How to Become a Session Musician & What Do Session Singers Do?
Session singing isn’t for everyone. It is demanding and, therefore, only for the cream of the singing crop. Many session singers and session musicians have their own solo careers but choose to also offer their talents for recording purposes.
How to become a session singer: Session singers are trained, skilled professional singers who are hired to provide background vocals for a lead singer. They have to learn to blend their performance with the lead singer, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.
If you have been looking at ways to earn money as a singer, you may have considered becoming a session musician. But, what does a session singer do exactly and how do you become a session singer? In this post, we provide a brief overview of how to be a session singer, the roles of a session singer and what the job entails.
What is a session singer?
The session singer definition…
Simply put, a session singer is hired on a contractual basis to provide vocals for live performances or to record their vocal on a track. A session musician is someone who does the same, but by playing an instrument – although singers are often described in a general sense as musicians too. Particularly if you sing and play, the terms crossover.
Typically, session singers have no continuing contract with record companies or labels but are employed on a session-by-session basis hence the term. That may take the form of a short term contract though. If this is the case, you will be given a document to read and sign.
In modern-day terms, session singers are effectively freelance vocalists whose work in recording studios and for live performances, makes up a large proportion of their income (if not all of their income).
What does a session singer do?
As a session singer, there is a variety of opportunities available. You will work at different times of the day and night – depending on whether your work is live or recorded. Some sessions singers will specialise in one or the other, landing repeat work with an organisation, producer, label, or venue.
Session singing covers all genres of music. If you’re singing backup, you’ll likely be harmonising a good deal and will need a good ear to pick up the notes quickly – especially if in the recording studio, last minute changes are being made. You’ll be expected to keep up and handle anything that’s thrown at you.
Lead or backing vocals
To start with, you will be contracted to sing either lead or back up vocals.
When starting out, don’t turn your nose up at offers to sing backing vocals; many big names, including Elton John and Whitney Houston, started out doing just that. It’s a great foot in the door, giving you access to network with valuable contacts, experience and of course, money.
Session vocalist jobs
Range of contracts
The kind of projects a session singer can be hired for can vary widely. Here are some examples:
- Jingles for television commercials
- Radio station jingles & idents
- Demo songs
- Pre-recorded backing vocals for live shows — solo or harmonies
- Lead or backing vocals for an artist’s track or album
- Live performance backing vocals
- Vocals for film or TV soundtracks
Some of these may not seem very creatively exciting if you had visions of making your own music as a trailblazer. But bear in mind that lucrative work like radio jingles will support you financially so that you can devote time to unpaid (in the short term) projects, such as songwriting.
And if you do write your own music, why not incorporate that into your offer. You can provide a complete package by performing and imagining the advert, jingle, demo or harmony needed.
Famous session singers and session musicians
You’re unlikely to achieve fame just by being a session singer or session musician. But if you want a long term career in the music industry, this is a great route to follow. It may not be as starry as being a leading solo artist, but there is more opportunity for jobbing singers and musicians in this field. That said, it is still – as is any job in the arts – fiercely competitive, so you’ll need to be on top of your game.
The occasional session singer does make it big. Country singing legend Glen Campbell (of ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ fame) was a session musician for music legend Phil Spector.
Glen Campbell was a part of the famous LA session musicians: The Wrecking Crew. The group garnered such interest, a film was made about them in 2008.
Dido also began her career as a session singer. She sang backup vocals for her brother Rollo’s successful band Faithless. She then sang as a session singer across the USA in clubs and restaurants. After Here With Me was picked up, she landed her big break singing alongside Eminem, and with that, left her days as a session singer behind.
It’s not always the case that session singing comes before a solo career. Singer-songwriter and multi instrumentalist Sam Brown, had a big hit with Stop in the late 80s. She went on to be a lead vocalist on tour with Jools Holland, as a session musician. Sam is now an in-demand ukulele teacher, proving that a career in music can make many turns in all different directions.
