Session Musicians – Know Your Rights

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Now more and more people are using different mediums to produce their tracks, including session musicians. Technology can make a bassoon sound like a harp, so when session musicians are used they may find themselves contributing more than a part for their own instrument, maybe even a hook line. This Q & A will focus on different issues associated with being a session musician.

Q. Who classifies as a session musician?

A. A session musician is someone who comes on board to play during a “session” on stage or in the studio, but who is not part of the main act or band, or who makes a “one-off” contribution. When a session musician is hired there should be a written agreement in place that makes it clear that the musician is performing the capacity of a session musician and not as a member of the band or act. A session musician could be a guitarist, brass player, percussionist, DJ or even a “beat boxer.”

Q. As a session musician, do I have any ongoing rights to a song that I play on?

A. Session musicians co-own copyright in the sound recording for their live performance in equal shares with the person who owns the original recording. Co-ownership of copyright means that you have the right of consent regarding how the recording is used, whether it be for radio play, use in commercials, film or any other medium. You are also entitled to any royalties generated from the use of the recording. You will not be entitled to anything, if you have agreed to a flat session fee and signed a session musician’s release.

Q. What is a session musician’s release?

A. A session musician’s release is a document that assigns all rights to whomever is paying for/producing the recording, in return for a session fee. If you are working consistently with a composer or producer, and coming up with your own parts then you should consider signing an agreement that assigns rights fairly and proportionately to the work that you are contributing. If a song becomes a multi-platinum track, then things can get messy later.

Q. Will I always be paid with a session flat fee?

A. There are rare instances where a session musician will be offered a portion of the future income from a recording, usually arising where the artist or band cannot afford to pay session rates. These deals can lead to exploitation on both sides. Having a clear contract drawn up by a good lawyer is essential for any artist or session musician making these kind of deals.

Q. What are “moral rights?”

A. Moral rights are personal rights that connect authors to their work. These arise automatically and last for 70 years after the death of the author. They are:
• The right of attribution – that is, being identified as the author of your work.
• The right against false attribution – the right to prevent others from claiming your work as their own.
• The right of integrity – your right to ensure that your work is not subjected to derogatory treatment in a manner that is harmful to your reputation.

Q. What session fee or set rates should a session musician receive?

A. Although it may vary among states, the standard rate for a session musician is about $100 per hour. There is a minimum three-hour call, which means that even if you are only needed for 15 minutes, you are still entitled to $300. This rate can be reduced if you are a band member or a solo musician. There are other aspects that may also vary the rate, including provision of your own equipment, overtime, additional skill (playing more than one instrument), overtime, night rates, travel, transport, meals and accommodation. If you are overdubbing more than one track then the rate should increase by 25%. Rates are set by the Musician’s Union of Australia.

Q. I have signed a session musician’s release form, but now the part I played is a feature in a hit song, do I have any recourse?

A. If you have accepted a flat fee or signed a session musician’s release then it will be difficult for you to argue later that you were entitled to more royalties or money than you originally received. If you have signed something, then you have given consent to the owner for any purpose they please, providing your moral rights are maintained. You may be able to argue that you did not understand what you were signing, but courts will be extremely reluctant to void a valid contract. Unless you signed the document under duress or were mentally incapacitated at the time, you will not be able to undo any agreements that you have signed, so have these documents drawn up by a good lawyer and ready to go for any occasion that you may need them.

Take Away
This article is only a preliminary overview of potential terms and issues triggered when working as a session musician. It is essential that all the key terms and issues of any documents be advised by a good lawyer and put in writing. If you require general legal assistance, or assistance with regards to session release forms or copyright, please contact your lawyer.

If you want to know more about your legal rights as a musician and understanding copyright on songs, you can check out our premium content course videos on Music Industry Legals and Understanding Copyright.

6 thoughts on “Session Musicians – Know Your Rights”

  1. Hello, I’ve produced/written a corona virus song that big companies are interested in. What should I pay someone to record a sax line for it? Also what should the lead singer and back up singer get paid for this one time deal?

  2. Hi Jim, You need to take this up with your music lawyer – I can’t offer advice of this nature. Payment deals vary based on a heap of variables.

  3. I played guitar on a song featured in a major motion picture soon to be released on Netflix. At the time the writer offered me $50 for my performance, I refused becaus ethey area friend of mine. I never received anything else from the writer. Do I have a right to any performance royalties?

  4. You were offered money but refused it, and I assume there was no other written or verbal agreement in place. Such a common scenario, musicians really need to learn to protect themselves better – even when playing with friends. Money is the great destroyer of relationships. Best scenario is that you say to your friend, hey now I know you’re actually gonna make some cash for that song, maybe I will take some money – what do you think my guitar playing was worth? But hey, they already offered, you turned them down, don’t let this issue be a breaker of friendships – be happy for your friend that they’ve had such an incredible opportunity and use this as a learning experience to never ever play on a recording for anyone without some agreement in place. If you weren’t written in to the copyright then you won’t get any of the royalties. And if you really want to get some money, hit up a music lawyer and see what chance you have to go after some cash retrospectively.

  5. Hip-Hop Bassist

    Several years ago I was approached to play on a catalogue of songs by a producer and was told they were ideas and were not being used for a major releases. I was asked what I charge per track (assuming they were just demos) and only charged a small fee. At no point did I ever sign any paperwork or document waiving any rights. Fast forward to the present, I have now played on over 300 tracks of which 17 were major label releases. One Platinum Record, one two times platinum record, two gold records, and several US Billboard Number 1s. Three years ago I reached out to the AFM in my city and was told that “Since you didn’t sign anything it’s going to be an uphill battle to get added to the credits retroactively” and that “you’re going to burn bridges and never be let back in this genre”. Yesterday, April 13th, 2021, I called the AFM in LA. After speaking to a member of their Song Recordings division, he provided me with the email addresses to A&R Directors for each label. As of this morning, 80% of these labels have already emailed me back stating that I’m being added as the track’s bassist. Where do I go from here and who I do connect with?

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