How to Be a Session Musician

“When you hire a session singer or voiceover artist, you aren’t looking for someone to just recite words with a pleasant voice. You want someone who will engage the listener, drawing them into your story. The right artist can make your project come to life, encouraging listeners to emotionally connect with the story.”

Today, we are so lucky to sit down with one of the best freelancing session musicians, Mella! We sat down and chatted about music, the state of the industry, how she got into session singing, and what she could recommend for anyone looking to start their freelance music career today. Take it away, Mella!

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How did you get into music?

I started super young! My family is very musical and a lot of my cousins and uncles have recording studios. I’ve been a studio rat since I was old enough to know how to sit still, haha. I started session singing “professionally” when I was about 14 and the rest, as they say, is history.

How did you get into the music career you have now (session musician, blogger, other)?

I started session singing for my uncle. He had a lot of songwriter friends who needed a singer to bring their songs to life, so I offered to do it (for free at first, not a great business model haha). Then when I got a car, I drove all over Detroit working with whoever would have me. Eventually I had enough of a reel and enough business sense to make it a side gig, which then turned into a full time gig.

The blog is funny, I’ve always loved writing but didn’t think about it as anything other than a hobby. I made a website for my session singing, but I learned that in order to have good SEO, you really need a regular blog to help people find you. I started it and became addicted to it. I absolutely love blogging, from coming up with the ideas to creating the graphics and arranging all of the pieces on my site, it’s so much fun!

The blog doesn’t really earn me any money, but that’s okay because it’s a passion project for me at this point.

Can you tell me what a session musician does and how they help musicians/businesses/etc?

Absolutely! Basically, let’s say someone writes a song. They might have a great idea, but they’re having trouble executing it or finishing it. Maybe they’re not a singer, or maybe they sing well but feel it needs background vocals by someone else. Maybe they are a great singer but can’t play guitar, or another instrument. That’s where session musicians come in. We take the idea and either enhance it or complete it, depending on what the client needs. Session musicians can also be collaborators, co-producers or co-writers, depending on what is needed. I do all of that as well, but most of my work is just receiving a pre-written song and performing it.

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What would you tell someone looking to become a session musician?

It’s SO much more than just singing or playing your instrument well! You have to have good business sense, marketing sense, customer service and technical skills. I would say start small. Do it as a hobby to see if you even like it. Then grow slowly from there. No need to run out and buy a ton of expensive equipment right away.

What are some of the struggles you’ve faced in the past as a session musician and how have you overcome them? (past or current)

I was always really afraid to charge money, even for gas for driving out to someone’s studio. I got over that just by doing it so much and building up a demand. Now it’s no big deal, so I think it was just something I had to do over and over. I still struggle with things like marketing, but luckily, I love blogging so much that it does help me find new people!

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What does your current studio set up look like? How are you recording? What does the session process look like?

I built a vocal booth with my dad. It was a fun weekend project and it’s essentially sound proof. I spent a TON of time researching how to do it. I’d love to make a tutorial for other people to follow. That’s been on my To-Do list for years!

You mentioned that you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to get started. What are some essentials that a session musician should start with? 

Essentials for sure would be a microphone, but even then, you don’t have to go out and blow a ton of money. There are great budget mics that will do the trick. You’ll need a DAW (like Pro Tools or Logic) to record on, so you’ll also need a decent computer. You’ll need an interface for the mic to connect to your computer, a stand, a mic chord, and headphones. If you’re a singer, that’s about it! Obviously, you’ll want to do your own research on each of these so you make the best choices for you, but other than that, you’ll want to invest in making a room or closet more sound proof. You can do that with blankets when you’re starting out. Do everything you can to learn about each piece because that’s what will make or break your recordings.

How has the music industry changed for you from when you first got into music vs now?

Oh god haha, so much! Just the fact that I used to have to go to studios physically, and now 100% of my job is virtual. The internet has changed so much from when I started. The internet existed when I started, but there really wasn’t an option to collaborate virtually like there is now.

Also, of course, there’s the streaming. Streaming existed when I started, but it was not in any way taken seriously, nor would any artist rely on it for income! Also, social media. Everything has changed so much, and it’s a little scary but also exciting. I just try to roll with the punches!

What would you tell musicians today who are thinking of being a musician part or full-time?

Same as someone looking to be a freelance musician – just start small. But I also definitely recommend learning how streaming works and get really active on social media. You don’t have the option to stay hidden anymore, and the phrase “good music markets itself” is NOT true anymore (if it ever was). Start there and grow into it.

What was the best piece of music advice and/or music business advice you’ve received?

When I was working on my album, I didn’t know how to use any gear or computer program at all. I would show up and stand in the room like an idiot while the producer set up the mic stand for me. He got on my case and said I really couldn’t expect to grow in my career unless I could do some of these things myself. He was so right. I definitely couldn’t be a virtual session musician if I hadn’t learned any of that! I now run all of my own sessions and handle all of my recording, which is huge for running my business!

What is currently working for you in promoting your work as a musician? Meaning, what do you find gives you the most bang for your buck when you do something?

Good question! I find video is always a huge help. I really am not comfortable being on camera, but any time I force myself to come out of my shell and make a video, I usually see results from it. I only started doing video because I read that people don’t really like to read blogs anymore and “video is king,” so I begrudgingly started it as a way to drive more people to my blog, haha. I do think my blog helps, but from what I’ve seen, people do prefer video!

Where do you see yourself as a musician in 5 year? 10?

I really don’t know! Isn’t that terrible? I know that’s like, business 101. I think a lot of it depends on the industry and how it goes. I’d love to have gotten some big-name, A-list clients that maybe have won Grammys or something. That would help open doors for me, because when you put “Grammy” in your name anywhere, people automatically take you more seriously. I’d also like to be in much higher demand, and able to take some time off without worrying how I’ll pay my bills. Also, if I could make money off of my blog finally, that would be great!

Where do you see the music industry as a whole in 5 or 10 years?

This is such a good question and honestly I have no idea. I hear a lot of things about AI and music, so I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of that. I’m just hoping to hang on and ride the waves, wherever they take me!

A HUGE thank you to Mella for answering all these questions. There are so many gems for other musicians in here, especially if you have been thinking about starting your own session work for some time.

Have a question for Mella that wasn’t answered in the interview? Leave a comment below so she can help you out!

If you’re interested in keeping up with Mella and all the amazing things she is doing, give her a follow and subscribe at the following places!

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