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A Personal View Of Session Programmers, Part 1: Musicians

Published October 1998

A Personal View Of Session Programmers, Part 1: Musicians

While the fame and fortune of pop stars is frequently short‑lived, session musicians can carve out a career lasting many years, making a living through sheer ability and professionalism. Big George Webley goes behind the scenes... This is the first article in a two‑part series.

Over the past few months, instead of writing poison‑pen pieces for SOS, I've been tied to a recording studio mixing desk working on jingles, TV themes, records and barmitzvahs. During those endless hours of hard work (unlike taking life easy and digging holes in the road for a living) I was mingling with quite a few top‑notch session players, and it occurred to me that many musicians dream about what it would be like to earn a crust like these players, by thwacking their respective instruments. After all, it's a cushy life — getting called by record producers asking when it would be convenient for the limo to bring you to the studio and play your favourite licks on a worldwide smash‑hit pop song.

Actually, it isn't always quite like that — certainly not to begin with, anyway. Being a session player means turning up to a centrally‑located studio with all your equipment before the 10am call. No allowances are made for traffic gridlock or parking problems — you're not paid to make excuses, you're paid to be ready to play exactly what's required, first time, regardless how off‑colour you feel or how late last night's gig finished. You have to be really fantastic on your chosen instrument, and you have to be able to play what you're asked to, even when it's by a drugged‑up idiot who knows nothing about music.

Bass George Whatsname

Big George plays his number one instrument — Hit Record Tambourine. You may laugh, but it's much harder than it looks.Big George plays his number one instrument — Hit Record Tambourine. You may laugh, but it's much harder than it looks.

I got my break as a session bass player back in the late '70s. I'd left school before taking any exams in order to join a dodgy club band (today it would be called a covers band; apart from playing the same songs night after night, we were called on to back whoever the club's turn of the evening was, from a singing dog, to Freddie Starr, to a hypnotist who cured our drummer of smoking for almost a week).

As the youngest member of the band by quite a few years, I was aware that the standard of musicianship within the band would rate on the Richter scale as... standard. But I was earning money by playing, and what it did teach me was how to play a 'standard' (a standard in this context usually means a wonderfully timeless song written by a songwriting genius and recorded and sung by the best in the world — although, as I recall, Middle of the Road's 'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep' was a standard in our set too).

I knew I had to move on with my career, as I was fast becoming musically more able than my fellow comrades and the valuable lessons the club‑band life had taught me (chart reading, not playing too loud or too busy, and being able to throw up during the set, if unavoidable, without the punters noticing) had been learnt well.

So I came off the road and fell into punk rock, "which was nice", but hardly musically satisfying. I led the house band at the Roxy Club in Covent Garden until the rot started to set in (that means until the wages stopped being paid and I'd spent one too many nights collecting empty beer glasses).

My next step, after getting married, was to write a letter to my bass‑playing hero: Herbie Flowers. I'd followed his career since before I was a teenager, when I flipped out listening to the Love Affairs' perfect piece of pop, 'Everlasting Love', with its killer bassline (which the producers of the recent pathetic hit cover version decided wasn't necessary — once again music becomes a casualty of bland marketing).

You need gear that works properly, is in perfect tune, doesn't rattle or hum, and won't die halfway through the session.

Eagle‑Eyed Cockney

Ian Thomas, without doubt one of the greatest session drummers of all time. A powerhouse of pinpoint technical ability tempered with musical understanding and empathy with the vocalist — and boy can he down a pint.Ian Thomas, without doubt one of the greatest session drummers of all time. A powerhouse of pinpoint technical ability tempered with musical understanding and empathy with the vocalist — and boy can he down a pint.

At 11 years of age, I'd noticed that the bass player in the original band miming to the record on black‑and‑white Top of the Pops didn't know where to put his fingers, so I wrote to the record company to ask who had played on the record, and they replied that it was Herbie, probably the most experienced session player on the planet today. If you want to know more about him or the history of British session playing, go and see his one‑man show, My Mum's A Yoghurt, where he talks about having the first electric bass guitar in England, playing on mega hits like 'Walk On The Wild Side', and working at the top end of the session business. There's a piano accompanist with him on the show, and between them they'll show you what cultured playing is all about.

