Who Hires Session Musicians?

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From The Studio Musician’s Handbook © 2009 by Bobby Owsinski and Paul Ill. Published by Hal Leonard Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Publishing. Reprinted with permission.

Since music today is recorded professionally everywhere – from bedrooms onto laptop programs like GarageBand to 2,500-square-foot near-perfect acoustical environments attached to control rooms loaded with recording gear worth millions of dollars – it’s safe to say that almost anyone making music will be able to hire you for a professional recording session. If you’re in demand, you’ll probably get all sorts of playing opportunities from sources you wouldn’t suspect. That being said, the top three sources for session work are contractors, producers, and highly respected session musicians.

The contractor usually acts as a go-between for musicians and producers, and is required to be present at all times during the session when his contracted musicians are recording. Contractors come in two varieties: union and independent. Both types are usually musicians themselves who supervise and provide additional services for a session. A contractor can help musicians and singers prepare by supplying them with the necessary information for the session and making sure that they and their specified instruments and equipment arrive at the event or session on time. He or she coordinates the event, coaches, conducts, computes session fees, and submits the proper union forms (if it’s a union date) to the employer and the union office.

Contractors often specialize in a specific area of the business such as jingles, orchestral dates, or film/television sessions. For a contractor, it’s all about relationships. His or her reputation is founded on the level of experience and quality of the musicians he or she makes available, so it really makes sense to cultivate relationships with the local contractors.

It is the career goal of every session musician to become the “first-call” player for as many successful producers as possible. In the vast majority of recording situations, the producer decides who plays what, when they play it, and how the music should sound.

All successful producers have a cadre of players that, as a result of previous excellent session experiences, they’ve grown comfortable using. Sometimes the musicians have played on a project that has met with some success, so these players act as sort of a good-luck charm and, as a result, keep getting calls from the producer. Sometimes the players are a big part of the producer’s “sound,” and he wants to make sure to maintain that sound by hiring the same players.

If the producer is producing a band, sometimes he calls in a musician to play a part that the band member just can’t execute. Sometimes this is with full knowledge of the band, but other times a session player could also be asked to “ghost” a part secretly without the band’s knowledge. Sometimes the band has to leave for the road with the record still unfinished, and the producer will call in his favorite players in an effort to get the project quickly out the door. And sometimes he calls in a player to perform on an instrument that no band member plays.

If a producer is working with a solo artist, the chances for work grow exponentially, because a studio band is needed for all the tracking and for individual work on the overdubs. This could be for the artist’s album, a song for a movie or television, an event like the Olympics or the Super Bowl, or simply a demo of the artist’s new song.

Most producers specialize. Some are involved in only television or radio commercials (jingles), which are usually pressure packed three-hour dates just like the old days: tracking for the first hour, overdubbing in the second, fixing and mixing during the third. Others produce only record dates, with some producers working with bands and others just with solo artists. Regardless of whom you start with, producers are the main source for work for a studio musician, and it sure helps the career and the pocketbook to be on call with more than one.

Most everyone in the music business likes to create work for friends. Artists, composers, studio staffers, producers, contractors, and managers all trust the musicians they respect to make appropriate referrals for sessions.

Musicians create session work for other musicians through the process of recommendation to artists and producers. Top session musicians like to refer other musicians they know and do so frequently. Believe it or not, during the ’60s and early ’70s, session musicians gauged their suc- cess by how much work they turned down for themselves and passed on to other players. Just think how much work these men and women created for their friends and protégés! True, the producer makes the final call, but a referral from a musician that the producer likes to use is usually golden.

Here’s an example of how it can work. Imagine being in New York City in the hot summer. You’re new in town, fresh off a two-year stint fronting a show band. Your vocal chops are in great shape, you’ve got your finger on the pulse of current popular music, and you’ve relocated to the Big Apple looking for work as a session singer. Unfortunately, all you’ve managed to conjure up in your first six weeks in town is a three-song feature at the Monday night jam session at Kenny’s Castaways in the Village.

It’s too hot and humid for 10 p.m., but you stroll downtown anyway, looking forward to the opportunity to wail on some blues even if you’re not getting paid. As you turn the corner on Bleeker Street, you spot a guy from behind with long blond hair squatting in a murky puddle trying not to muddy his clothes. He’s wrenching a tire iron struggling to fix a flat. As you approach you offer, “Hey man, need some help?” and lo and behold, staring up at you just like on the cover of your favorite Brecker Brothers record, you immediately recognize Will Lee, bassist extraordinaire looking up at you as he sighs,“Oh, yeah! Thanks, man! I’m on my way to meet my wife for a dinner date, and I had a flat! Don’t wanna get my clothes wet!” So you help out, get some stains on your jeans, and compliment him on his great playing.

