Everything I Know About Being A Session Musician

Someone asked me for some advice about finding work as a session musician. My reply is printed below. It’s a personal response, so may not apply to everyone, but I hope it is useful to some…

FINDING WORK

It’s hard to advise on finding work, as that’s always a mysterious process. The best thing to do is get out there playing with as many people as you can. I used to go to a lot of jam sessions in London, and met a lot of people that way. However, I got the Scissor Sisters gig because someone I played football with got a phonecall from their manager, who was looking for a keyboard player. I was recommended for Alison Moyet by someone that I’d played in a band with in Bristol. I got a job with Ke$ha because someone from her record company called a tour manager I once worked with, so he recommended me. Marina and the Diamonds was from a recommendation as well. I think that probably points towards the value of having a positive reputation amongst your peers.

There are session agencies out there for musicians, and there are plenty of auditions for pop acts, but to be honest, I have never got a gig through either avenue. One problem with the agency/audition approach is that you are not represented as a personality. When people that know you recommend you for a gig, they are not just recommending your musicianship, but they are recommending you as a person, as someone who is reliable and easy to get on with.

Play as much as you can, don’t turn anything down, as you never know where it will lead. As a friend of mine once advised me – “If they ask ‘can you do it?’ always say ‘YES’ even if you can’t.” – It’s amazing what you can teach yourself in a state of blind panic!

Follow your instinct and your personal taste – jobs will come your way through your network of peers, so if you focus on doing things you love, then the work that comes your way should therefore be something you’d enjoy (in other words, try not to be too cynical, and try not to second guess the universe.)

Develop good diary habits – I *try* my best to have a rule: once it’s in the diary it doesn’t move. Even if an amazing opportunity comes up, if it clashes with a previous commitment, it’s best to honour the previous commitment. You have to decide “do I want to be known as the guy that will do anything to get ahead, or the guy that can be relied upon to honour his commitments?” Other opportunities will come your way, so I would advise being patient, and treating your current project with as much respect as possible. After all, the people you meet on the way up are the same people you WILL meet on the way down; treat them well, and they will treat you well the next time you encounter them.

If you have any footage/recordings of yourself playing, I would recommend you put together a website and print up some business cards with your website address on it so when you meet people you can direct them to it. I use wordpress.com, it’s free, very straightforward, and easy to embed some youtube videos and a few soundcloud clips.

ONCE YOU HAVE THE WORK

Always try to be the least qualified person in the room. I know you don’t always have control over this, but there are two ways to engineer this: 1) always try to work with musicians who are better than you. 2) find out who in the room knows something you don’t know anything about, and learn as much as you can from them. If you get into doing more session work, you will find yourself working with tour managers, lighting directors, stage managers, producers, front of house engineers, monitor engineers, drum techs, guitar techs, keyboard techs, bus drivers, security, hair & make-up, TV liaison, talent bookers/agents, artist managers, label reps, etc. etc. etc. Most of these people probably know more about their job than you do, so take the time to learn something from them about their work; it will only help you in the long run.

Once you know something about anything, share your knowledge. Nobody is going to replace you in the world just because you share everything you know with them.

Keep working on your own projects, even if they are wildly uncommercial and weird. You will always learn something from exploring your own creativity, particularly on the technical side, and this can always be translated into your “commercial” work.

I was having a particularly challenging time during one rehearsal process, feeling very pressured, stressed and very much out of my depth. A good friend of mine gave me some great advice at that time: “FIRST IN, LAST OUT.” So I turned up before everyone else, and stayed until after everyone had gone home. I was exhausted, but I got on top of things, and got the job done. You don’t have to follow this maxim every day, but sometimes it is really worth it to push yourself that extra bit.

If you are working with a Musical Director (and you are not the musical director) – keep your opinions to yourself unless you are asked. A good musical director will use all the musicians around them to help inform their decisions, so they will come to you if/when they need your input. If you get to be MD on a project, remember that you are only as good as the team you assemble.

George Duke once asked Frank Zappa for some advice, and he told him, “Invest in yourself.” This is great advice, that I try to follow in as many ways as I can; investing in decent gear/software that works, sounds great, and doesn’t break down; investing in furthering your knowledge – pay for some advanced lessons in technique or theory, go to a masterclass, go to a networking session, buy a tutorial DVD; invest in new music, old music, music you wouldn’t normally listen to; look after your body – avoid injury by warming up, and look into some remedial therapies/activities such as: alexander technique, yoga, tai chi, chi gung, shiatsu, massage, meditation etc. If you play your instrument alot, you will sustain injury, so it is not wasted money to look after your body.

These are just some of the things I have learnt over the years, but I think the ultimate, the most useful lesson of all, is just to BE YOURSELF.

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The follow up to this post is here: Everything I Know About Being On Tour

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