Being A Session Guitarist. Part 2: It's Time To Get Paid

You got the skill, you got the expereince, now it's time to get paid.

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Money is a very touchy subject when it comes to musicians at all levels. It's the way some of us will define success, it's broken up some of our favorite bands, brought bands back together, and in some cases has changed how we view our favorite artists/bands completely hell some people in this business have been killed over it. So if you're completely anti-money then this particular column is not for you.

So you've been doing session stuff for a while, for friends maybe or you've even lucked out and hooked up with a few other artists or two, you wake up one morning and say You know if I asked for money I could quit my crappy job and play music all day, but I wouldn't know the first thing about what to do. I'm not a seasoned vet when it comes to this stuff but with no one to guide me I've had to learn a lot of things about the music business the hard way. Hopefully this can help someone else that is considering trying their had at this.

Find Out How Good You Are

I know this may seem like a no brainier to some folks but some people haven't a clue how good of a guitarist they actually are. Like so many of the bad singers on American Idol some players are walking around thinking they're the next Hendrix when it's really not the case and even worse there are some great guitarists out there who think they're playing is crap. How can you possibly solve this? Well the simplest things I can think of is number one finding some good and different musicians to jam with if you can keep up with them you're probably good, if they turn their faces up like something smells bad chances are you still have a ways to go. The second thing would be to either get to know some studio musicians or buy some records in all different genres and see if you can keep up with the guitar playing, if you can then you're probably alright.

Know The Market

Try to get an idea of how much the best guitarist in your area gets paid for a session. If you're good and you're living In New York or LA the rates for studio guys will be better than say if you live in Boise Idaho. When you begin to figure out what your rate is going to be it's good to know what the top dog is being paid. You don't want to live in Idaho and charge New York Prices, if you can warrant New York prices you wouldn't be in Idaho. One thing I can tell you is that the best rates are in cities where music is produced for major labels, New York, LA, Atlanta, Nashville, etc.

I know I mentioned this before but it's also important to know what genres are big in your particular area. I live in Philadelphia and the biggest genres for original music are Punk, Hardcore, Jazz, Folk, Hip-Hop, R&B, Singer/Songwriter, Pop, and Soul. Most Punk and Hardcore (which I love to play) acts in this area are bands so there's normally not a lot of work in that area. Generally the work is going to come from solo artists who need musicians to play on their stuff. That usually ends up being Folk, Hip-Hop, R&B, Singer/Songwriter, Pop and Soul. Basically at the moment I've been getting work in the R&B and Soul Scene here, a lot of them are looking for a Rock edge to add to their music. Tomorrow it could be something else they're looking for but right now I'm working pretty steadily. Paying attention to trends is always important.

Know What You Want To Do

I try to do as many different sessions as it relates to genre as I can, I just think it's better to be versatile because there's more money for me that way but that might necessarily be for everyone. If you want to do all different kinds of music that's fine if you want to focus on one or two things specifically that's cool too because truthfully there may only be one or two genres of music that are prevalent in your area and you may want to make that your main focus.

It's also important to decide exactly how much you want to work. Do you want to be constantly in the studio or do you only want to work three to four times a year. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. You make more money if you do more work but you can also saturate the market with your sound. When everybody has you on his or her tracks you run the risk of becoming pass and if you're not that versatile of a player you can find yourself out of work. It's also important, especially for people that are in bands, to figure out how important doing these sessions are to you. If you are a good guitarist you're going to get a lot of work and that work could take a lot of time away from your band I've seen some guitarists be kicked out of their bands over stuff like this.

Build The Right Image

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. You want to project an image of a musician that's on time, prepared, and easy to work with. Everyone that does this stuff talks to each other and if you show up to someone's session an hour late reeking of booze and weed chances are you're not going to get hired much. If the guys at the studio are into booze and weed it will be at the studio and if they want you to partake they'll let you know, and if that's the case try to get your work done first before drinking or sparking.

Know Your Worth

All the previous things I talked about contribute to the most important thing when it comes to money. You have to have a concrete idea of how much you're worth. Know that the people hiring you want to pay you as little as possible. Think about how good you are, how much money is actually out there, then factor in whether or not you have to drive there and pay for gas, do you have to lug an amp to the session, how long you have to be there etc. I'm of the mind that the more work you have to do in order to do the session the more you should be paid. Also understand that a lot of people trying to do this stuff are struggling music types just like you, so keep that in mind before you charge them 1000 dollars for a session.

