So you want to be a session singer …
Well, what is a session singer exactly?
It’s the other main type of employment in the music industry for singers aside from the more usual ‘artist’ path. Officially it’s a singer who is a ‘hired hand’, brought in to be part of a live or recording project. These days however, it’s generally considered to be someone who regularly sings in a freelance capacity in a recording studio and that this work makes up a fair component of their income. The type of work (and pay) varies a lot.
Here are some examples of vocal “session work”:
Lead and/or backing vocals on jingles (commercials) for television and/or radio (eg. “Currys, always cutting prices…”)
Lead and/or backing vocals on radio station idents (eg. “BBC Radio Twooooo…“)
Lead and/or backing vocals on new material that songwriters have written (i.e. “demo songs”)
Backing vocals on an artist’s track or album or for pre-recorded tracks to boost live shows
Lead vocal feature on songs written by others for release (e.g. for the dance market)
Vocals for film or TV soundtracks (nb. a very high level of music sight reading ability is generally required for this type of work).
Points to consider …
Having been a session singer for many years (since 1990), I suggest that you consider the following questions when deciding whether session singing is for you:
Have you had any studio singing experience to know whether it’s your ‘thing’ or not? This is a crucial first step because not everybody enjoys the scrutiny & perfectionism involved in session singing. It’s very different to singing live and is often not what people imagine it to be.
Do you learn things super fast, either by ear or by reading music? We’re talking about only minutes here as ‘time is money’ in the studio. The more musically educated & knowledgeable you are the better. You also need to have an ear for detail, detail, detail!
Are you able to endlessly change things musically & vocally in a multitude of ways to get exactly what the producer or writer is after? Sometimes they don’t know what they want till they hear it.
Do you hear the full harmony arrangement by yourself? It’s most often up to the singer to be able to sing all the parts by ear instinctively – it’s an essential part of the job.
Do you have very accurate pitching, especially when it comes to ‘tracking’ parts up (ie. doubling, tripling etc)? Can you do it fast and efficiently? A session singer of all people needs to be able to sing in tune!
Do you blend tightly in all aspects (eg. tonally, phrasing, diction, vibrato etc.) either with yourself when tracking yourself up or with other singers?
Are you stylistically versatile? For an artist it’s desirable to have a distinctive, identifiable ‘signature sound’ and specialise in one style. Conversely, for the session singer it’s preferable to have a more generic, commercial vocal sound that is able to do a range of styles in order to maximise work opportunities.
Do you have a reliable, robust vocal technique that gives you a high level of control, stamina & consistency? Are you able to sing for hours on end if need be without losing your voice? For example, at times I’ve had to sing for up to 12 hours straight to get backing vocals done on a whole album done in one day!
Do you have a high level of patience? For example, with producers who aren’t singers and who don’t know exactly what they’re after or give you odd/vague instructions, or with sessions that start really late. Even if you’ve been waiting around for hours and you’re tired and hungry, you’ve still got to be able to sound fresh & vibey etc.
Are you able to generate performance-level vibe in a completely ‘dead’ room with no audience, take after take after take? Many singers find this difficult and need (understandably) a live audience to get them ‘in the zone’.
If you answered ‘yes’ to most of these questions then session singing may be something you could consider pursuing.
How to get into it …
From the outset, you need to be aware that the session singer role is highly specialised. Generally, only a relatively small number of people make a decent living out of session singing because it’s such a specific ‘head-space’ and skill set. To be honest, it just doesn’t suit most singers. Also, there is only a limited amount of work available which generally goes to the tried, trusted and proven few. This is why it’s often difficult for new people to break into the scene.
In order to get good quality session work, you’ve generally either got to be:
a) extremely lucky (i.e. right place at the right time), and/or
b) so naturally good at it that you will eventually be noticed and recommended by other producers, writers or singers (i.e. ‘word of mouth’ working for you).
To get started I suggest that you begin by getting as much studio experience as you can and be prepared to work for free initially. You need to start building your network and get your skills well honed in order to justify being paid in the future. If you have no track record as a session singer then I wouldn’t suggest contacting session agencies as they generally only list singers with impressive CVs that they use to help ‘sell’ their singers to clients. For example, check out the singers’ CVs and showreels on session agency sites such as www.simplysingers.co.uk to see how high the standards are.
So where can you get studio experience then to get the ball rolling? Keep your ear to the ground. Be entrepreneurial. Do your research. Find contacts. Put word out to all your musician and singer friends that it’s something you want to try out. It doesn’t generally stare people in the face, but the path is there for people who are observant, committed and determined (in addition to being sufficiently skilled and talented of course). You should also consider becoming a member of a union like the Musician’s Union or Equity so that you have a network of professional support behind you as protection and guidance on what to charge.
In my opinion, one of the easiest places to start getting session experience is by demoing songs for songwriters. You are generally the first singer to interpret this new material, often from a sketchy guide track. These songs are used to pitch the song to a particular artist or for the writer to get a publishing deal. Also, there are useful websites advertising session work but you need to check them on a regular basis looking for the opportunities that pop up. Each country will have its own industry magazines and websites, but some examples are www.vocalizr.com, www.starnow.com and www.gumtree.com.
In order to have material ready to send to interested people, you will need a great promo pack with:
- flattering, professional quality photos
- a concise, professionally-worded biog, and
- an outstanding demo or showreel.
This is the first thing people will ask for when you apply for any session work. A standard showreel is around three minutes long and should be comprised of short sections from 3 to 4 songs of contrasting tempos/styles. Once you have your promo photos, biog and demo, you could consider putting it all together on your own website (very easy to do these days), or at the very least, have your page on a website such as StarNow (referred to previously).
I hope this has provided food for thought and all the best for your future career!