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

date: 06/14/2006 category: features
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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.
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