So You Want To Be A...
...Session Musician. Jim Betteridge kicks off a new series with a frank look at the prospect of becoming a hired player
Jim Betteridge starts a new series covering various aspects of the music biz.
To some band musicians most session players are little more than high class whores, playing whatever anyone asks of them, as long as the price is right.
To others they are the musical aristocracy. Through a combination of talent, dedication and discipline, they have honed their art to the highest degree, and the slight mercenary angle only goes to increase the allure.
Becoming one of the lauded few is a notoriously difficult process. The competition is probably fiercer than most other branches of show business, and the standards are frighteningly high. There is a surprisingly small inner core of players who do the majority of the top studio work around London, and once you're established within that community it's relatively easy. The difficult bit is finding the initial entry point. Being on the books isn't really enough, you have to be fairly near the top of the list if a good living is to be had.
An important person in the professional life of a session player is the contractor or 'fixer'. This is the person responsible for actually booking the musicians, usually at the request of a producer. Isobel Griffiths of The General Bookings Company has been in such a position for a good many years. I asked her how people got on her books, and what she looks for: "It's normally by recommendation, whether from other musicians, producers or album sleeves. I do get, on average, about half-a-dozen cassettes a week, and they might all be from apparently very competent, talented players, but sending a tape in is no substitute for being able to arrive at the studio on time, get the right sound, and play what the producer wants with the right interpretation. Equally important is that you can get on with the others involved; being able to read and play well is only a very small part of it, especially on albums when you might be shut up with the same people for weeks at a time."
Playing sessions doesn't necessarily preclude playing live, but there are certain pressures that come to bear on those who rely on session work for a living. Isobel explained: "Reliability is a strong point. You can't afford to go off on tour too often, because if you're away for a few weeks, you can lose several months work, and maybe your position on the circuit. Even if you let everyone know, people will forget exactly when you're off and when you're coming back, and so they'll book someone else. New relationships can get established very quickly, and to a large degree, that's what it's all about — fitting in. It becomes risky just to take a holiday!"
Mitch Dalton is one of the busiest guitarists in London, and no stranger to those same pressures.
"It's no good simply being good, you have to be very good to keep at the top of the contractor's list. In most other professions you can be just competent, and still make a good living. You don't have to be consistently brilliant, nobody expects to feel the earth move whenever you do your work; but not so in music.
"The producer will possibly have been eating and sleeping a project for the past month, it's his baby, and he wants total commitment from you. It might be your fourth gig that day. You might have flu, think the music is rubbish, and all you want to do is go home, have some dinner and watch the telly. But when he can hear the sound of tropical rain cascading down the corrugated iron roof of some far distant native shelter, you have to be able to hear it too, and translate it into some recordable form. It's a matter of empathy, really."
It's an old cliche, but if you're considering such a career, make sure that it's because the writing and playing of music are unnegotiable requirements in your life. Predictably enough, the glamour is but a thin veneer, and if the very fact of playing isn't enough, if commercial success is a prerequisite for making it all worthwhile, you might be well advised to forget it.
Mitch: "If you really need to play, it won't matter what anybody says, or how unlikely a career it is, you'll do it anyway. But you have to be prepared to fail professionally, because almost everybody spends at least the first few years doing just that, if not the rest of their lives."
What did Mitch think about the emergency angle?
"Everybody in this business is insecure; don't believe anyone who says otherwise. If the stress of work is great, the stress of no work and a mortgage is far greater. As you get better known, it is possible to be a little discerning, but it becomes very much a job of work, and there's not always too much job satisfaction. It's ironic, but it seems that the public wants garbage music most of the time, and very often the musically most rewarding jobs just don't pay. Some of the most sought-after sessions in the business are TV spots such as the Benny Hill show. No-one could really accuse them of being particularly artistically meaningful, no matter how well arranged and executed they might be, but they get repeated year after year, possibly all over the States, and the residuals can be phenominal. For myself, I'd also happily play in the pub down the road for nothing if I liked the music; and in fact I often do."
Louis Jardin enjoys a good deal of success as a session player, on a variety of instruments. He's played an albums and singles for many big names including Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Madness and Mick Jagger. Prostitute or professional? He had this to say:
"A top producer doesn't hire someone just because they can read the dots: he wants someone who has good feel and who can suggest things that will make the track work. I've played most styles of music, and once you get inside them, they all have their appeal. Most of the work I get now is directly from producers. I very rarely get given a strictly written-out part, because they want me for what I can put in, for my ideas. It's often the talent of the session player that makes it happen, and that alone gives a degree of satisfaction."
And what of the pressures of maintaining that high position?
"Not only do you have to better than anyone else, you have to have total confidence in what you do. Everyday, when you walk in the studio, someone will ask you, 'Do you think that works? Can you suggest something?' Also, you can't be scared of the red light. When the light goes on you've got to be able to play just as well as you would in your front room. You have to deliver the goods, quickly, efficiently and it has to be new. You always have to sound slightly different to the way you sounded on the previous session, otherwise they'll recognise the line from another record. All the time you have to be up to it; it can be quite hard, and the only way to practise that is to actually do it."
Hard it may be, but a successful player can make a very good living. Working out charges can get rather complicated, but here's a breakdown of the basic MU minimum rates for phonograph recordings, and bear in mind that film and TV work can pay considerably more.
|Basic 3 hour session||£50.00|
|1st overdub||£62.50 additional|
|2nd overdub||£70.00 additional|
|Playing additional instruments|