Anyway, all those years later I wrote him a letter in which I mentioned that my musical career wasn't going as well as I would have liked. To my astonishment, he called me the next day and said we should meet up at the studio where he was working on a Justin Heywood album, with Jeff Wayne at the controls — cool! I turned up, we had a laugh and I spent the next two years sitting in on sessions with him, helping to carry his gear, and learning session etiquette. From there I started depping for him (depping, or deputising, means doing rehearsals for evening shows when he had a session, or doing the less glamorous session if he was double‑booked — which was hardly ever).

My first proper session was with Sally Oldfield at Roundhouse Studios. I was nervous: on the way to the studio there were enough hot bricks in the car to build a wall round London, but the omens were good. I was listening to Capital Radio, and just as I was passing their old studios at Euston Tower, Kenny Everett (God rest his soul) read out my car number plate as part of a spot‑the‑car‑sticker competition. I'd won a T‑shirt! I pulled up outside the station within a minute of him announcing it, claimed my prize and got a name‑check at the very moment I was parking in the Roundhouse car park — super cool!

As for the session, at the time I thought I was laying down the virtuoso bass‑playing standard for generations to come. On listening back to it, I now realise it sounds like simple bass playing of the pedestrian kind — but it was a start.

What You Need

L‑R: Alan Wetton, Phil Todd, Noel Langley and Andy Bush. All 'First‑Call Players'.L‑R: Alan Wetton, Phil Todd, Noel Langley and Andy Bush. All 'First‑Call Players'.

First up, music qualifications: just how important are they? Of course, being able to sight‑read with flair and personality is more or less essential (although there are a couple of people that earn a fabulous living as full‑time session musicians who can't read a note — but they fall into the category of 'don't bank on it being you' — and there's nothing more embarrassing than a player who can't read music very well pretending that they can in a studio full of fluent sight‑readers). However, I know of no contemporary players who have ever been asked what music exams they've passed before getting a session — although I'm sure that if your desire is to be first violin with the LSO they might want to know if you've passed grade two theory.

Sight‑reading is just one of the things anyone hoping to become a session player needs. Here are a few of the others:

  • Ability: you may well be the greatest guitarist to ever play in your bedroom, have got all your musical grades before you could walk and have worked out every Hendrix lick on record, backwards. So what? Thinking you're any good and being able to play what the client wants, in the way they want it, more or less first time, are two separate things.
  • Nerve: this doesn't mean you strut your stuff in tight pink leopardskin pants and blue hair. It means not having the faintest idea what you'll be asked to play but being confident that you will be able to play it, exactly as required. Will it be a sight‑reading roast up? ('Roast up' — something that's very hard to play, especially when there's no time to work out how to count the 11/16 bar which links the 5/4 piece in C‑sharp and the 7/8 coda in A‑flat.)
  • Tools: you need gear that works properly, is in perfect tune, doesn't rattle or hum, and won't die halfway through the session. It doesn't necessarily have to cost a fortune. I spent the first half of my session career using a pre‑CBS Fender Jazz bass, in mint condition, worth about a million pounds (well, from the cost of the insurance you'd have thought that was how much it was worth). I decided that it'd be a good idea to have a spare, so I bought a Squier Jazz for £120 and spent about £30 getting it set up properly (intonation, pick‑up balance, buzzing fret). It sounded every bit as good — or was it the fact that my fingers have the magic (he said, laughing all the way to the bank to plead for an extension on his overdraft)? So for the second half of my career as a session bass player, I used one of the cheapest instruments available.
  • Location: the truth of the matter is that living in the outer Hebrides is all very well if you're an 'in demand' touring session player, but if you're trying to carve a career out for yourself in the highly competitive world of 'musicians for hire' there are really only four major centres on the planet (Nashville, Los Angeles, New York and London) where a session population exists in abundance. So you'll have to be commutable to one of these when starting out.

Ways In

Priceless original manuscripts for 'The Spirit of Cilla.'Priceless original manuscripts for 'The Spirit of Cilla.'