Last time I checked (which was a ways back) the standard union rate for a studio musician was like $370 an hour that could have changed. Generally I charge on a sliding scale depending on the type of budget a client is working with, usually around 30-250 an hour with a five hour minimum (meaning you will be paid for five hours work whether it takes five hours or 20 minutes after five hours your hourly rate applies) to do the session that must be paid on arrival unless there is some sort of written agreement between the two of us which is generally the best way to go. Contracts prevent you from being screwed. Be willing to work with people but make them understand that you are skilled and skill doesn't come cheap. You're least likely to have your time wasted this way.

Never Do Something For Nothing

People take advantage of musicians especially young ones who are hungry and love music. They have you bust your ass to get to their spot, work you for 12 hours, say thank you, and send you home. It doesn't necessarily have to be money, especially in the beginning, if your fine with being paid in booze and pizza that's cool (it gets old after a while) if he can put you in a good position in the music industry, fine, give them a discount, or even if they're willing to give you free studio time in exchange for your efforts that's great, but don't walk away from the table without getting something for your efforts. Nothing in this world is free especially not your creativity and skill.

Beware Of Bullshit Artists

A lot of the time when someone contacts you about playing on their sessions they want to get you in and have you play for as little as possible and if they want to pay you next to nothing or have you work for free they lure you to their spot to jam and hang out then they spin you a tale about how in five years they're going to be big time and when they are you're going to be the guy they use on their big time sessions. Young and hungry musicians fall for this all of the time, don't be fooled, they want free labor and if they do make it big it's likely they will find a high priced studio musician to do their session because they can afford it. More often than not you're wasting your time. Look at it this way; if they can't afford you they're not ready to have a good quality musician play on their sessions.

Even worse there are folks who have the money and still don't want to pay you. They prey on that rock and roll philosophy You should play because you love it not for the money or I thought you loved music or I thought you were cool I didn't think you'd be so greedy and again if you're young and/or hungry you fall for it and sometimes even proud that you didn't sell out not only has he got your services for free he plans to press that CD up and sell it and not cut you in. These folks are preying on your dreams; always walk into a session prepared to walk away.

This is why knowing your worth and what your rates are is necessary. If you right away say, I'd love to work with you, my rates are it keeps a lot of this nonsense out of your life.

Get It In Writing

If you can get an agreement in writing, that way if someone tries to jerk you around you can settle the matter in court if you have to. A lot of people seem trustworthy in this business and most of them are. But there are some pricks that agree to your terms and will string you along until you give up. Be very careful about who you do business with and never leave a session without your money or something in writing saying that you will get your money by a certain date.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. We all have musician friends we do solids for and generally they do solids for us. You may meet an artist you believe in so much that you're willing to work for next to nothing just to be a part of the situation but those cases should be few and far between, every artist isn't special, every artist isn't going to make it, so be very careful when it comes to charity. For those of you who are thinking about doing this I hope this helps you not to make some of the same mistakes so may musicians in general make (including myself) at a very young age when they're hungry and just want to play.