As you finish up, Will billows over with profuse thanks and asks about you. You give him the CliffsNotes version of your musical life, to which he replies, “Well, not many people know this, but I make more money singing on commercials than I do playing bass. Maybe the lovely lady and I will stop down tonight after dinner.”

Two and a half hours later, half way through your rendition of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” you open your eyes and see Will with a willowy blonde on his arm beaming at you. After your show-stopping Wilson Pickett “Midnight Hour” finale, you step offstage dripping in sweat to be greeted by Will with this: “Man, that was killing! You’re more than good, man.” Looking fondly at his wife, Will continues, “We’ve decided to take a few days off later this week and hit the Hamptons. I’ve got a Budweiser commercial on Thursday. You want to sub for me?” Casting a conspiratorial glance at his wife, he continues, “That way we can split a day early.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

Sometimes musicians hire other musicians for their own sessions if they are trying to make the jump and establish themselves as producers or if they have songs or music for a film or television show that they wish to record. That session guy who you’re competing with now for gigs could someday be a producer who’s your main source for work, so be sure to treat everyone nicely (but you knew that already, didn’t you).

Artists often insist on recording with specific musicians, either because of reputation, previous affiliation, or just hearing something they really liked along the way. If a budding new rock star who grew up in the ’90s gets a record deal, and she happened to see the infamous Bowie/ Nine Inch Nails tour of 1996, she may insist to everyone involved, “Get me that guy who used to make all those weird guitar noises for David Bowie!” Seemingly out of nowhere, Reeves Gabrels gets the call!

Sometimes an artist wants the feel or the sound that a certain musician or group of musicians brings. Bob Seger recorded some his best albums with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section after hearing them on Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music,” and just about everyone in Nashville wanted the A-Team during the long period when they were hot.

Composers are sort of a hybrid in the work category. They are both artist and producer, but they’re still a great source for work. A successful television composer can usually provide steady session employment (unusual for a session musician), since cues are required for each episode. While the nature of the cues change and the players with it, the same group of musicians generally stays with the show for comfort and continuity’s sake.

Film composers are a little different in that hiring for a large orchestral session is usually done by a contractor, although the composer will request certain players as he requires them. Smaller non-orchestral sessions may use a contractor or be hired directly by the composer. Usually, the smaller the session, the more likely it is that the composer will hire you directly.

The best way to create opportunities to record film and television music is to cultivate relationships with composers, contractors, and music supervisors. Many players transition to composers. Session musicians are perhaps the biggest contributors to film and television libraries, and the vast majority of composers were players first.

Recording Studio Staff
Occasionally, studio staff will hire you. Imagine this: over the Christmas holiday season in a small college town, a string quartet has been assembled to record a last-minute advertising jingle for a radio and television ad campaign for the local New Year’s Parade. But they’re in a jam. On her way to the session, the cellist (who teaches at the local college and knows every string player for miles) slid on some ice while driving and totaled her brand-new Prius! She’s okay and her instrument’s undamaged (by far her greatest concern), and even though she’s a little shaken, she calls the studio to try to help get a sub.

Too bad she can’t think of anyone, because her best students are out of town and the other cello instructor is skiing. In the studio foyer, the receptionist Katie overhears the engineer, producer, and first violinist trying to work things out, and she remembers meeting you just yesterday, when you were in town to pick up your high school sweetheart and drive home for the holidays. You just happened to be walking up the stairs to your girlfriend’s apartment with your cello as Katie was coming home from work. Voila! Katie calls your girl, and you get the gig.

In similar fashion, in June of 2008 I received a call from Richard Flack, an engineer friend based in London whom I’d worked with on frequent sessions for esteemed producer Guy Chambers. Renowned session drummer Brian MacLeod, Richard, Guy, and I had been on sessions together for world-class artists such as Tina Turner, Asyln, and Annie Lennox, to name a few. Early in the summer of that year, Richard found himself on hush-hush sessions with Jimmy Page and Leona Lewis. A team was being assembled to record a backing track for the UK’s contribution to the opening ceremony for the 2008 Olympics in China. Page and Lewis were slated to perform Led Zeppelin’s classic “Whole Lotta Love” over a backing track. Being more than familiar with Brian’s and my work, and having seen us play Led Zeppelin’s music live with Linda Perry and the Section String Quartet, Richard was more than confident when he recommended us to Jimmy Page. MP3 files were sent via email and we got the gig, only to lose it later that day because we weren’t British citizens. The only saving grace was that for the rest of our lives, Brian and I could say that we were Page’s rhythm section for all of five minutes, but this story illustrates how a referral from an engineer can turn into very illustrious work.

