Many people talk and dream of becoming a professional musician, but only a small percentage succeed in this fun yet unpredictable career. To get to the point where you’re called to play on recordings, you’ll need to put in the time. Knowing your instrument is a given, but it helps if you can talk “producer language” to land those gigs and be seen as a professional player.
- Talented, dedicated session musicians can make more than $100,000 a year, although the median recording artist salary comes in around $26.96 per hour.
Play-to-order session musicians work in a recording studio, performing music as flawlessly as possible – flawlessly, because the fewer the takes, the less the recording costs. Day to day, you’ll find her practicing her instrument; rehearsing the music; marketing herself; building relationships with artists, labels and studios; learning the business side of the industry; negotiating contracts and payments; and doing what it takes to make someone else’s music come to life. Being a studio musician is not the same as being in a band. You’ll need a good business head and strong communication skills as you will play with different people, probably in a different music style, for each and every gig.
While there are no formal education requirements to become a professional musician, you’ll clearly need to know your instrument. A session musician must also have a good grasp of music theory and be able to sight-read music to a professional level, as you’ll be expected to hit the ground running as soon as you enter the studio. Superior technique and a natural sense of rhythm are also helpful. Alongside excellent music skills, a strong portfolio and plenty of marketing know-how are essential for getting your name out there with studios and record labels. Joining a musicians’ union can give you certain rights, not least the right to get paid what you deserve. Unions like the American Federation of Musicians can provide you with contract templates and guarantee minimum pay rates for your gigs.
The life of a studio musician can be extremely unpredictable. You’re a freelancer, which means the work may come sporadically and you may have periods of unemployment between gigs. Some studio musicians give music lessons or find other ways to supplement their income. Payment comes via a fixed fee or hourly rate for your work – it’s rare that you’ll be offered royalties or even a name check. Your role is essentially that of an anonymous, professional service provider. The career is ideal for those who love the craft; not so ideal for those with hopes of becoming a star.
Years of Experience and Salary
Like any type of freelance work, it can be challenging, though not impossible, to make a decent living in this profession. In terms of the average pay for musicians, median earnings came in at $26.96 per hour as of May 2017, meaning that half of musicians earned more than this amount and half earned less. The typical musician salary pay scale is extremely broad, however, ranging from $9.70 at the low end to over $69.81 at the high end. Working a solid chunk of hours at higher-end rates could translate to well over six figures annually.
Since studio musicians work on hourly rates or a fixed rate per gig, the more gigs you book, the more you’ll earn. It’s also fairly typical for an experienced studio musician to charge a higher hourly rate than someone who’s just breaking into the business. Data from PayScale, a self-reported salary-comparison website, suggests that the following may be a reasonable salary progression for a session musician:
- 0-5 years of experience: $44,000
- 5-10 years of experience: $49,000
- 10-20 years of experience: $53,000
- 20+ years of experience: $62,000
Job Growth Trend
Employment of musicians and singers – from orchestra members to wedding bands – generally is projected to grow at an average rate of 6 percent through 2026. This represents the addition of some 10,400 jobs. A lot of the job growth is in the studio or session musician area, especially in the scoring of films, television shows and commercials, an industry that now employs the lion’s share of session musicians. Studio musicians get hired because they’re quick learners and very accomplished. Those with exceptional talent and dedication should have the best opportunities.