What Is a Session Musician?

Definition & Examples of Session Musicians

Man playing guitar in a recording studio during a musical recording
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A session musician plays as a backing instrumentalist for another artist or band on a short-term basis. They're usually highly skilled at playing one or more instruments.

Find out more about how session musicians work and how they're paid.

What Is a Session Musician?

A session musician comes on board to play a musical instrument for a specified period of time—in the studio or on stage—but is not a permanent part of the band. These specialists may play for one song during a recording session, or they may join a band or artist for an entire tour.

How Session Musicians Work

Session musicians regularly work in studios and they often go out on tour with other musicians as well. Some session musicians are employed by the studios themselves and primarily work in one geographic location.

Beyond working to back artists in the record industry, session musicians may also be hired to play music for commercial jingles, TV, film, radio, and streaming platforms.

At one time, it was fairly common for a record label to have a "house band," or a roster of session musicians on the payroll. Famous examples of this include Booker T. and the M.G.'s, who played for Stax Records, and the Funk Brothers, who played for Motown.

Nowadays, however, many session musicians are independent contractors who find work by word of mouth. Sometimes a studio will recommend specific session musicians to people coming in to record, or artists will recommend those they've worked with in the past.

Having a reputation for being professional, skilled, easy to work with, and reliable can help a session musician get steady work. A reliable session musician can be a key part of getting an album done on time and can be a lifesaver on the road if a last-minute replacement for a band member is needed.

Band members and session musicians can both benefit from having a clear contract in place.

How Much Session Musicians Are Paid

In some countries, session musicians have unionized, and there are set rates of pay that they receive for studio recording and live performances. These rates can differ between regions and the type of work done.

For example, in 2020, the American Federation of Musicians listed a rate of $868.42 for three hours of "basic" non-symphonic sound recording and $1,302.64 for three hours of "premium" non-symphonic recording.

Exact and current pay rates for session musicians can be found out by contacting organizations such as the Musicians' Union in the United Kingdom or the American Federation of Musicians in the United States.

In exchange for guaranteed flat rates of pay, session musicians often sign away their future rights to the recordings that they perform on. That means that if a session musician plays on an album that goes platinum, they don't get royalties or profits from that recording.

The same goes for live shows: Session musicians are usually paid their set rate of pay whether the show lost money for the band or the show was a major money maker.

There are rare instances where bands offer their session musician a future percentage of income from the recordings on which they took part, especially if the band cannot afford the session musician rate.

Sometimes if a band and a session musician have worked together previously, they'll work out agreements on a case-by-case basis. This kind of arrangement should only be entered into if both sides know and trust each other well, but it can lead to longer-term work for the session musician and peace of mind for the band. However, band members and session musicians can both benefit from having a clear contract in place.

Key Takeaways

  • Session musicians perform as short-term backup instrumentalists in bands on tours and in recording sessions. 
  • They may also be hired to play music for commercial jingles, TV, film, radio, and more.
  • Some studios and labels hire in-house session musicians, but most session musicians these days are independent contractors.
  • Session musicians often earn industry standard flat rates for their work in lieu of receiving royalties from recordings.

Article Sources

  1. American Federation of Musicians. "Sound Recording Scales (Non-Symphonic)." Accessed August 18, 2020.