Artist managers
Artist managers or someone in their office are occasionally charged with the responsibility of putting together players for a session, and their first call is to someone they trust for a referral. While this is usually a musician or producer they’ve worked with before, the referral can come from sources outside the norm.

Here’s a good example. A very prominent singer-songwriter with a worldwide hit behind him secretly wanted to stretch out a little in the studio and come up with a new direction. Instead of sticking to his typical pop rhythm-section format, he wanted to continue to play piano but also to work with a neojazz rhythm section composed of upright bass and drums. On top of that, he wanted to play with a DJ who was capable of matching his breakbeats to the jazz drummer and tuning his scratches to the key of the song. This has been a challenge for all DJ-based ensembles for years, and very few DJs have the skills to make themselves musically subordinate to an ensemble’s key and tempo choices. The artist and rhythm section had tried out a few well-known DJs but no one had really jelled yet, so the word went out to the artist’s management to find a DJ that would fit.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. A friend of his manager’s assistant works FOH (front-of-house – a fancy acronym for “soundperson”) at a renowned venue in a major market mixing everything from hip-hop to punk to jazz to India rock, and everything in between. His reputation around his home city is golden, and he seems to know everybody in the biz. Soon he got the call from a managerial assistant in the artist’s office who was a regular at the concert club and knew that he knew everything and everyone that was musically happening in town. She expressed that they were at a loss for the right DJ, but not to worry – our soundman to the rescue! He frequently mixed shows for DJ Peyote Coyote, a veteran of numerous live bands and just the right man for this job. DJ PC got the call, got the gig, and wound up working on some sessions that were highly interesting and experimental (but, unfortunately, yet to be released). Lesson learned: regardless of who hires you, anyone may recommend you for session work.

This post was excerpted from The Studio Musician’s Handbook and reprinted with permission. Get 25% off and free shipping when you buy The Studio Musician’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski and Paul Ill at HalLeonardBooks.com. Just use the code DM9 when checking out!

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11 thoughts on “Who Hires Session Musicians?

  1. It’s interesting to know that I will need to mostly work with manager when hiring musicians. I’m planning to help out in preparing my little sister’s wedding soon because she just got engaged two weeks ago. Since she wants to have a very musical theme, I think hiring a female jazz standards artist would be good for the reception.

  2. wanted… Drummer, piano, bass and guitarist for Living Word Worship Center Penrith worship Team. Play on Sunday night. must have heart for worship. All abilities welcome…
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  3. you know what, i think offering your session musician services to people outside your region/country online, ensuring good-quality recording, could be a great avenue to explore. i am from europe and although the average income is substantially lower compared to the US, session musicians are not only more spoiled (lack of competition), less skilled and harder to get, but seeing the average rates, they are also sometimes more expensive to work with. make your services available online, offer to consult the project in realtime using skype, and i believe you will have found your niche.

  4. Yeah….right.  The chance of any musician out there – as good as he or she may be – becoming a first-call studio player is about that of drawing a royal flush and hitting the lottery on the same day.  The streets of LA, Nashville, and New York are littered with great players all looking for ‘the shot’.  #1, if you don’t read your ass off – and I mean play a chart down perfect the first time you see it – forget it.  Then, you’ve got to have absolutely perfect time (which 90% of the musicians I’ve played with don’t have).  And God help you if you can’t tune your instrument perfectly (again, most cannot).  Show up one minute late…..well, your career is over.  And always remember, lined up outside the studio are the dozen other guys just waiting for you to fuck up and take your place.

  5. some folks play Chicago Blues,some play Blues in Chicago………first call to open for Buddy Guy at his club Legends in Chicago…..I use a national tri-cone,dobro,6&12 string acoustic,Fender Tele,Esquire,duo-sonic3/4 neck,lap steel (played in Hawaii with Gabby Pahinui)…..I also play harmonica in&out of the rack along with a sure bullet mike…..and I sing. finger &thumb picks,flat pick,or bare back……..and 5 string banjo(Deering Boston model) yes ,I play slide on the banjo(now how much would you pay?) learned from Bukka White(BB Kings mentor)…….www.dennisdonnelly.com  “Its about a sound”

  6. Love it! I’m currently working on a book myself and nearly everything said here is exactly what I have written in a particular section. Don’t burn bridges, especially with producers and engineers, there is ALWAYS something you can do in this industry. 

    Even if you don’t happen to make a successful record, your musical skills will stick with that particular producer/engineer and you could quickly get lucky to be called for session work and still make money, be happy playing music and enjoying life!

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