Whitney Houston (and her mum)
Both Whitey, and her mother Cissy Houston worked as session singers. It’s said that Cissy was working right up to her waters breaking. Whitney was therefore born into a life of music and sang gospel and soul, before embarking on her stratospheric solo career.
Carrie and David Grant
Vocal coach super couple Carrie and David Grant are famous for their TV appearances on shows like X-Factor Fame Academy and Pop Idol, as well as many other shows. These days they are the go-to vocal coaches for media comment on singing and singers. Both made their mark first, as among the top session singers in the UK. Between them, they’ve provided backing vocals for the likes of Diana Ross, Rod Stewart, Rick Astley, Lighthouse Family, Fatboy Slim, Take That and many more.
If you’ve seen the film Rocketman, you’ll know that British pop legend Sir Elton John, started out as a session musician. Initially, he played the piano backing bands on tour, before starting to pick up work singing too. Soon after he began recording his own music, and the rest is history.
And remember, you may not become famous as a session singer, but, like these successful session musicians, you might meet some of the most famous pop and rock icons in the course of your work. The session singers we’ve talked about here have also diversified into career avenues beyond session singing. So once you’re in the business, look out for the other opportunities that may open up along the way.
Is session singing right for you?
Now you have seen what a session singer does, you will likely agree that session singing can be a gateway to a successful solo career. But it is also a fulfilling and demanding career in its own right. So, what types of skills and qualities does a good session singer need to have?
So much of the time, you don’t even know what you are going to be asked to do, so you show up, your working with somebody or a team of people and they will require things of you that you will need to be able to deliver. Kim Chandler, vocal coach and session singer
What skills does a session musician need and do session musicians have to read music?
#1 Technical ability
Technical prowess is a must. It goes without saying that first and foremost, a good session singer needs to be able to sing and sing well.
Can you sight-read music? Can you hear a full harmony arrangement by ear? This could be advantageous and sometimes you will be expected to do both of these — and quickly — since time in a recording studio is money.
You’ll need to be accurate with your pitching and tight with your blending: a session singer can’t afford multiple takes when recording.
Bear in mind that executives (or artists) are paying a lot of money for the studio time. So any mistakes you make, lengthening the recording process, is literally costing them cash. A great way to get hired frequently is to be a consummate professional. Always show up in plenty of time, with everything you need and try your hardest to get it right (even if that means spending your breaks studying the dots).
As a session singer, you’ll need to demonstrate your reliability on a number of different levels.
Reliability in communication, availability, time-keeping and technical ability.
You’ll also need to sing consistently throughout every recording session; a working day for a session singer can be long and repetitive.
Also, you may be asked to sing an entire album’s worth of backing vocals in a single sitting. For which, you will need to learn lyrics and practice in advance of the session.
#3 Versatility and patience
Often a producer won’t know what sound they’re looking for until they hear it. As a session singer, it is often your job to sing the same lines in a range of different styles until you hit the nail on the head. And the more styles you can cover, the more work you can apply for.
Think of Charlotte Church – she has an operatic voice but has recorded many pop songs. If necessary, work with a coach to widen your repertoire and versatility of sound.
No matter how bored or tired you are, you need to sound fresh. Patience is a virtue for a session singer. You may find yourself hanging around for long periods. So take a good book for the green room, or develop and practice of mindfulness.
Which leads us on to the energy of the performance in general. It’s important, as a session singer, that you warm up your voice before recording begins so that you are able to match the emotion of the song.
If your vocals are going to be used as backing for a live performance, ask yourself “Are my studio recorded vocals going to match the energy of a live show?”. This is often a stumbling block for session singers since the environment in a recording studio is very different from a crowd-fuelled performance. Use visualisation to imagine you’re in front of an audience.
#5 Experience and resilience
A large proportion of time as a session singer is spent in recording studios, therefore, if you are tempted by starting out as a session singer it is wise to get as much studio experience as possible.
