How To Become a Background Singer
Background Singers provide backing vocals for another artist as part of a studio recording session or a live performance.
Professional Background Singer Felice Hernandez Schaeffer says that “As a Session Singer, the job duty is pretty straightforward: Deliver the song as closely to the Producer and Composer’s vision as possible.” They must be able to harmonize and sight-read so that they can provide essential musical elements to a live or studio performance.
“Depending on the project, you may work with a variety of people: the Composer, the Producer, Engineer, Vocal Arranger and/or Vocal Contractor. And of course, you also get to work with other Session Singers.” Sometimes Background Singers are also called in to record vocals for tracks written by Jingle Writers, or Film Music Composers.
The average annual salary for Background Singers is approximately $44,300. The salary range for Background Singers runs from $18,000 to $101,000.
Earnings are made on a project-by-project basis. “You sing, they cut you a check!” says Hernandez Schaeffer.
“When the sessions are union, they go through a payroll service and you get paid a few weeks later. Union scale varies depending on hours worked, whether you are singing lead or background, how many Singers are on the session, etc. Residual checks show up later when your TV show, film or commercial re-airs. Those are always nice. You can also get additional pay when your film or TV show goes to DVD format. Surprise “mailbox money” is pretty awesome.”
”The lifestyle of a Session Singer is very unpredictable,” Hernandez Schaeffer says, “The jobs will pop up at any given time. I have been emailed at 11 pm, asking if I have a specific “soundalike” demo to submit for a job the next day. I always jump right on it and provide whatever they need as soon as I can. Most jobs are time-sensitive and need to be “done yesterday.”
“A home studio is a must for any serious Session Singer. It allows you to deliver the product quickly if need be. There are plenty of times where you will drive to a specific studio to do the work. In that scenario, you usually have a day or two to put it on your calendar. But nothing in this career is steady or predictable. When the work comes, you make yourself available!”
Hernandez Schaeffer says, “Session Singers can advance into many different areas within the music field. Lots of times, they “fall into” a job position that they never expected to do! Many times, a Singer will be asked to arrange backing vocals and harmony parts right there on the spot and that can evolve into an Arranger gig in the future.
“Some Singers get repeatedly called to refer other Singers and/or groups of Singers for studio sessions; this can turn into a vocal contracting position. A Contractor hires a variety of Singers for a variety of jobs, depending on what is needed and they get paid a percentage to do that. These are only a couple of ways to advance further, but the options are endless.”
So, how does an aspiring Background Singer get a job? “This question is always the toughest to answer!” Hernandez Schaeffer says.
“Like most music jobs, you need to know people who are in the studio world. I have landed jobs from other Singers, from other working musicians, and even from Google searches and SoundCloud.
In large cities, there are a handful of Vocal Contractors who hire Singers for union jobs. They generally hire for film and TV scores, as well as on-camera singing spots. Basically, the more people you know and make a good impression with, the better your chances are for getting work.”
For more advice on how to find gigs, check out our blog.
There’s one vital thing every aspiring Background Singer must have, according to Hernandez Schaeffer. “Firstly, one needs to have a great demo reel. The demo needs to display their best work–anything that stands out and catches your attention.
“Background singing clips aren’t very useful, so don’t use those. Always use clips of yourself singing lead. Variety is good to have if you are truly good at a variety of styles. If not, then just use the clips of what you do best (i.e., if you’re strictly a jazz singer, don’t try to convince someone that you can do raspy rock vocals, etc.)”
Experience & Skills
”Prior studio experience is necessary. You can get this by volunteering to do favors for friends who have studio projects. Mic technique can only be learned on the job. Learning to blend with another voice is an important skill. Being able to double your own voice is a necessary skill, too. You often need to re-create the same take over and over again, so it is important to be consistent with your performance,” Hernandez Schaeffer advises.
She says, “Session Singers are always professional in their manner. Important traits of a successful Session Singer are punctuality, the ability to take direction, the desire to please the Producer/Composer, a keen ear for harmony and the ability to make quick changes on the spot.”
Education & Training
”A music degree is always helpful, although not always necessary,” she says. “Private voice training is a must. Some sessions require sight-singing skills and others don’t. An education in music will always be to one’s advantage, in case you show up to a job and surprise…there’s a score in front of you! I personally did not get a degree in music but I have spent many years post-college in honing my sight-reading skills. It has definitely been beneficial.”
(Learn the best way to prepare for voice lessons on our blog.)
”I’m a member of SAG/AFTRA and they are a great resource for Singers. Contact your local branch and ask to be put in touch with the Singers’ representative,” she says. “Introduce yourself and request to be added to the email list for Singers. Union meetings and classes are a great way to meet other working Singers!” (Which is also a great way to potentially find singing jobs!)
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Meet people! Become friends and be open to opportunities to sing with other Singers. Sometimes, it means joining a choir or an a cappella group and making no money at all. That’s ok! If it’s musically gratifying and you’re building relationships, you are doing the right thing. Also, ask questions! Talk to people who are doing it and take them out for coffee. Find local Meetups for musicians and pass out cards.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Sitting and waiting for the phone to ring. They record a demo, they post it online and think they’re going to be discovered. Or they hope that a job listing is going to [get] posted somewhere that they can respond to. It just doesn’t happen that way. You may find an occasional job posted on Craigslist, but that really isn’t where to find the work. You need to know people in the business.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
Q: “How long does it take to become a full-time musician?”
A: “Years! It took me a good ten years to finally quit the day job. Although I have known some true go-getters who have made it happen in 2 or 3 years and they really busted their tails! It is possible to do, but you have [to] be fearless and have the talent.
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“Are you wealthy? No. Are you happy? Yes!”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Extra Credit: The Beatles or Rolling Stones?
A native of Los Angeles, Background Singer Felice Hernandez Schaeffer grew up loving the diverse musical opportunities that big city life brings. Inspired by that diversity, she has become a “chameleon” of contemporary music, ranging from R&B, rock, pop, and jazz. There’s no shortage of incredible musicians in Los Angeles, and Felice has been honored to work with many.
Her Background Singer credits include Neil Young, Hilary Duff, members of Oingo Boingo, Kevin Spacey, Michael McDonald, Josh Groban and Alejandro Fernandez. Television credits include Battlestar Galactica, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, 90210, The Latin Grammys, American Music Awards, MTV’s TRL and Don’t Forget The Lyrics!, just to name a few. Felice is also the signature “station id” voice of numerous radio stations in Europe and Asia.