How to Work as an Online Session Musician

18.9.2018 by Aleix Ramon

Introduction to the "New Ways to Make Money from Music" series

Money! It's always been a problem for artists, and musicians are no exception. Money and art seem to be radically opposed concepts, and the creative mind of a musician seems to be very far from that of a businessman. It is then no surprise that we musicians tend to struggle with the financial side of our life.

Add to the equation a rapidly changing music industry and the advent of the internet and you are left with a world full of new but confusing possibilities. And that's where this series of articles comes in. During this series of articles called “New Ways to Make Money from Music” I will take a look at the new possibilities that we musicians have to make money from music. Possibilities that were not available years ago, but that now are open to the ones who know how to seize them.

Just a word of advice: If you have a job not related to music and you plan to quit it to make a living from music, do not leave your current job immediately. Instead of jumping straight into one of the possibilities in music, try it first during your free time. Only once it’s clear that it’s viable and it can sustain you, get fully into it.

And now, without further introduction, let’s get into the first topic of this series: How to make money as an online session musician.

Working as an online session musician

What is a session musician?

A session musician is a musician for hire, who records one or more parts of a track or album, usually composed by someone else. This is not a new concept and there have been plenty of session musicians for decades, but being an online session musician is a new thing.

Why online? The most obvious benefit of doing it online is that both parts, the musician and his/her client, can work from distance, which is more comfortable and quick for both. That means that you can work from home as long as you have the required equipment to record yourself (which is very little and easily affordable; more in the next section). Most session musicians work that way nowadays. Working online also means that you have potential clients from all over the world - but also more competition.

The downside of working online is that, since the musician is not recording in the same room, he or she has to make sure that the communication between both parts is good enough (be it via email, skype or something else) and has to understand clearly what the client is looking for. The key is to keep in mind that you’re working on THEIR project, not yours, so things should be done the way they want.

Recording at home (gear)

If you still don't have the gear to record at home, don't panic. It's easier and cheaper than it seems. While this is not the topic of this article, the easiest you can do is to get an audio interface (a physical device where you can plug instruments and microphones), and if you have an acoustic instrument that can't be directly plugged, get also a microphone with a stand. That's it. 

In terms of software, using a professional DAW (Cubase, Pro Tools, etc.) would be the ideal case scenario, but in practice you could get the job done in most projects with a free copy of Audacity, as long as you don’t have to edit or mix your recordings (most of the times as a session musician your only job is to record, not to mix, though some offer that possibility).

If you've never recorded at home before, check out some tutorials on YouTube for recording interfaces.

Finding the job: Where to start?

There are websites where you can offer yourself as an online session musician. Music composers, producers, and others go to these websites to hire players for their projects, and that’s where they could find you. These are some of the most popular websites, but a quick Google search can reveal many others. Do not hesitate to put yourself out there in many of them at once!

Another approach I highly recommend is to be proactive and approach people online. Send emails and messages to composers, producers, songwriters, whoever you think that could need your performance in a recording. The key here is not that they should hire you RIGHT NOW, but to just let them know that you exist. If possible, keep in contact with them to stay on top of their minds (for example, sending a “How are things going?” email every two or three months so that they don’t forget about you). This way when the moment comes and they need what you offer they will think about you. Don’t be too pushy, but it’s good to show interest in their projects and that you’d love to eventually collaborate with them. Get used to reaching out.

Meeting people that could eventually hire you in real life, although not a must, helps. Concerts, music events, friends of friends… use every opportunity you can to expand your network and have the same approach as online: let them know what you do, and keep in touch so that they don’t forget you.

You can start by filling out your Bbop profile, which you can use to show potential clients who you are as a musician.

Getting ahead of the competition

As an online session musician you can have thousands of potential clients from all over the world who would want to pay for your services, but at the same time, you usually have plenty of competition. This makes it difficult to attract clients since they have plenty of other options to choose from. So you might ask yourself: “What could I do to get ahead of the competition?”

You could take 3 different approaches:

  1. Lowering your price to be cheaper than most: Bad idea. Although it seems like a good strategy at first, it’s usually not. In general, people relate price with quality and having a very low price tag for your services as a musician will make you look like a mediocre player (even if you’re not). What would you think if you enter a guitar shop and you find a supposedly new Gibson Les Paul for the price of a second hand Squier? Probably that there’s something wrong there. Something must be broken inside, or it’s fake. Same with session musicians.
  2. Being better than most: A hard one, but a good one indeed. By simply offering better results than most (or all) of your competition you can stand out from the rest. The downside, of course, is that you have to work hard to be on the top in terms of quality, but if you’re already a talented player you can definitely make good use of that. Keep in mind that recording quality, keeping up with deadlines and having a good communication with your clients is essential for keeping them happy. And happy clients are the ones who come back!
  3. Being unique: The smart way of standing apart from the competition. The truth is that, while instruments like guitar or piano are used in plenty of songs, there is a lot of people playing those instruments. And I mean A LOT, and plenty of them are skilled. This makes option 2 (being better than most) a difficult one if you play a very common instrument. The solution? Be as unique as possible. Ideally, play an instrument that no one else plays. What about steel drums? Theremin? Laud? Yes, there are less potential clients looking for session musicians playing these, but also much less competition. If you already play an instrument, learning another one should be relatively easy, and you can find plenty of affordable instruments in our market. Take a look there and get some inspiration on what could be your next instrument as a session musician!

If you still want to stick with a commonly played instrument, try to specialize in a specific genre of music, the more unique the better. Offer something that no one else offers and you will be the go-to guy for people who need that. Stand out from the pack.

Action plan: getting the first gig

Let’s get you started right now! Follow these steps and you’ll be set to start making money as an online session musician.

  1. Choose your instrument. If you need to get a new, original instrument to stand apart from the pack, check out Bbop’s marketplace to find an affordable one.
  2. Make sure that you have the equipment to record yourself. If your budget is low, consider buying it second hand.
  3. Create a profile in at least one of the websites for hiring session musicians mentioned earlier. Make sure to upload a demo of previous recordings you’ve done. If you’ve never recorded anything, start with recording a cover for demonstration purposes. Upload a professional looking picture and description in your profile.
  4. For your first gig, offer a low price, but explain in your description that it’s because it’s your first time on that website. After the first session you will get your first review, and from then onwards you shouldn’t sell yourself low. Remember: in most people’s minds, price tag = quality. The only time you should sell yourself cheap is when you have no reviews yet.
  5. Keep your clients happy. Reviews are everything for an online session musician and you should make sure you receive good ones.
  6. Done! Once you have a certain amount of contacts and reviews, things will get easier and the clients - and money - will flow in. Do you need ideas on how to spend it? ;)