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Matthew Slater: Are We Disrespecting Session Players?

Session players add enormously to music of all kinds. But are we paying them enough to make it worth their while?

Ican bash out a tune on the old Joanna, if need be. I have enough keyboard skills to get me through the day‑to‑day requirements of my living as a jobbing composer, but don't ask me to play any Chopin, Liszt or Rachmaninoff to concert level. A bit of Elton John might be do-able, but that's about the limit. I didn't practice as much as I should have done when studying music at college. For me it was always about composition — let someone else make it come to life, I'll just put the dots on the page for them.

During the course of my career, I've been lucky enough to work with, and become friends with, virtuosic performers on all manner of instruments. One of my closest colleagues is a concert violinist who has performed in front of millions of people worldwide. You would have thought that anyone attaining that level of proficiency in their chosen field of expertise would be able to command a staggering hourly rate, easily of an order to match those irksome solicitors we are all forced to use. Alas, no.

Recently in the UK, a deal has been reached between the Musicians' Union and the British Phonographic Institute that now places no limit on the number of tracks that can be recorded during any one recording session. The remuneration for this isn't great either. This is just another example of how at every turn we seem to be making it harder and harder for our great musical talent to eke out a living. Your general player will have to make a living from a number of income streams, including concerts and gigs, recording session work, teaching, and so on. Teaching has never been a lucrative career, and concerts and gigs — well, I need say no more about them. Recording has frequently been the mainstay of professional musicians' work portfolios, and certainly in the case of classically trained musicians.

How many other careers are there where you start your education at five years old and might get just about good enough for someone to actually pay you for your talent some 20 years later? And to get really good at your instrument, you can add another 20 or so years to that. So before you can really be considered to be at the top of your game, you will have spent 40 or so years refining your craft. Bearing this in mind, does it seem fair and just to offer said performer £30 [about $50] per hour for a recording session, and oh, by the way, assign rights away as well?

As with anything, if you give something away for nothing — or next to nothing — it devalues the object itself. In this case, it's the musicians who are being devalued by almost the whole industry. What seems to have been forgotten is that all these 'agreed' rates and fees are guidelines, to be taken as a starting point and not absolute. What producers and composers should really be doing is considering how much this person is going to add to their recording, and, therefore, the quality of the end product. It appears that the people with the greatest understanding of music really are at the bottom of the commercial food chain, and this all seems wrong to me.

So when you're next considering booking someone to play on your session, please have a think about how much skill and talent that person has, and about how it would be really nice if we all offered a bit more than the MU rate cards. After all, these players aren't in it expecting to get rich. We're just talking about making a living, because — as I'm sure it is with all musicians — we'd still be doing this even if we weren't being paid. And if anyone ever utters that most heinous of phrases 'let's record this in Prague', be sure to stand resolute and make sure the home team plays at home and we don't relegate ourselves in some away match. Our musicians are some of the best in the world, and to maintain this, we need to secure their future by making it possible for them to earn a living from the business we call show.

About The Author

Matthew Slater is a professional composer, orchestrator and general Apple‑head who somehow manages to make a living at it. No matter how small the gig, he always try to get at least one live player on it.