Careers In

Session Musician

Also Known As:

Studio Musicians, Session Player, Sideman, Freelance Musician

Career Description: Play background music for a recording artist in a studio setting.

Salary: $15,000 to $100,000+

Session Musician Jobs

About This Music Career

The Session Musician is also called a Studio Musician, a Session Player, a Sideman/Sidewoman, a Freelance Musician, or a Backup Musician. As just one of many music professions, their main responsibility is to play backup for a recording studio Group. The Session Musician might play music in commercials, and at times is the backup to the leader of the Group at a live concert.

In terms of skills, the Session Musician should have ability to sight-read and should be responsible, reliable, easy to get along with, and easy to get a hold of. Studios and personnel are expensive, and because of that mistakes are never tolerated.

The Studio Musician should strive to play a number or different instruments and musical styles in order to obtain as much work as possible. A contractor who usually hires Session Musicians will usually call musicians they know about, or musicians that they have worked with in the past. If called, the Session Musician will either accept or reject the job based on a number of factors; if the Contractor hears "no" continuously he or she will stop calling that particular musician.

A Session Musician does not always have free reign to play the types of music he or she enjoys, rather they must play what that the Group Leader or the Music Producer wants to be played. Session Musicians are usually paid by the hour and their minimum fee is set by the AFM. Iif they are a popular Musician they can demand higher fees. Over a short time, the Session Musician will usually work with a number of different groups. A Session Musician one must be willing to sacrifice creativity, be able to accept working in the shadow of another musician, and not receive credit for the work performed.

The type of recording, how much work is performed, geographical location, and demand all impact how much Session Musicians will earn. The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) will dictate the minimum rate Musicians should receive. Individuals should check with the local AFM for specific rates and fees to get a better idea of earnings. As mentioned individuals who play more than one instrument will usually be paid at a higher rate. Session Musicians, who are in demand and are talented, can expect to earn around $100,000 or more per year.

If Session Musicians are talented, employment prospects are fair but he or she may need several contacts to get his or her foot in the door. Contractors are the ones who hire Session Musicians, and they will continue to hire Musicians who do a good job in the studio. Most studio work is found in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, althougt there are studios all over the country.


Session Musicians have the ability to advance their careers in a number of different ways. For example, they can become Group Leaders or top studio musicians, but to do so they must be more talented, versatile, and better connected than the competition. Another option for advancement is for individuals to increase the number of gigs they play leading to more work and increased earnings.

Education and Training

Session Musicians do not need a formal education. However, they have usually had extensive private study in mastering their instruments. Many successful Session Musicians are self-taught and have the ability to read music. This is not to say that Session Musicians do not have degrees, because many are educated in music or in unrelated subjects.

Experience, Skills, and Personality
Session Musicians are great musicians with many starting their careers in local bands while in high school. Muscle memory is a big part of getting better, so any performance experience is useful for a Session Musician. Also the ability to play more than one instrument can pay huge dividends.

Unions and Associations
Session Musicians can become members of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), which is union that sets the minimum wage paid to musicians.

Suggestions for Getting Started

  • Start small by performing in a local band – many aspiring Musicians have traveled this route.
  • With some experience, consider placing an ad for in music-oriented newspapers or trade magazines.
  • Try to get a job doing anything in the studio to gain experience, because you will learn more and establish contacts.
  • Gain affiliation with the American Federation of Musicians.