If you want to find out how to get work as a session musician, you’re about to learn from some of the best. We speak to a series of artists to get their top tips.
Harry Mead, drummer and percussionist
Harry has worked as a session musician since 2007, performing in the UK, Russia, USA and Asia.
He has performed live on the BBC, ITV and BBC 6Music. He’s also performed at such iconic live venues as Madison Square Garden, The Wiltern theatre in Los Angeles and Moscow’s Olympic Stadium.
His festival appearances include Glastonbury, Isle of Wight Festival and The Great Escape, while he’s also toured with David Gray.
You get the idea. Harry has been there and done that. We get his top tips on how to build a career as a session musician.
How did you go about finding work as a session musician initially and what did you learn in the first few months?
I grew up in a musical family. My grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts were either musicians or involved in the music industry. This meant we always had music and musicians in our house.
I started playing in bands with my brother when we were at school. In my late teens, our parents ran a small indie label with a few artists and bands on the roster, which meant we could tag along to gigs. I think our parents and some of the artists noticed we were interested and enthusiastic to get involved.
One of the artists on the roster was doing a few low-key acoustic gigs and didn’t have a band, so asked if we wanted to join. The other band members were seasoned players and we were fresh faced 17-year-olds, so he was taking a punt on us joining. It was a fantastic experience and my first taste of being paid as a session player.
Around this time, we were booking ourselves gigs in different parts of London. Our goal was to just get out and play as much as possible. In doing so, we got to know a lot of other musicians, promoters and managers. We quickly learnt that the world of music is pretty small and everyone is connected in some way. There’s a very social aspect to the job and the more you’re out and about, the more your network grows.
Finding work was and still is difficult at times. Things take time to develop and tend to happen slowly. It takes preparation and practice. All my major work started with two or three people – often, a chance meeting creates a string of opportunities.
From your experience, what are the most useful avenues for session musicians?
Going to the gig of a band or artist you really like is a great potential avenue. If I saw a band or artist whose music I was into, I’d have a chat with them after the gig. I’d follow it up with a message letting them know that I really liked what they did and if they were ever looking for a drummer, I’d love to throw my name in the hat.
It’s obviously essential to like the artist’s music. I wasn’t just engaging with these artists because I was hustling for the next gig – there’s no point if you’re not going to like what you’re playing!
I also contacted various session bookers and agents and went to a few open auditions. I never got the gigs, but I met other musicians along the way. You’d often be in a waiting room with 5 to 10 other guys and everyone would just have a chat!
A lot of my friends are musicians or in the industry and we hang out in everyday life. We regularly chat and let each another know when we’re in town. Our interactions are based on genuine friendships that take time to develop – I don’t think there’s a shortcut for that.
Another avenue that was very useful was getting a job as an assistant in a producer management company. Moving sideways and doing something music-related while continuing to play helped my career massively. Not only did it mean a regular income, it also meant that I had daily interactions with management, artist and labels, while also making new friends.
My network grew massively and I learnt a huge amount about processes, politics, financing and planning within labels and management. It led to several gigs being put my way by people I’d met while working there.
What advice do you have for other musicians looking to make a career out of session work?
I can only speak from personal experience, but here are some of my rules to live by.
Firstly, be a good person. Secondly, get into it for the right reasons. Do it because you love music and love making music. It can be a challenging job in many ways, with real ups and downs, especially financially. You really need a deep fire and passion for it, as this will drive you and pull you through.
Pay your dues and get experience. Buy a crap van, sleep on floors and play dodgy gigs. Every great musician I know has been there and done that. There’s no substitute for experience.
It’s during those gigs to three people at Water Rats on a Tuesday where you’ll learn to do what you do. Not only does it give you a greater appreciation for when things get better, but you’ll know what to do when something goes wrong in front of thousands of people – it will happen at some point.
Here are some other pointers I would give:
- Develop your own sound and identity on the instrument.
- Find people who challenge you and inspire you.
- Be punctual. Don’t make yourself someone else’s problem or responsibility.
- Know your worth. Be flexible, but don’t undersell yourself. Do not undercut other people – you’re only shooting yourself in the foot.
- Make yourself as indispensable as possible and be multitalented. You could learn to sing, program keyboards or run computers. You’ll often be hired based on what else you can bring to a project.
- Take initiative and be enthusiastic.
- Watch and listen.
- Work hard.
- Learn to communicate – foresight, empathy and a cool head go a long way.
- Always learn the names of the front of house engineer and in-house crew.
- Put money aside for tax.
Fraser MacColl, guitarist and musical director
Fraser has been a session musician for 13 years. Since 2014, He’s completed four world tours with the neo-soul group Jungle (here he is playing live with the band – he comes in at 40 seconds).
He’s performed live on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Late Night with Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Jools Holland.
He’s also worked with Dua Lipa, Martin Garrix and Bombay Bicycle Club, among others, as well as labels XL Recordings, Sony, Warner and Universal Records.
Not a bad CV, we think you’ll agree. Here’s what Fraser had to say about being a session musician.
Being a session musician is not your typical 9 to 5 job that you see advertised on Google. Is it therefore a case of having a good network of contacts and being flexible around timings?
In terms of acquiring work, from my experience, this has never come from Google adverts, LinkedIn or other popular employment sites.
As a musical director, I may receive a call from an artist, manager, producer or A&R rep based on word of mouth or my affiliation with another project. Ultimately, a potential employer wants to know that you’re a safe pair of hands and that you can get the job done on time and on budget, whilst being a pleasure to work with.
I agree that certain aspects of a session musician’s work don’t fit the mould of your typical 9 to 5 job.