There's no formal way into the session business, though becoming a roadie or dep for a session player, turning up at studios to help them set up their gear, or perhaps being the person they call when they're double‑booked, is one of the best ways of getting a foot in. Touring Europe with an old has‑been is also a great way to start a session career: the pay isn't bad, and it's usually a real laugh. As for where to look for these types of openings... one thing's for sure: they're not in the local job centre.

Once you have wormed your way in and have done your first couple of sessions, you have to be seen by as many producers as you can. But how? By deception, of course! My fiendish plan when I first started was to send packages addressed to me to a number of studios, and then a day or so after I'd sent them I'd call and ask if they'd received anything addressed to me. They'd be grateful for my call, as they didn't know what to do with the package. I told them not to worry about it, as I'd come and pick it up the next day. Then I'd go to the studio and collect the empty tape box, at the same time clocking who was doing what where. Before long, the people who were making the records knew who I was, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Perhaps the personal background of one of the UK's 'first‑call' session players might give you a few more hints as to the possibilities. There are about a dozen 'first‑call' players (a first‑call player is simply the first person a producer, composer or artist calls for their session) for every instrument in Great Britain. Probably the drummer on top of more lists than any other is Ian Thomas, who has a credits list as long as your arm and works on records, jingles, TV themes and feature films, including the Oscar‑winning Leaving Las Vegas. On occasions, he'll have up to three different drum kits set up and ready to go in various parts of London on the same day.

He started playing at 12, but apart from a few lessons, had no formal music education. He moved to London from his native Wales in 1984, in order to play in a trio performing in a late‑night hostess bar. Aside from these 8.30pm‑3.30am nightly spots, he was the backbone to NYJO, which led on to loads of jazz gigs.

The first big name he worked with was Cilla Black, when he was called in as a last‑minute dep on a Middle East tour. But it was at a jazz festival in Edinburgh, playing with the John Altman Big Band, that his first major session came up. He was asked by Mr Altman "are you doing anything next Tuesday?", which as luck would have it he was — a summer‑season gig with Ms Black. But luckily the bass player knew what the gig on offer was and gave Ian a sharp dig in the ribs, which made him think about getting a dep. The session was 'Kissing The Fool', a track on the first solo album by George Michael, with whom he's worked many times since.

When Ian went for a gig with Seal he was the last of 20 drummers to be auditioned, and since he hates auditions and thought the gig had probably already been taken, he decided to go crazy and play what he wanted — kind of Keith Moon reborn in a world of hot jazz. Seal liked what he heard — in fact they ended up jamming all night — and yes, he got the gig.

One of Ian's most bizarre jobs of late was working on George Martin's final album, In My Life. The day started badly and he was running very late for the 10am start, so he decided to make use of the bus lane. Luckily for the safety of all of us, the police stopped him and gave him a jolly good ticking‑off. When he eventually arrived at AIR Lyndhurst he realised he'd forgotten to tell his roadie to drop the kit off. So he'd got to the studio with no time to spare, and no kit. Just as he was going to confess to the greatest producer of all time that he didn't have a drum kit, he bumped into the riddum programmer who'd been booked to lay down the click track. Ian told him his dilemma and it turned out that the angel‑of‑mercy programmer was also a drummer, with a Gretsch kit in his car which he didn't need: phew!

The track Ian was booked to play on was 'Golden Slumbers'. Halfway through the song there's an added 16‑bar drum solo which calls for the drums to go mad. A drum solo added to a song written by the undisputed greatest pop beat group of all time, on the swan song album for (arguably) the most influential producer in the history of recorded sound? A stroke of luck or what — bastard. Then, at the end of the session, George Martin came up and said "I don't know if now is the right time to tell you, Ian, but we won't be using a note of what you've played. Phil Collins is coming in next week to replace it all."

Make no mistake, being a successful session musician means that you can play anything put in front of you.

So How Much?

If you think you can stand this kind of life (which could lead to you earning loads of dosh on a first‑class Egon Ronay tour of the world, if you can get a gig with an internationally massive band on their world circuit), how do you know what you should charge for your work? Let's take a look.

Are you a member of the Musicians' Union? If not, why not? If you want to be a professional musician, of any flavour, you have to be in the union: they're hip to everything going on in the industry, and the more members they have, the more power they can wield in our interests.

