Getting Paid to Play: How To Make It As a Session Musician

Taped to the wall of his bedroom closet door is a piece of loose-leaf paper with several “Musical Philosophies” scratched out in green pen, the first of which reads, “Treat EVERY gig like it’s The Stevie Wonder Gig.” It’s one hell of a guiding principle if you’re a busy session player like Christian Nourijanian. A jazz pianist by training with degrees from The New School and Manhattan School of Music, Christian is one of the more in-demand session cats among New York’s crop of up-and-coming bands*, and somewhat of a rare bird in modern-day New York City: he’s a full-time artist who pays his bills entirely through music.

*(Full disclosure: one of those bands has included the author’s…and frankly I have no problem promoting the crap out of Christian, because he is a truly fantastic musician)

If you’ve ever stepped foot in The Big Apple – as no New Yorker calls it – you know it’s EXPENSIVE, with rent through the roof, and $16 six-packs lining the shelves of every bodega. Many with day jobs and steady paychecks still struggle to “make it there,” yet in a world as notoriously underpaid as the music industry, there exists a community of gifted musicians that you’ve likely never heard of. And it’s not just New York: walk into any studio in Nashville or music hall in LA, and there you’ll find some of the most talented players on the planet, all making a living by plying their craft.

So how, you may ask, does one get there?

1. Don't know one style, know all the styles

Well, for starters, the answer to that question above is, "a whole lot of hard work and talent." Being a sideman (or sidewoman) means being able to learn a ton of music in an efficient amount of time, while emulating any number of styles. I asked a bunch of players what the most important part of their job was, and all said proficiency in multiple genres. The difference between a good guitarist and a great session player often lies in knowing the various types of licks and parts that a certain song would call for, and sifting those traditional chops through your own sensibilities.

“You need to have a wide enough skill-set to be able to really hear and then execute whatever sounds the bandleader you’re playing with is hearing.” That’s Dan Saulpaugh, a pro-guitarist and singer-songwriter in his own right; while his solo projects are rooted in folk music and contemporary jazz, he’s also been known to shred solos over Taylor Swift covers.

2. If nothing else, serve the song

Just being able to shred isn’t always enough – especially if you’re working with a new band that’s still fleshing out a sound. It’s not often that you’re going to get detailed charts with note-for-note arrangements, so a good ear and flexibility is an absolute must. If that killer bassline you thought up before practice isn’t grooving with what the drums are doing, you gotta change up that bassline. It’s your job to listen to the song, the other players, and the bandleader – no matter how inarticulate or crazy that bandleader may sound – and play the part that best serves the music.

3. Treat your job like a job, because it's a job

Now, once you’ve mastered your instrument, studied the ins and outs of every style from folktronica to new jack swing (just kidding, no one plays new jack swing anymore), there’s the challenge of getting gigs. Word of mouth is still king, even in today’s age of technology, so establishing a solid network and good reputation is key. One way to do that is to show up to every rehearsal with the songs memorized, and ready to rock. But you’ve also got to be professional, reliable, and a good hang. Essentially, you’ve got to treat the job like a job…because it is one. Bandleaders are paying good money for your services, after all.

4. Market yourself with marketing materials

Most people start off playing for friends they’ve met along the way, building a resume through personal connections – but once you land those first few gigs, you have to translate them into a marketable portfolio. That means having good collateral (a nice website, a YouTube channel, a Treble profile), and doing something so corporate sounding as “networking.” Show up at open mics or music venues that feature new artists. Take every audition. Take videos. And if someone comes up and compliments you on a killer lick, don’t be shy – ask if they ever need a player, and hand ‘em a business card. I promise I’ve been handed business cards by people who are very good at their instruments and very not lame. It can take time to build up a roster of bands, hook on to the ones that are going places, and when you start, you will not be making Wall Street money (sorry, you’ll likely never be making Wall Street money…but screw those guys.) Point is, being a session musician is really hard, but there is always a need for talented players – so make some friends, nail every show, and trust the process.

5. Never forget that you get to play music for a living

You know that scene in La La Land where Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone get into that fight over dinner? Of course you do. Gosling’s Sebastian – a jazz pianist with a stubborn sense of tradition – has just returned from another stint on the road, playing synths for a pop band fronted by a guy who eerily resembles John Legend. Is he out there playing Monk and Art Tatum? No. But the music’s good, the money’s really good, and the hang doesn’t seem that bad. So when Miss Stone asks whether he’s compromising his dreams, Gosling shouts “this is what guys like me work their whole lives for!” He’s getting paid thousands of dollars a week to play music in a wildly popular band, and ya know what – that is the stuff of dreams right there.

No job is perfect and without compromises. Neither is this one. In fact, there are plenty of challenges: jumping from folk to metal in a given day, having to schedule and prioritize your various projects (your own projects included), or taking gigs that are far from your dream job is part of climbing the ladder. Your first job at a law firm or an ad agency isn’t going to be glamorous either – but if you treat every gig like The Stevie Wonder gig, you’ll squeeze all the learning you can out of each experience, and build a name for yourself. That’s what it’s all about. Oh yeah, that and making a career out of playing music every damn day.

- Feature by David Rothschild

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