Firstly, as a self-employed professional, your work and life are intrinsically intertwined, so it can be hard to leave the “office”. Time management is something you learn out of necessity.
Secondly, many concerts take weeks or months of preparation. On the day, depending on your role and the type of event, you may be required onsite at 7am and not leave until 2am! Unless you’re working to a consistent touring schedule, no two days are the same.
Following on from the previous question, how big a role does networking play and what advice do you have for other session musicians in this area?
Networking plays a large role, however it’s a learned skill – one of which everyone has their own version.
How you behave will ultimately dictate the sort of gigs you’ll get, if any. I believe that, as a musical director, my primary role is to support the artist and their vision and conduct myself accordingly.
Yes, I have my own style and taste, which do inform my choices. However, I’m not a salesman pushing my own agenda. Whether it’s a formal event or casual hangout, it’s important to be present, reactive, positive and the most honest version of yourself, while always being respectful and mindful of the artist or host.
Which digital platforms do you find to be the most effective in terms of finding work?
As with any business, it’s essential to have an online presence.
I use both Instagram and Squarespace for self-promotion. I don’t think I’ve ever been employed directly through Instagram or Squarespace but being active on both means that, should someone go looking, they can easily find up-to-date information about me.
For the last six years, I’ve been incredibly lucky to tour worldwide on a full-time basis. I’ve wanted to be entirely immersed, present and committed to those projects. Instagram, as it’s on your phone, is a symbiotic, fluid tool that allows for an online translation of real-life events.
How do you go about curating different setlists and how important is an extensive portfolio to being a successful session musician?
In any situation, whether I’m touring with an artist or playing a covers show, setlist curation can be the difference between a great gig and a disaster!
Firstly, you have to ask yourself, what’s the point of this show? Are we promoting a single or an album? Are we playing a corporate show where no one cares, or are we playing a wedding where everyone wants to get loose and have a great time?
Ultimately, you’re there to entertain, so it’s important to be malleable and reactive to the audience.
Depending on the artist, you may tour with the same set for 18 months straight. As a musician, this can become frustrating and the desire to embellish or change will creep in as a means of keeping things fresh and challenging.
You don’t want to give a paying audience the impression you’re bored and frustrated. It’s important to remember that, although this may be your 240th show and it’s a rainy Tuesday in the middle of nowhere, it might be the audience’s first experience of you, so you’d better make it a good one!
Eleri Angharad, singer-songwriter and guitarist
Eleri is a country artist from Swansea, South Wales who embarked on her first UK tour and two European tours in 2019.
She has previously performed in Nashville, Chicago and New York, and has been featured on BBC Introducing, Radio Cymru and BBC 6Music.
As someone who has extensive experience of working alongside session musicians and has undertaken various session jobs herself over the years, Eleri is the perfect person to ask how to get work as a session musician. Here’s what she had to say…
You’ve travelled frequently during your career, through which you started to become more recognised. What role does travelling play in getting work?
It’s important to explore new environments and let people know that you’re able to travel. My tour included dates in Manchester, Brighton, York and London, which enabled me to reach completely different audiences.
A lot of musicians I know will perform at gigs that are up to three hours from where they live and they’re the ones who consistently get the work.
I’ve found from experience that, the more you get out of your comfort zone, the more likely you are to reach people. These people might not necessarily be trying to find musicians, but they could see value in your music.
For example, last year I played at Cardiff Airport for Welsh Language Music Day. It was such an interesting experience because you find audiences who aren’t necessarily going to go to live music venues to seek out new music.
As someone who specialises in different styles of music, how important is adaptability and open-mindedness in being a session musician?
Through working with session musicians on my own recordings, I’ve witnessed first-hand just how multitalented and adaptable they are. People who are in rock bands have played country tracks with me and, if you’d seen them play live, you wouldn’t have known they specialised in a genre.
I’ve also sung pop songs at a wedding that I wouldn’t necessarily write myself, but it’s all about being open to the different styles of music people are in to. The more styles you learn, the more adaptable and therefore employable you’ll become.
As an artist, you’ve also got more inspiration to draw from if you learn different genres, so it can be very useful from a creative perspective.
What about personality and work ethic? What role do they play in a musician’s progression?
Personality is important in every detail of how you interact with someone, from how you speak via social media, right down to how you write emails. Being personable and getting your personality across helps to build trust, which is vital because most of your clients are encountering you for the first time.
I performed at a wedding recently as part of one the speeches and the father of the bride wanted to meet me and chat to me. Speaking face-to-face with him was really important for building up a professional relationship prior to the special day.
What advice do you have for session musicians in terms of learning set lists?
Knowing the songs inside out is really helpful for all musicians, but especially if you’re a session musician who’s part of a band because you have to make sure you’re all on the same page. Poor preparation will lead to poor performances, which will limit the amount of work you’re able to get in the long run.
I stood in for a band’s singer once, at the very last minute. I’d never played with the band before but I thought that, because I knew their songs and their setlist, everything would be fine. However, I didn’t know their songs as well as I thought I did. It boiled down to little details like how many bars there were between each verse. It was pretty stressful because we hadn’t had any time to rehearse.
When I’m playing solo gigs, I can adapt certain bits of the song if I’m unsure, which I often do if I get requests, and it’s quite seamless. But when you’re in a band, you can’t get away with that because it throws you out of sync with everyone else.
Thanks to everyone who contributed to this article. Here’s a recap of their top tips…
- Network with as many other musicians as possible
- Contact venue promoters and agents
- Be a people person
- Be patient and prepared to work
- Be flexible with your routine
- Develop your own sound and identity
- Draw inspiration from different musical styles
- Have an online presence
- Put money aside for tax
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