Studio musicians have existed since the beginning of the music industry. Also sometimes referred to as session musicians or session players, they’re a hired hand musicians who play the instruments on various albums or compositions of other artists. It boils down to being basically a musician or vocalist who makes the majority of their income playing in recording studio sessions.
The studio musician career basically emerged in the 1920s and 1930s as the infant recording industry began to grow. Most record companies had their own “studio bands” who would back up the artists in their studios as they cranked out the hits. These session players might play in recording sessions or even live broadcasts, and often played live music venues as part of other bands during the off times.
Today, while “studio bands” are less of a thing than they were decades ago, session musicians are still very much in demand. They are mostly freelance instrumental and vocal performers who are available to work with others at live performances or recording sessions. They’re brought in to perform tasks or specific duties that the individuals involved in making the record don’t have an expertise in.
Session Musician Careers
If you’re an up-and-coming musician, being a studio musician is a good way to build security for yourself. It’s a good way to make sure you have a roof over your head and money in the bank. While session players don’t often achieve the same level of fame as recording and performing artists, the primary benefit is consistency of work.
There is always a need for great musicians in the studio, and studio musicians who are good at what they do can generate a decent and consistent income year after year, simply by being in high demand. Session players can stay busy in local studios (especially in music industry hubs like New York, Los Angeles and Nashville), or they can be hired to go out on tour with major label artists. If you’re good at what you do, you’ll rarely have a difficult time finding work.
SKILLS REQUIRED TO BE A STUDIO MUSICIAN
If you think you have the chops and the desire to become a professional studio musician, here’s what you need to work on:
- Proficiency on your instrument. (Obviously, you have to be a very good player.)
- Sight Reading. If you’re shooting to be a studio musician you need to be able sight read music. No playing by ear, no playing along. You need to be able to pick up sheet music and be able to do it exactly as scripted.
- Versatility of styles. The more genres in which you’re comfortable playing, the more gigs will be available to you. It’s that simple.
- Ability to pick up the song quickly. In the studio, time is money. Studio musicians need to be able to learn the song quickly and play it as though they were part of the band. It helps to have a great ear, excellent sight-reading skills, or both. It also helps if you can read charts. Don’t waste the client’s money; the more quickly you can lay down a good track, the more likely you are to be hired for more gigs.
- Dependability. Again, time is money in the studio, so if you’re late for a session, you probably won’t be asked back.
- Availability. Sometimes gigs pop up on a moment’s notice. If you’re known as the guy/gal who can show up in minutes, you’re the one who will get asked.
- Knowing your way around a recording studio. A basic understanding of audio engineering, music production and how a studio works—these are essential to communicating with the producers and engineers in the studio and anticipating their needs.
If you care more about playing excellent music than about being famous, and if you have a strong work ethic and passion for getting the job done, the life of a studio musician might be just the life for you! Get practicing and work up those chops. Finding work as a studio musician can be rewarding and allow you the time and energy to put together your passion projects. If you’re someone who has a bizarre or avant garde project you’ve been wanting to work, picking up some steady studio musician work could be exactly the type of scenario that would allow you to create your less commercial projects.
Getting experience in an actual studio is a great way to figure out if it’s a process you enjoy. Working in a studio as a session player will allow you to get a feel for the types of people that are involved in the industry and ascertain if this is a space you want to spend more time in. You might play on a few records, have some fun, make some money, and then realize that ultimately you’re happier creating work independently. Or you might discover a new passion for music you didn’t know you had. Your future awaits.