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The role of the session musician

Description of the role of session musicians in record production.


Once upon a time it was every instrumentalist's dream to become a session musician.

With the unstoppable rise of computerised instruments, the demand for session players has diminished, but there is still a keen market at the top of the business.

The reason you would hire a specialist session musician rather than use your mate who can pick and strum a bit is simply because a good session musician can project an wonderful air of confidence into the recording.

As your experience as a producer increases you will find that there is a world of difference between someone who can play well, and someone who really 'has it' - 'it' being that indefinable something that makes a recording sound terrific rather than just alright.

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Be warned that there is still a breed of session musician that thinks it is OK to place a copy of Auto Trader on the music stand and imagine that they are professional enough not to have to give their full attention to what they are doing.

I would personally show someone the door if they did this, but I'm afraid it is still considered to be acceptable practice in some circles.

Of course, this won't happen if you get your musicians from a reputable source who is used to dealing with top producers. This source would be what used to be called a 'fixer', nowadays more politely known as a session agent or orchestral contractor. Whatever instrument or voice you need, you can ring up a session agent and he or she will be able to deliver the goods - at a price.

If you want quality, then you can forget about Musicians' Union rates, because these are considered to be a bare minimum level of remuneration. Of course, when the payment tops the MU scale, then you will also get flexibility and a certain amount of freedom from MU conditions on how sessions are conducted.

You would need to clarify these points with the contractor and find out precisely what you are agreeing to in terms of the duration of the session, breaks, maximum recording time etc.

Be prepared to sign a contract or letter of agreement which will also contain the performers' consent required under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act or other local legislation for the types of use proposed for the recording.

But what if your budget is limited, or you only want to make a demo recording and can't justify too much expense? One possibility is that you can interest a top session player sufficiently to work for you for the minimum fee simply because they like the music.

Admittedly, this is easier if the session player knows you already, but certainly not impossible since musicians like to play, and if they like your music they will probably want to play it. Another strategy is to book a musician on a demo rate which may be lower than a full session rate.

Of course, you won't be able to release the recordings since you will never be allowed to book a session player again if you do. But you could record your demo, hawk it around the record companies, and if someone does take to it and wants to release it, all you have to do is go back to the session agent and renegotiate the fee. You can't lose!

Also, bear in mind that not all the musicians on a session agent's books will have reached the pinnacle of their careers. Some will just be starting out and although the agent will have taken them on because they have outstanding ability, they may need to build up a track record and could see your project as a means to this end, at least in part.

By David Mellor Tuesday February 1, 2000