Clearly, not all singers are suited to the high expectations of session singing, which involves an awful lot of high-pressured scrutiny of their vocals as well as a significant level of perfectionism and self-discipline.
While becoming a session singer should not be considered an easy job or easy money, for the right person it can be very rewarding and could lead to future opportunities.
Session musician salary UK and session singer rates
While you may have to spend some time working for no money *sigh*, before long, with a good CV of session work, you should start picking up paid gigs. It’s almost impossible to predict what you’ll earn in this field. The website Payscale estimates that the average pay for a musician or singer is a little over £29,000 per annum.
Multi-instrumentalists will usually earn more than single instrumentalists and singers, so if you play in demand and niche instruments, you could be earning around £100 per hour.
The Musicians Union publishes a guide for rates and fees, although actual rates on jobs will differ widely.
Session musicians don’t get a salary, as even if the work is regular and ongoing, it is still given on a short term basis, and employers are under no obligation to keep you on. The rates vary according to the job in question and you won’t usually be entitled to things like a holiday or sick pay.
As a freelancer, you are your own small business. Even if you have an agent, you’ll need to market yourself and treat your work as your enterprise. In terms of tax, that’s how HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) will see you too – as a sole trader. You’ll need to fill in annual tax returns or hire an accountant to do it for you if you’re paid as a session singer.
Sessions singers for hire – landing singing jobs
So how do you go about getting that work in the first place? If you think you may have what it takes to be a successful session singer, here are some tips to help you become a professional session singer:
Session musician agency
Agents will do much of the hard work for you, and have access to contacts that you don’t. Additionally, they’ll negotiate your rates, check your contracts and give you guidance. The downside is that they take a cut, but it’s a small price to pay for their expertise.
Getting an agent can be tricky though. It’s hard to get an agent without a body of work on your CV. And it’s hard to land work without an agent helping you. But session musician agents are always on the lookout good quality talent on whom they can rely (because it’s their reputation on the line too when they send you to a job if you mess up, that client may not make offers to their other musicians again in a hurry).
Agents need you to work so they can make a living. It’s worth doing your research as to who the good ones are in your genre of music and approaching them directly. Include a showreel, demos and a marketing pack. If you get a meeting, get there a bit early and dress smartly but appropriately for the area of music which you wish to cover.
Create a captivating promo pack or EPK
When looking for work as a session singer, the first thing you will be asked for by a prospective contractor is your “promo pack”. This needs to be slick and professional.
What you should include in your session singer’s promo pack:
Photographs are essential if you are at all interested in recording live as a session singer. The photos you choose should be professional and flattering but should not misrepresent you.
Look at other artists photos and find out which photographers took the ones you like best. Ask friends and search singers’ forums for local recommendations and choose a photographer who specialises in headshots for singers.
Your photographer will talk you through the process and book in the session, after which you’ll be given a large number of photos to choose from. They will likely recommend which ones are the best to use for your professional promo pack.
Choose a headshot that you feel shows you at your best and embodies your style as a singer. If you want to keep your options open in terms of your musical genre as a session singer, choose something more neutral and less stylised.
Some agencies may also request full-length shots, so get some of these too, to save having to pay for another session further down the line.
Your biography should be a well-written summary of your relevant achievements to date. If you’re not much of a wordsmith, get a friend or family member to help you out. It must read well and come across as professional – so no spelling or grammar errors. If you have a budget that allows, you may want to hire a writer to assist.
Ensure your most impressive accomplishments are described first and use sub-headings to lay out your different singing experiences clearly.
If you are particularly specialised in one musical style or are truly versatile, it is worthwhile including this in your bio.
Finally, you’ll need a demo tape that showcases your best work. It should back up your biography by putting into practise the talents, range or versatility you have outlined.
Many videography companies have special offers on showreels. You can also do much yourself with editing software. Or you could ask a film student to help you out for a small fee.
Before submitting your showreel to any prospective employers, it is always helpful to have an outsider’s opinion. Ask someone you trust, to be honest, to listen to it and be prepared to make any suggested improvements.