There are about a million different minimum rates for musicians, as set by the union. They range from what a rank‑and‑file viola player gets for a five‑hour rehearsal, to a price per bar for writing out arrangements, but we'll just look at a few of the most relevant. And remember: these are the minimum payments, and when you start out you really aren't in the position to demand a triple‑rate scale.

For a session of up to three hours where you record no more than 20 minutes of music, the rate is £93, with every hour of overtime making you an extra £33. This is for audio record release only, which means that if it's used on anything else, including a pop video or radio link, you will get more money (how much depends on a number of factors, the main one being whether you signed the appropriate union consent form).

For playing on a jingle (media advert) the rate ranges between £88.50 and £115.95, depending on what uses are bought out by the producer (radio only, or combined TV/radio/film, although this doesn't include the Internet which, as in many areas of the industry, is proving to be a nightmare when it comes to copyright protection).

For a feature film (and over 20 percent of all Hollywood movies have their soundtracks recorded in London) there's a sliding scale of between £45 and £90 per hour, depending on how many musicians are involved on the session. Which means that if it's a full orchestral session the rate is £360 for an eight‑hour day, but if it's just you and a click track, it's twice as much.

TV signature tunes made by independent production companies are a bit more complicated, but pay by far the best minimum rate of pay. Based on a three‑hour session, the rate ranges from £300 to £370, depending on the uses bought. So for £300 the company can only use the piece for up to 13 episodes, but for the extra £70 they can use the theme as many times, in as many countries as they like, for five years. After the uses paid for are exhausted, they must pay a percentage of the original fee, between 40 and 50 percent.

Whenever I book players, I feel it good manners to pay at least 10 percent over the odds, and I make sure that all their rights are accounted for — as do most people who hire players. It's not that the rates aren't high enough; it's more a matter of a little bit extra going a long way — or, to put it another way, if you pay over the odds and go a little over time they won't charge you overtime.

There's also the question of 'porterage', which is an extra amount to cover the cost of getting the equipment to the studio. Drummers, more often than not, have a roadie deliver and set their kit up for them. They pay the roadie £50, which they add to their fee as porterage. But I've seen a saxophone player turn up on a session with their one instrument in a small case tucked under their arm and charge (or try to charge) £30 porterage. I've been on sessions where the percussion player earned more for his porterage than the fee for the job. Every time he used a different tambourine it was another £3.50. The most common way of dealing with porterage these days is that if you're going to charge it (which I never do), you tell the person with the cheque book before you write out your invoice.

The most‑asked question of a session musician by a producer is "how can we sort out overdubbing this without it costing me a fortune?". Now in explaining this I'll probably fall foul of the MU, but if I'm to be the purveyor of truth and accuracy in this piece (something which I, and the entire magazine prides itself on) I have to tell it like it is.

Some time ago the MU lay down a directive that if a musician overdubbed on a track they'd already played on, they would be eligible for a 120 percent increase in their fee, if they were to overdub again they'd get an extra 140 percent, and so on. The reason for this expensive‑to‑comply‑with directive was to make it cheaper for a producer to hire extra players than to just use one person to bank up the parts. An excellent idea, but in the real world what happens is that the producer and the player/s come to an arrangement at the start of the session. But don't say I told you so... Shh!

And More About Me

The most money I ever made on a session was £800 for 10 minutes work, where I had to replace the bass part played by a member of a very well‑known band without his knowledge. The producer called me in at 9.30am and I had to be out within the hour, so as not to bump into any of the band. The song was a minor hit, the part was dead easy (although the guy in the band obviously didn't think so — he was all over the place). The money was to buy my discretion, and it has.

The most money I earned out of a single session that initially looked as though it would be just another £75 job was a penny or so under £1500. It was a minor hit record which earned me an extra couple of bob for Top of the Pops plays and so on, but it went on to be remixed by Arthur Baker and used as the theme for a Hollywood movie. I'm not bound by a secrecy contract on this track, but modesty forbids me to reveal which classic film my sampled‑up bass playing booms all the way through.