36 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Cal UK
    Good article. I never thought about the monetary issues session musicians have.
    coulter_goldtop
    this was a very good article, i've been thinking about becoming a session guitarist myself, and this gave me a lot of usefull information that i will most definately use and remember
    the spiker
    You wana get paid for playing? I suggest making a demo cd. and let tons of prospects listen to it.
    Wolfhound
    If you don't get paid to play guitar you have to work at a crappy job to feed yourself. You can keep the honesty in your own music and write the best songs you can, but still feed yourself by playing guitar on other peoples songs. Thats no sell out.
    DoctorFu
    vanhalenrule wrote: you shouldn't have to play for money OR enjoyment, why not both? i mean, its not one or the other. you get paid and enjoy yourself at the same time, whats the preoblem with that, as long as your goal isnt JUST to make money
    Well said, I also strongly agree with Wolfhound.
    hoobariffer87
    If you don't get paid to play guitar you have to work at a crappy job to feed yourself. You can keep the honesty in your own music and write the best songs you can, but still feed yourself by playing guitar on other peoples songs. Thats no sell out.
    Exactly. If you're a carpenter, does that mean that you'll only build beautiful furniture for yourself and never once do a few basic cabinets for money? Art has its practical applications. Most people who say that session guitarists are sell-outs are probably just angry that they aren't good enough to be making money playing.
    ArcherTheVMan
    cool. who in the world is anti-money? i mean i do it because i love it but i still like making a living out of it.
    authoritarian
    10 stars - without doubht. I'm not a session player, but hey I'm might just start now that I've read this! Good article - keep 'em coming!
    Mahavishnu80
    I used to be anti 'selling out' and playing for money when i was a teenager. This is total bullshit. I worked in shit jobs and was in original bands at night slogging it out-not putting effort in because i was so tired from grafting 9-5. Now i teach music, do session work for shows/solo artists/bands, and play covers gigs for money. I still play in my own band and write solo stuff-it means i am always doing what i love and i dont have some ***** being a slave driver!.
    auranos
    I'm probably not session musician material but this was an educating read. Future career musicians, pay attention!
    2mins2midnite
    im thinking of becoming a session guitarist, due to no bands to my taste i want to join is in my area lol very good article
    vanhalenrule
    you shouldn't have to play for money OR enjoyment, why not both? i mean, its not one or the other. you get paid and enjoy yourself at the same time, whats the preoblem with that, as long as your goal isnt JUST to make money
    elmolikepie
    if they can?t afford you they?re not ready to have a good quality musician play on their sessions.
    Im sorry but no matter how good this guy is hes screaming sell out from the top of his lungs, this whole article is about playing for money not enjoyment. How much money a band has is totally unrelated to how good musicians they are and chances are if there half decent they wont need some guy theyve never met to play on their album. The second your in it for the money just put down your guitar and never even think about playing it again.
    scottishmob
    Wow.... You sound very experienced (what a nice change, huh!?). Thanks for the info, really got me to thinking.
    JB2500
    i got asked recently to play lead in a local covers band, 12 shows a month at upto 500 a show. I never thought about it going tits up until i read this. good article.
    BLACKRAVEN
    bullshit artists... so very true... i have had my own time wasted by them on very many occasions. good article though, one thing u are missing is label deals... i dunno maby u were getting to that later but its basically a way of being a contracted session musician with a set pay and u make money on top of that for each track u write or record with an artist band or executive. all good stuff man peace out RAVEN
    Craigo
    7/10. Original, well written, but everything tedned to lead back to the same point and you didn't have a large spand of ideas. Originallity and effort makes up for it though. Well done.
    frigginjerk
    good one. i can't tell if the website cut out half the punctuation or not, but it was totally readable. Got me thinking that i'll have to start working studios in a few years if i can
    Eric 666
    *Copies and pastes and saves* great article...gives some awareness to people
    joshblues21
    emolikepie wrote: Im sorry but no matter how good this guy is hes screaming sell out from the top of his lungs, this whole article is about playing for money not enjoyment. How much money a band has is totally unrelated to how good musicians they are and chances are if there half decent they wont need some guy theyve never met to play on their album. The second your in it for the money just put down your guitar and never even think about playing it again.
    Dude, you act like people are just going to sit and play for free after spending years developing thier skills. This article was about making money at your passion, not your passion bieng money. If you do it just for the music, you won't have a guitar after a couple years.
    Rivers
    elmolikepie wrote: if they can?t afford you they?re not ready to have a good quality musician play on their sessions. Im sorry but no matter how good this guy is hes screaming sell out from the top of his lungs, this whole article is about playing for money not enjoyment. How much money a band has is totally unrelated to how good musicians they are and chances are if there half decent they wont need some guy theyve never met to play on their album. The second your in it for the money just put down your guitar and never even think about playing it again.
    This article is about being a session guitarist not an independent artist with your own dream and creative vision for how the music should be, sure ideally we could all play for free and still live happily ever after but in reality if you really love music so much that you are going to dedicate your life to it you have to be able to make some sort of a living at the same time.
    Arkane
    you know, its possible to play for enjoyment and money, and the enjoyment of making money of something you love to do. Why the **** would it be selling out? As soon as money comes into the picture i guess its selling out....****ing people...
    Wiseman71901
    elmolikepie wrote: if they can?t afford you they?re not ready to have a good quality musician play on their sessions. Im sorry but no matter how good this guy is hes screaming sell out from the top of his lungs, this whole article is about playing for money not enjoyment. How much money a band has is totally unrelated to how good musicians they are and chances are if there half decent they wont need some guy theyve never met to play on their album. The second your in it for the money just put down your guitar and never even think about playing it again.
    Okay man, you are one of the people he was talking about when he spoke of knuckleheads whining about a man asking for money for his time and work. Hell, I love music as much as the next man, but I have bills to pay and shit to buy for my girl. if you don't ask for money, and go around just playing your heart out, you're getting walked on. Every big musician you see asked for money, that's why they're big. The point is that you can love music with all your heart, but still be objective and intelligent about your career side. How old are you by the way? have you ever had to pay your own bills yet? Maybe if youre young, you just need to experience that side of it before you understand.