If you struggle to bring in a full-time income with your music and need to find ways to boost it, becoming a back-up singer is a great way to make money while still doing what you love.
Find out how to become a backing singer and you can earn more money than working purely as a solo artist. There are additional skills that you’ll need to develop, but these will stand you in good stead, wherever your career as a vocalist takes you.
In this article, we’ll let you know how to go about getting backup gigs, as well as the techniques you’ll need to learn to excel in this area of the industry.
How to become a backing singer
Not everyone can be front and centre. And for every single artist, there’s likely to be a host of singers backing them up at concerts, on recordings and for TV appearances. It follows then, that this should be a greater source of work than only doing your own gigs as a soloist.
And it’s not necessarily a one-way ticket where your career is concerned. Many famous artists started out as backing singers.
- Sheryl Crow, sang backup for Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.
- Gwen Stefani was originally hired to sing backing for No Doubt (she went on to front the group).
- Dave Grohl sang for Nirvana before forming Foo Fighters.
- Whitney Houston sang backup for Chaka Khan.
- John Legend backed up Alicia Keys and Kanye West.
- Cher even recorded background vocals on The Ronettes Be My Baby and You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ by The Righteous Brothers.
Access to high profile industry movers and shakers often enables backup singers to make a name for themselves resulting in solo recording and performing opportunities. But many more singers forge successful and well-paid long term careers working exclusively on backing.
Just because you’re a good singer doesn’t mean you’ll be a good backing singer though. There are slightly different skills needed for each role and only some singers can nail both.
What are backup singers called?
‘Backing singer’ is a common UK term, but you’ll also hear the terms: backup singers, backing vocalists, background singers, backing group or harmony vocalists. Another term you’ll hear used is ‘session singer’.
Session singers are very much like backing singers and the job titles may be used together. But they are more likely to be found on studio recordings, paid by the session (hence the name). A backing singer may be a permanent fixture in a band or be salaried by a particular artist. Or a backing singer might just provide vocals here and there and not be contracted per session.
What do backing singers do?
Backing singers perform live, or on recordings for solo artists and bands. They also need to attend rehearsals beforehand and learn individual parts. Backing singers must understand their vocal type and range. You may well be hired according to how naturally high or low your voice is, in order to create balance, fit with the overall sound and create workable harmonies. So first you must establish your vocal range – are you a soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, baritone or bass?
You must also be able to harmonise and hold your own when singing against other parts. This is vital, so if you don’t have a great musical ear, this might not be the best route for you. While recording sessions may involve laying down parts one by one, the live performances will certainly involve signing against others and you may not have the best audio playback to help – so you need to be note-perfect.
You also need to be able to sing with power, but not overpower the lead vocalist or the other parts. The ability to bring light and shade to your sound is important and to be sensitive in adjusting your volume to fit.
Why do singers have backup singers?
While some artists pre-record their own backing, either to overlay on their tracks or to be played at a live performance, most prefer to have others take care of the background vocals. Layering sounds – be they instrumental, electric or vocal – adds depth to a track and makes harmonies and counterpoints possible for a solo singer.
Some genres of music, especially uptempo pop, will double up on singing and dancing backing, meaning you’ll need to be skilled in both to attract the most work. Singers want their back up to be good enough to complement them and make them sound even better, but not overpower, upstage, or overwhelm them. To get work you must be a team player and contribute to making the overall performance the best it can be. Never pull focus or try to be a star as a backing singer. If you do, you’ll struggle to get hired again. This is not a job for divas!
How do I become a backing singer?
First, you need to be trained and experienced as a singer. The hours in this field can be very long, especially during rehearsal. If you’re a backing singer on tour, you’ll have a gruelling itinerary with tiring travel and lots of nightly singing. Sopranos often have to sing very high parts, which can be vocally tiring too. So you must be fully conversant in proper vocal technique and this means having had lessons so you understand how to prevent fatigue and support the sound with your breath.
Joining a choir or a cappella group is an excellent way to prepare for life as a backing singer. You’ll get used to singing in tight harmonies and holding your own, without drowning anyone else out. It’ll also helps develop a sense of teamwork and gets you used to being part of an ensemble. You may also want to offer your services for free, as backing for a small band or emerging artist, so you can learn on the job.
Build up with live gigs as a solo singer, or as part of a band. You can do this by booking slots at open mic nights, jams and getting work as a gigging singer at weddings, events and in places like are home.
Once you have a decent portfolio of work – and some tracks/videos of you performing to evidence it – you can apply for professional jobs in backing.
How much does a backing singer earn?
This depends on how often you work, where you work and who you work for. Some backup singers earn nothing, others earn a great deal. Many adverts you’ll see on forums offer something called profit share. This means that there’s no guaranteed or upfront payment, but that any earnings from the band or group after expenses have been covered, will be split between you (although probably not equally – it’ll depend on roles).
Highest paid backup singers
The salary for a UK backing singer could be as high as £80,000. But most won’t earn anything like that. It’s the ones working for top artists and earning huge amounts that push the figure up.
Hourly rates may be around £10 and £20 for a lower profile, but professional gig. Bear in mind that as a freelancer, you have to put money aside from this for sick pay, holiday pay and a pension. Some bigger names keep the same backing singers for years.
Taylor Swift has four, named The Starlights. They first performed with her at the 2012 MTV VMAs, singing We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together and are still by her side, eight years later. Getting in with a successful artist early on and staying with them long term, is undoubtedly the best way to earn big bucks at this.