These were very much the exceptions, though, and both were over 10 years ago. These days, when accountants run everything with stranglehold contracts and agreements, tickles like these are harder to come by. And I can assure you that there's always someone younger, better‑looking, cheaper, and musically superior waiting to step in. But that someone could be you...

Just remember that when you start out you'll have to be prepared to do anything, and that includes playing on crap written and sung by someone with more money than talent, or working for a fiver with fellow broke top players on their own material. Even pit work in the theatre (ultimately one of the most boring and frustrating places to be stuck, but a ripe breeding ground for gaining top contacts and for learning the trade of professional playing) is better than sitting at home waiting for the phone not to ring.

That concludes this month's depressing picture of your chances of earning the big bucks playing easy licks on number one hit records. If you think that was tough, wait until next month, when I'll take a look at becoming a programmer.

Secret Agents

Session agencies and diary services are essential for a busy player. But before you write in asking where and how you can get on their books and why I didn't include a list of all the major organisations who deal in this service, I'll tell you.

Session agencies usually find their clients themselves, either through producer recommendation or by reputation. They are a one‑stop shop for a lot of advertising agencies and soundtrack producers who need to book a wide range of players for a session, or for producers who have exhausted their personal contacts and drawn a blank. They're commonly referred to as fixers, and often specialise in orchestral bookings or advertising work. They organise the session players and invoice the producer en masse, including a booking fee for themselves, and the players then invoice the agency.

Diary services are only of any use if you've got loads of work coming in all the time and need to have someone else to deal with the pressure of calls. If I want to book a particular sax player, I call their diary service and find out if they are available on the particular day; if they are I'll book them for the session, and they will confirm it with me, usually later that same day.

However, getting yourself started is not about being on someone's books — it's about getting in the game. This business is full of friendly media tossers who will promise everything you desire if you'll sign a contract giving them 10‑25 percent of everything you earn, before you've earned a penny. Don't sign nothing with nobody, until you're absolutely sure of who they are and what they're offering, and that goes for every aspect of this business.

The Professionals

Make no mistake, being a successful session musician means that you can play anything put in front of you. For example, my first‑call guitarist, Steve Donnelly (who is also, more importantly, internationally renowned producer Mitchell Froom's first‑call guitarist) can open any piece of manuscript music, be it heavy‑duty jazz, a classical overture, avant garde nonsense or dodgy old three‑chord Britpop and play it immediately. He can hear any guitar sound and know how to emulate it, and can play with style, class and accuracy every time. But whether he's working on a simple lick on a Sheryl Crow single or doing a toothpaste commercial (he doesn't do those anymore) he gives the client what they want, straight away — not just a run‑through of the best licks he knows, although if I'm not very much mistaken he knows every guitar lick there is.

Of course, not all session players are masters of their trade: some of us got through by the skin of our teeth, trading on a good sound and a calm but enthusiastic attitude in the studio. Others are booked for their own particular sound or their mastery of one particular skill or style. People like London‑born Nashville guitarist Albert Lee is as good as you can get when it comes to country picking. Then there's Marc Ribot, who plays art‑house, off‑the‑wall guitar that sounds like a cartoon car exploding, and Jody Linscott, who shakes, rattles and splashes a wall of sexy percussion with cat‑like precision... These are guys who get booked because there's no‑one better at doing what they do.

A Different Kind Of Chart Music

The accompanying charts (right) are for 'The Spirit of Cilla', one of my mental ball‑busting brass bashes which has the horn part written 'in concert'. This means that the players have to sight‑transpose their parts. The drum part is mapped out exactly with cymbal hits, precise tom fills and helpful guides like "classic pop drum beat". The piano and guitar part is just a chord chart that has occasional rhythm figures to hit. The bass part is a technical nightmare which redefines the boundaries of lower‑stave music theory — but seeing as I played it myself it wasn't written down. Or was it not written down because it was so easy that even a blithering idiot could play it from memory?

After looking at their parts for a nanosecond, the guys who played this piece began to tell hilarious stories from their respective travels. Then we all had a lovely cup of tea while everything was being miked up, after which they listened to me explaining what I wanted for a couple of minutes, then recorded it, Bosh! First take. But then these are dead easy charts to play; it gets a lot harder than this.