved a lot of practical work. The degree course was Popular Music and Recording and it had a whole module dedicated to session musicianship. This involved getting into groups with other people on the course and performing a specific track and then having it recorded. It was my favourite part of the course and was a great way of being introduced to how sessions come together.
Whilst studying at Uni, I was in a band playing a lot of gigs, and we began attracting attention from labels, which led to us getting signed to a major. This curtailed my stay at Salford, and the next 4 years were spent touring round the world, being in lots of studios, constantly writing and generally having the time of my life. When we decided to call it a day last year, my first instinct was to carry on performing, but this time as a session guitarist.
What is the most common type of project for which you receive enquiries?
Normally, it’s projects that don’t have a massive budget, therefore the likelihood of getting paid becomes slim. However, there are two ways of looking at this. One is to think that you deserve the highest rate for any session or live gig, which is pretty nonsensical in my case as I’ve only been pursuing this career for just over a year. The second way is to realise that some people may come to you and give you an opportunity to build up your CV, gain vital experience but maybe without being able to pay you anything at all.
What do you like most about the job?
I personally like the anonymity of being a session musician. This is largely because in my time of being in a professional band I was elevated to a status I wasn’t always comfortable with. We were a tight-knit group of friends that went from playing small back-rooms in pubs to places like the old Astoria in London and Brixton Academy. Whilst all this was fantastic for our career, it came to the point where I wanted the complete opposite.
Being a session player, you get to stay out of the limelight and don’t have to worry about being a spokesperson or a role model to fans or anything like that. It’s great to be able to turn up, be professional, get the job done and then go home or at least back to a certain sense of normality.
What do you like least about the job?
It can be unbelievably hard to get a breakthrough sometimes. It’s not the kind of career you can suddenly decide will keep you financially secure for the rest of your life. It’s a freelance job, so sometimes the insecurity of not knowing when the next payment is coming can be hard to handle.
Also, you have to deal with a lot of people in the music industry. There are a lot of people out there who can be very ruthless, and I can speak from experience on this. I’ve learnt the hard way that empty promises for work can be very misleading, but you have to stay positive and realise that there is a lot of competition out there, so persistence really is the key to success.
What are the key responsibilities?
Without doubt the biggest responsibility is being professional. This seems very obvious but a bad reputation goes a long way in the session world. I always aim to be on time whether it’s a studio job, live gig or just a meeting. I think it’s all about building yourself up from day one. You have to be good at talking as well and having a sense of humour always helps.
It also goes without saying that a good grasp of music theory helps as this makes it easier to deal with things like chord charts or transposing parts to different keys. Confidence in your own ability is essential too. For example, don’t be afraid to suggest new ideas in a rehearsal or in a studio with a producer. They might not come to anything but at least you’re showing an interest and a willingness to step up.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg HND?
No, there aren’t any as far as I know. As most people are aware, many successful musicians have taught themselves right from the very start although this shouldn’t be strictly followed as a blueprint. I think you should try and better yourself as much as possible and of course, degree courses will invariably help you to do this. Nobody asks you to fill in an application form to become a session musician but remember that a lot of people ask for a music CV so the more stuff that’s on there the better.
Do you plan on going back to college?
Yes, I’ve applied to undertake a BA in Music Education at London Metropolitan which starts later this year. I feel that this will give me more options in the long term and will help me to diversify in my career as a musician.
What is the next step in your career?
As mentioned previously, I want to go back to studying at university but I also want to carry on working as a freelance session musician. In the last year I have made a lot of progress with session work and I want to get involved with more artists. At the moment I have just finished recording an EP with an up and coming band and the plan is to get more gigs and future sessions which will help keep the money rolling in.
What is the starting salary and how does this increase over time with promotion?
There isn’t a salary as a session musician, so you charge in different ways. For example, a live performance will generate you £100 as a flat fee, though there may be expenses on top of that. However, this can vary depending on experience and how much a producer or artist wants you! For a recording session in a studio, you can expect to earn in the region of £200-250 per track. There’s also TV work on shows such as X-Factor, where musicians are often asked to mime. In this instance you’d probably be on £20-25 per hour.
If you left this profession, what else would you consider?
This is a difficult question and one that I’ve been asked a lot over the years. I’d like to think I’d be involved in something creative such as graphic design, which I was really into at school. I also love DJ-ing, though only as a side project to earn extra money. Doing it full-time would require a lot more training and knowledge, but I’d definitely get a buzz out of playing records to people every night in a similar way to the feeling I get when I am on stage and playing my guitar.
How far is it possible to progress within this career?
If you’ve got the talent, the persistence and a lot of good luck, you can get to the stage where your sole income comes directly from session work. Most of the top artists who are selling millions of records stick with their session musicians, so as long as you are recording and touring regularly, you can make a very healthy living. The key is getting the right breaks and getting to know the right people which isn’t easy.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
Get to know as many studios and producers as possible, which is fairly straightforward to research online. There are session agencies out there too, so be prepared for a lot of emailing and cold-calling. Make sure that you build up a lot of contacts because you need these to enable you to approach session work from as many different angles as possible. Contacts can range from A&R at labels to photographers, DJs or even venue managers. You never know who is on the look-out for players.
You’re not going to be successful at every audition, so be thick-skinned and willing to bounce back and stay positive, because there is always a vacancy in the next band that comes along. Having a good image is important too because a lot of the time people will ask for professional photos and the same applies for examples of your work. Get the portfolio right so you make a good impression from the start.