Session musicians

musicians at a recording session

© istockphoto.com/Chris Schmidt

A limited amount of musicians are able to make a living as freelance instrumentalists or vocalists, hired in for a variety of differing projects. Known as session musicians, these individuals are available for hire for studio and live music projects (as opposed to musicians who are contracted to recording companies as part of a signed act). The term session musician originally emerged with the advent of the recording industry, to refer to musicians who were hired in for recording sessions, but it now refers to a wider range of roles. These include providing backing for singers or bands in recording sessions or live performances, playing on film, TV or advertising soundtracks, acting as a 'pit player' (part of an ensemble hidden from view from the audience) in stage musicals and as part of house bands and speciality acts providing entertainment in clubs, cabarets and cruise ships.

Each of these tasks requires a particular set of skills and session players generally have to be adaptable. Most session musicians who specialise in recording are paid on an hourly basis and have to come into a studio session and put down a part quickly and efficiently. Therefore they must have the ability to sight read musical notation fluently and be able to adapt to any style that is demanded of them. This requirement means that (in contrast to many signed rock and pop musicians) most session musicians have had some form of formal training involving notation and music theory.

The role of studio session musician is highly sought after by aspiring musicians but in reality the field employs relatively few people. Because of the highly competitive nature of the business and the fact that work usually has to be found in a variety of places, most session musicians tend to cluster around major centres of the recording industry. This includes international centres of the music industry such as New York, London, Los Angeles (rock and pop), Paris (world music) and Nashville (country music).

Changes in fashion and technology have led to a decline in the numbers of session musicians, making the field even more competitive. The high point of the studio musician was in the post war period. This lasted up until the 1970s when even after the advent of rock (with its emphasis on original, self-contained bands) session musicians remained prevalent. Subsequent changes in technology such as the introduction of synthesisers, samplers and midi meant that many recording projects replaced studio musicians with synthesised and sampled equivalents and demand for them decreased. In the live music sector in Britain this decline was perhaps even more pronounced. Recorded music became the norm in dance clubs and the live cabaret circuit shrank due to changing patterns in leisure and technology such as the introduction of backing tracks and midi generated accompaniment. This meant that fewer musicians and bands were needed on the club circuit.

Ironically the rise of digital and sampling technologies have also brought in a new type of work for the session musician: that of recording parts for commercially available, royalty free sample CDs. These CDs are made up of samples of session musicians playing (either in short rhythmic or melodic phrases or in the form of single notes or percussive hits) which amateur or professional producers and musicians can then use in their own compositions or productions. This is a very small part of the industry however, and most session musicians have had to diversify in order to survive in a competitive market. Usually session work now forms part of a portfolio career which might encompass studio and live work alongside teaching, workshops and other related activities.