The independent docu-movie Twenty Feet from Stardom follows some well established backup musicians and is a fascinating depiction of what it’s like to rise to the top of this particular game.
Backing singer agency
Getting signed by an agency is a great way to generate work. They will take a cut of your earnings, but it’s often worth it for the access to jobs you wouldn’t otherwise have. But getting an agent can be as hard as finding the work itself. If you study at a good music college, there may be opportunities to meet and audition for industry people like agents.
How can I be a good backing singer?
Here are some of the skills you’ll need to learn and things you’ll need to do if you want to get regular work and build a reputation as a backing singer.
- Sightreading. This is where you sing notes purely from looking at them on the sheet music.
- Harmonies. Learn how to sing in harmony in your range, both from sheet music and by ear.
- A qualification or musical training. This is more valuable as a backing singer than as a solo artist. It shows you can commit, have proper technique and have a grounding in music.
- Adaptability. Even when working with a single artist you may have to sing many types of songs and be able to blend in with them and the other backing singers.
- Networking. Like any area of the industry, it can be all about who you know and backing singing is no different.
- A personality that’s great to be around. Your role is supportive. If you’re easy-going, positive, friendly, always on time, reliable and good company, solo artists will want you on their team time and again.
- Great outfits to fit different artists and genres. This will help you feel like a good fit at hiring meetings or auditions.
- Solid mic technique. Work on this to understand how close or far away you need to be and how different effects impact your sound.
- Punctuality. You can’t afford to be late. You’re not the star of the show, so as a supporting element, you need to be at their beck and call at the times you’re booked.
More backing vocals tips
Get to grips with the kit when you arrive at a gig. You’ll be using a mic – but possibly sharing it with others. There will either be a floor monitor or in-ear monitors. Make sure you know how these work and what to do with them. And listen very carefully to what’s happening around you, you may need to modulate your voice and if your lead singer likes to improvise or incorporate a breakdown, you’ll need to keep track of what’s happening.
Unlike the lead singer, you can’t go off at a musical tangent if it suits you. Your job is to follow them, so you must have your finger on the pulse and maintain awareness of everything that’s happening around you.
It’s also important to put aside any feelings of resentment. It can be tough backing someone else when you want – and may feel you more deserve – the limelight. Remember the famous names we mentioned who sand backing and know that, if you work hard, your time will come. Don’t make enemies by falling out with your fellow backing singers or other musicians. The industry can be a very small world and people have long memories for bad feeling.
Finding backing singing jobs
Once you feel skilled and ready to go, you’ll need to find work as a backing singer.
Chelsea Latimer, a backing singer for famous names like Demi Levato, spoke to Yes and Yes with advice for budding singers looking to land jobs.
“In this type of work, there’s very rarely an audition. It’s mostly about who you know and what you’ve done. In the past, like when I auditioned for Lady Gaga the audition process was a couple of days and I was invited by my former dance agent from my dancing days.
“I wore the most insane outfit I could come up with, including a bright white wig. You have to give it everything you can and know the material; I’ve learned 20+ songs in one day. Being a quick reader and going above and beyond always helps. I always try to take care of my “instrument,” my voice by resting a lot, doing vocal warm-ups and staying healthy.”
Background singer auditions
As Chelsea says, auditions are fewer in this field of music and when they do happen, they’re likely to be over a longer period of time – more of a tryout, to see if you gel with the others and if your voices blend well. So make sure you’re ‘on’ at all times. If you’re chatting in the coffee break or bumping into someone in the loos, always be pleasant and warm.
Adapting to backing singing can be a little odd at first if you’re used to auditioning and performing as a solo act. The people hiring won’t be looking for star quality jumping out at them. Rather a dependable, adaptable voice and if it’s for live gigs, the right image.
Backing vocalist jobs
You’ll find some jobs advertised publicly, whereas others – especially the good ones – will be via word of mouth. These are some of the places you can search for advertised jobs.
When you’re starting out, take all the gigs you can, in different places. You never know who may be watching, and A&R often scout for backing singers, as well as solo artists. So the higher your profile, the more chance you’ll get picked up.
The more strings you can have to your bow in this business, the better. Songwriting, instrumental and backing skills all make you more employable. And a career in singing can be wonderfully diverse, taking you to places and meeting people you never imagined. Have fun with the opportunities that come your way, but always be professional and leave your employers wanting to work with you again soon.
- Is singing a good career?
A singing career can be incredibly rewarding and in some cases well paid. But it is one of the most competitive industries. You must be committed, determined and work hard to achieve success on any level. Bear in mind there are many different jobs a singer can do, beyond just becoming a solo artist.
- What is backing in music?
This refers to the instruments, voices, beats or electronic sounds that make up the base of the track. Vocals may be added onto a pre-created backing track as is often the case with EDM, hip-hop and rap. Or the backing may be provided after the composition of the tune, to flesh out a melody line.
- What is the difference between a vocalist and a singer?
They are more or less the same thing and used interchangeably. A singer is always classed as a vocalist, whereas ‘vocalist’ rather than singer may encompass styles that are not thought of as traditional ‘singing’, like whistle register, vocal fry or vocals that blend rap and song.
Have you become a backing singer to earn more money – or would you like to. Post some links to your work in the comments, we’d love to see them.