Photo by Michael Wilson

Matt Rollings is a multiplatinum, Grammy-winning producer, pianist, and songwriter. He has played on thousands of recordings with artists such as Lyle Lovett, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Billy Joel, Johnny Cash, Queen, Metallica, Mavis Staples, and more. The following is excerpted from his Berklee Online course Piano and Keyboard Techniques for Session Musicians, which is enrolling now. 

In my 40 years as a recording musician, I have seen many changes. Some of the biggest and most amazing changes have been in the area of technology. When I started, “home recording” was limited to a quarter-inch “reel to reel,” or possibly a Tascam cassette Portastudio. The internet as we know it now didn’t exist. Today, digital, non-destructive recording is the norm, and it can be done on a phone!

The business has changed drastically as well. Streaming and downloading music has had a negative effect on the amount of money available for most projects, which means that most players have to also be engineers, negotiators, and business people.

Matt Rollings Trio “Groove With a View”

There are a lot of musicians, but there isn’t necessarily a lot of work. This means that as a recording session musician, we need to do everything we can to be the right person for the job. We need to have the right skill, attitude, set-up, flexibility, humor, and luck!

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Today’s Recording Marketplace

We can talk about today’s recording marketplace from a variety of different angles: A technical angle, in terms of what it takes to be a session musician in the world of remote recording. We can also talk about the recording marketplace in terms of relationships, which is a huge aspect of the music business. This includes relationships with producers, artists, songwriters, and the people who are going to hire and trust you with their music. These are the people who send you their files, and say, “Do your magic on my music. I know it’s going to be great.” Then it’s up to you to make it great! 

In the past, there have been definitive approaches for both angles, but in today’s world, it’s the Wild West. Everybody is doing everything in different ways. So, as a session musician, you need to be prepared for whatever comes your way. That means technically having your setup in place—your studio, your rig, your keyboard, your instruments, etc. All of that should be a given. 

The next thing is the business side of this. How do these gigs come to you? What do you get paid for them? What should you get paid for them? When do you say yes? When do you say no? There are no right or wrong answers.

What to Charge as a Session Musician

Try to be competitive as far as pricing is concerned—try not to price yourself out of the gig and at the same time, try to charge what you think you’re worth. I’m a longtime Musicians’ Union member, so the majority of the work I’ve done over the years has been through the union. The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) has worked very hard to create “single song agreements,” which allow remote recording sessions to run through the union, but employers aren’t always keen to do this. Musicians charge anywhere from $50 a song to $1,500 a song to do what I do. These days, it’s always a negotiation.

I recommend being willing to start with a price that would feel good if you were on the receiving end, and then go backwards and ask yourself what you’re willing to take for the project. Hold true to your numbers. It’s okay to say no if someone is really lowballing you, and they really want to get a lot of bang for not much buck. Maybe that’s not the gig for you.

Building a Reputation as a Session Musician

Something to consider when you’re young in this business: building relationships is absolutely vital. I dare say even doing some sessions for free is not a bad thing if it means that you’re developing a relationship with someone who might either give you more work in the future or play what you’ve done for other people who might give you more work.

The music business is a business of relationships. If you’re good at what you do, which means you know how to play effectively in the situation that’s presented, have a rig that sounds great, take direction well, and are easy to work with, people are going to find out. Word will travel that you did a great job, and that:

  • Your work was quick and sounds fantastic
  • You grooved with the band
  • You charged a fair price
  • You responded to emails promptly and answered any questions
  • You provided what they were asking for, and injected a little bit of yourself into the music
  • You shared an option that was unexpected and they really liked  

All these things are the skills that are required to be a recording session musician. 

Being Adaptable as a Session Musician

Additionally, you need to be a chameleon, stylistically. You might get a country song, or a rock song sent to you—I’ve received German jazz fusion! Anything that you get (outside of an extreme example like a Rachmaninoff concerto) you can figure out, even if you haven’t played it before. That’s what the internet is for. Go on the internet, and research the style if you don’t know it. If you feel like it’s in the ballpark of what you can do, say yes, figure it out, and send something. They’ll tell you if it’s not right, and if that’s the case you can go back and adjust.