Accumulate studio experience as a backup singer
For someone starting out as a session singer, studio experience is the first practical step.
Spend as much time as you’re able in the recording studio and, initially at least, be prepared to work for free.
Reach out to any contacts you have that might be able to help out. If you don’t have any, then aim to make contacts: source relevant people online and offer your support.
Contacting fledgling songwriters who might need vocals on a demo tape may help you to get a foot in the door — aside from the needed vocal skills, they may find you are useful when recording as you are likely the first singer to interpret the lyrics.
How to become a freelance singer: Build your reputation
The more experience you get under your belt, the better your reputation will be. Your reputation is the single most important asset that will help you to get paid work, so it is worth ensuring you are competent and reliable at all times. While famous artists may get away with diva-like behaviour, this will not wash as a session singer or starter level working freelance singer.
Producers often rely on word of mouth when booking new session singers, so time spent networking (visiting gigs, music/networking events etc.) and cultivating your professional persona is time well spent — be prepared to work hard for your first paid session.
We’ve already mentioned that Dido got a foot in the door by working on her brother’s album. Do you know anyone in the industry who might need the services of a session singer? If so, ask if you can audition. Personal contacts are a great way to get into the industry.
Placing a classified advertisement in music industry publications is a good place to start and, of course, there are online music sites that will allow you to advertise your services for free. Having your own website, if built and managed properly, is another great way to get your name out there too.
Do google searches to look for adverts saying things like:
- Jingle singers wanted
- Backing vocalist jobs
- Session musicians wanted
- Singing jobs
Always carry business cards with you to avoid missing out on an opportunity that comes when you are least expecting it. Business cards help you to appear professional and can be especially useful if you frequent musical events. They are also inexpensive – even for a great looking card. Business cards can be designed and ordered online through various companies like Moo.
Also, you may want to contact recording studios to see if they hire session singers or hold a bank of people that they employ “in house”. Put your name down and you never know, you may get a call when one of their regular session singers gets sick or can’t make a recording.
For live session gigs, contact local restaurants and clubs to see if they need any session musicians (and persuade them they do, if it’s not currently part of their event programme!).
How to be a session bassist
If you play a instrument that isn’t usually used for solo music making, such as a bass guitar, a career as a session musician is ideal. You might want to partner up with other session musicians and form a supergroup like The Wrecking Crew. This enables you to find live session groups as a full band.
Most of the same rules apply to a session musician, as a session singer. Again, it’s all about reliability, dependability and technical ability. It helps if you’re likeable and easy to get on with too.
Here are some top tips on how to become a session bassist, from those who are successful in the field.
Final advice on how to be a session singer
Once you break into session singing, you’ll likely be employed over and over again. Producers and artists like to work with familiar, reliable session musicians, so make a good name for yourself, work hard, work your way up the industry ladder and you’ll become a session singer who’s in demand. It can be a small world too, so word will spread about you.
Become a session singer and you can have a long career in the music industry with a steady stream of work and a good living. Plus you never know where your adventures as a session singer will take you next.
- Are sessions musicians entitled to royalties?
If the album or single you’ve worked on has been registered with PPL (the UK music licensing company), then you will automatically receive a share of the royalties. However, different rules apply to the streaming of music at the moment. Check your contract before signing for the details and terms.
- How can I get paid to sing?
There are so many more opportunities for paid singing work other than being a pop singer. Weddings, funerals, parties, care homes, and restaurants all offer a steady income for singers – but you’ll have to spend some time marketing yourself to clients.
- How much do background singers get paid and how much does a session musician make?
This will vary dramatically depending on who you’re working for and whether it’s an official contract. In the arts, unpaid jobs are often advertised too. The Musicians Union publishes casual contracted rates, but in reality, the take home can be much more (if you’re backing a big name) or much less.
Do you work as a session singer? How did you get your first gig and what’s your advice for newbies on how to become a session singer? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!