Jessica Duchen

Insiders Anonymous: The session musician

9:00, 14th July 2016

It can be a great trade, but uncertainty and paranoia are part and parcel of the work, and it could all end at a moment’s notice. As told to Jessica Duchen

When you walk into a studio, you never know who’s going to be there. OK, with some fixers you know exactly who’s going to be there, but mostly it’s a complete surprise. You look around and you’ll see some seriously well-known players: chamber musicians, top-flight soloists, principal chairs of orchestras. It’s like a Who’s Who of the British music scene, but playing semibreves. It’s quite remarkable. I find people I admired on Radio 3 as soloists years ago sitting in Abbey Road, doing crap for half-decent money.

Like any freelance life, this work is precarious and involves a great deal of juggling. That’s probably the biggest pain, not knowing whether you can risk taking a week off and booking a holiday or if you should hold out in case something good comes up. My bugbears are the uncertainty and the paranoia. These are part and parcel of how the session world functions.

For a standard film, the rates went up at Christmas for the first time in many years; now they’re around £180 for a three-hour session. The trouble is that a significant amount of stuff is cancelled. I will be contacted by a fixer never normally more than three or four weeks before the presumed date of the session. You are booked ‘on hold’ – which means that if it’s all cancelled you’re owed no money because the date isn’t confirmed. The confirmation comes no more than a week in advance and usually just two or three days.

If three to five six-hour days are cancelled, three days before, you’ve lost out on a not insignificant amount of money; and some people will be scared to take on other work for that time in case the session is confirmed. And if you tell the fixers that you’ve accepted something else instead, some of them can make you feel like a real arsehole.

No wonder there’s so much paranoia in the session world. If I make a mistake, will I get booked again? If I turn down a couple of jobs, will I get called again? I know musicians who’ve flown back from family holidays for a one-day job because they didn’t want to fall out with a fixer.

But opportunities have opened up in other areas because of the people I’ve met doing sessions, whether they’re in the orchestra, conductors, composers or sound engineers. There’s an assumption that if you’re working in that situation, you’re good enough to do other things too. Even if you’re only playing semibreves on a film soundtrack, it’s an assumption, and usually correct, that you’re serious about music and that you can do straight stuff really well. You don’t get into sessions without having a reputation in the other spheres anyway.

I know I keep banging on about semibreves, but there’s a serious point: I find the level of film music today quite uninspiring. Much is interchangeable, and I don’t know whether that’s because of directors demanding something unobtrusive, or composers not knowing how to do something more original. If a film is about someone lost in the Swedish wilderness, OK, you don’t want lots of rhythmic action sequences – but you can surely have something a little more original than C minor arpeggios. I find much more genuine talent and originality in the material we record for library music. There are a few huge libraries that productions will go to when they have no budget to commission a composer and book an orchestra. For instance, a tv documentary might go in and choose something suitable for a film about pandas.

As ever, time is money and now more films are coming back to the UK to record their music because they’ve realised that even if somewhere in eastern Europe is cheaper per session, they might have to spend longer on it there than in London. British musicians are extremely quick, professional and disciplined. On the other side, sessions are shrinking. Something that once would have been two three-hour sessions might now be much shorter, for instance one three-hour session plus some overtime. Sometimes you’re recording right up to the final second.

Becoming a session musician wasn’t my intention; it’s a matter of circumstance, needing to earn a living. This business is hugely competitive and more people are coming into it all the time, which keeps us all on our toes. I’m not hard-bitten and jaded; I still enjoy going to work. And I realise I am being paid quite well to do something that is relatively easy. There’s a certain mystique about session work; people think it’s a kind of A-list club, that it’s a mark of quality. Some people thrive on the fact that they’re a big-time session musician. Others, like me, just accept it as the great trade it can be at times, take what you can get out of it and don’t take it too seriously. It could all end in the blink of an eye.

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