Willingness to step out of your comfort zone is going to make you more employable, and it’s also going to make you a go-to session musician because you don’t say no. Instead of, “I’m not sure if I can do that,” you say, “Yeah, I got that. Send me the files. When do you want it?” and then you figure it out.

When to Say Yes or No

You’re going to get in situations where somebody calls you for a favor and says, “You’re the person for the job. I don’t have any money, but would you, please?” Think about it. Is this someone who has called you for favors eight times before and always promises there’s going to be money next time and there never is? Maybe it’s time to cut off that favor train. 

But if it’s the first time they’re reaching out and you really like the music, or you really want to get in with this person, absolutely say yes and do the favor. Something I usually do is tell them what my normal rate is, and let them know that I am willing to do the favor for them this time. It gives you experience and gives them an opportunity to work with you. So many amazing things have happened to me from a chance meeting or a chance encounter. There were projects I thought were a one-off and didn’t mean anything, and a year or two later, I got a call and it turned into a whole other world of opportunity. 

That’s how the music business works. That’s how creative endeavors work in general, by maintaining a willingness to say yes, unless, of course, it’s an obvious no. You’ll know a “no” when you come across it. Trust your gut: If it’s a no, it’s a no. “No” is a powerful thing to be able to say if it’s coming from a place of knowing. But “yes” is opening a doorway. And that’s what I want you to do—open doorways so that you can use the skills you have and hopefully profit. The music business runs on collaboration, and it’s almost always a doorway worth opening.  

Playing with Lyle Lovett

Early on in my music career, I was living in Phoenix, Arizona and playing with a band five nights a week. We got this wacky gig to travel to Luxembourg to play for a month. During that time, we met a young man from Texas. He was a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar, hired to play the set changes between us and another band. A week into our gig, he asked us very nicely if we would be willing to be his backup band and we agreed. 

“That Lucky Old Sun” (Feat. Lyle Lovett, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Willie Nelson) from the album Matt Rollings Mosaic

We played with him for a month, went back to Phoenix, and at that point, I decided I was going to quit the band and go to Berklee. In the meantime this gentleman, whose name happened to be Lyle Lovett, this nobody singer-songwriter from Texas, called us. Before I went to college, he came to Phoenix, because he had raised a bunch of money and wanted to record his music with us to try and get a publishing deal. That was the last thing I did in Phoenix before going to Berklee. We spent a couple weeks recording his songs.

I went off to Berklee, started my college journey, and about a year later I got a call from Lyle. He said, “Matt, I’m in Nashville. I got a publishing deal, and I also got a record deal. MCA is signing me and 10 of the demos that we cut in Phoenix are becoming my first record.” He then offered to fly me to Nashville to play some more piano on his songs. I spent two days in a studio with Lyle, and a guy named Tony Brown, who was an up-and-coming producer who had played piano with Elvis Presley, Rosanne Cash, and Rodney Crowell. I went back to Boston and months later, I got a call from Tony. He liked what he heard when I played with Lyle and offered to fly me back to Nashville and do some more recording sessions.

That was when I turned a corner. I decided I was going to go to Nashville, become a studio musician, and I spent the better part of the last 40 years in Nashville playing on records. I’ve played on probably 1,500 records, and all as a result of meeting this wacky guy from Texas in Luxembourg, and then being willing to say “yes.”

There’s an old saying that goes, “Proceed as the way opens,” and I’m a firm believer in that. If you keep hitting a wall and you turn left and there’s another wall and you turn right, and there’s another wall, the way is not open. But if you’re walking and there’s a wall, and suddenly you turn, and the wall disappears, proceed! There are a lot of people out there who may ask you to try something goofy . . . and that thing just may turn into something not so goofy.

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 Published February 5, 2024