Skip to main content
salaries series

Violinists Virginie Gagné, left, and Alissa Cheung play for the soundtrack recording of The Great Human Odyssey at Enmax Hall in the Francis Winspear Centre for Music in Edmonton.

Job: Session musician

Role: Session musicians, once primarily employed by major music labels to provide backing instrumental and vocal work for popular recording artists, have since evolved into other areas of studio-based musicianship, including the scoring of films, television programs and commericals.

"They are hired because they're very accomplished and they're quick learners, so if there are [music] charts to read, they can read through them once or twice, and do a take in two or three shots," said Alan Willaert, Canadian vice-president of the American Federation of Musicians union.

Mr. Willaert adds that some session musicians still work with artists to record popular music as well. In such instances, the role is less focused on delivering a predetermined product and more about contributing to the creative process, "filling in the blanks" of a work in progress.

"Oftentimes, they'll go into the studio and the song will develop as time goes on," he said. "The session musician is called in to augment or lay down the critical parts that are necessary."

Salary: The salary of a session musician will depend on their level of experience, the type of session and their location, though innovations in technology are making the latter less of a barrier.

The standard pay while working on the sound recording of a popular artist is just under $400 for every 15 minutes of final product, which Mr. Willaert says takes about three hours. "That's the fee that's under our sound recording labour agreement, which is for audio only, although there can be a video component for extra money," he said. Recording a 60-minute album, for example, will net session musicians $1,600 for approximately 12 hours of work.

For lower-budget film and television productions, which Mr. Willaert says is most common in Canada, session musicians earn about $330 per half hour of underscoring. For major motion pictures, however, session musicians earn only $300 per half hour of underscoring, but the real money comes by way of residual payments.

"You can make a fair chunk of money, provided the movie has legs. If you recorded on an Avatar or a Titanic, then you're doing quite well," he said. "The secondary market is usually at least eight times what the session musician makes [during the recording session itself]."

Mr. Willaert estimates that the average session musician earns between $40,000 and $50,00 a year, while the top couple of hundred session musicians in the world, the "first-call musicians" on major productions, earn "well into the six figures, and almost closer to seven."

Education: While most session musicians have earned a degree in music, the industry does not disqualify those who are self-taught or privately tutored, so long as they can demonstrate the same level of proficiency.

Mr. Willaert says there was a time when the AMF held auditions for those seeking membership, but the process has since become less formalized.

"The person that's contracting you will want to know that you can read charts; they'll put sheet music in front of you at a film session, and if you can't read it on the spot, then you're out of there," he said.

Job prospects: Mr. Willaert says that while top-tier session musicians are always in high demand, most people will have to compete in a difficult job market.

"Music is a crap shoot," he said. "You want to be a major star, but only a minor percentage of people actually get there."

While the industry has suffered of late, there are opportunities for those willing to be flexible.

"There's other things you can branch out into, if you have the chops or the ability or the talent to do this kind of quick reading of charts," he said, adding that such opportunities range from live television to jingle writing.

Challenges: While finding consistent work presents its own challenges, Mr. Willaert says there are other difficulties that come as a result of that.

"If you're not pulling in a living wage doing your main profession, unfortunately you'll have to do other things, and that's self-defeating," he said. "The unfortunate thing about being a musician is that you've got to do it all the time. Like an athlete, you're using specific muscles, and they need to be exercised or toned every single day or you start to lose it."

Why they do it: Mr. Willaert says that like any form of musicianship, most session musicians begin their careers with a love of the craft and hopes of becoming a star.

"People love to play," he said. "If you're a musician, or have any interest in music, there's hardly anything that will stop you from playing in some capacity."

Misconceptions: While there was a time when session musicians were largely employed by major record labels to assist mainstream artists, Mr. Willaert says this is no longer the case. While recording artists still employ session musicians, most are hired for film, television and advertising work.

Give us the scoop: Are you a session musician? Write a note in the comments area of this story or e-mail your comment to and let us know what you would tell others who are interested in the profession.

Want to read more stories from our Salaries Series? Find more here.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct