Music Jobs: The Musician

This blog series focuses on different roles in the music industry. This week: the musician. I believe the following statement might seem redundant, I want to stress that there would not be a music industry without musicians to make music. Therefore, I start this series with elaborating on the role of the musician.

The definition most commonly used for musician rests firmly in a Eurocentric or Western foundation. First, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a musician as “a composer, a conductor, a performer of music; especially: instrumentalist.” If you use Google, it states that a musician is “a person who plays a musical instrument, especially as a profession, or is musically talented.” Finally, Wikipedia states that “a musician is a person who plays a musical instrument or is musically talented. Anyone who composes, conducts, or performs music is referred to as a musician. A musician who plays a musical instrument is also known as an instrumentalist.”

To summarize the definitions mentioned before, you can conclude that a musician is involved in the creation of sound we understand as music. It can be that the musician plays an instrument (instrumentalist), writes compositions (composer or songwriter), or tells others what and how to play within the context of a particular composition (conductor). For this article, I focus on the role of the musician as an instrumentalist.

The word instrumentalist points out the primary role of the musician: the person plays an instrument. The voice is also considered a musical instrument alongside others such as the guitar, piano or drums. Roughly, we can distinguish the role of a musician, the instrumentalist, in four groups: performing artists, recording musicians, performing musicians, and a combination of the latter two.

Performing artists are the people who the common public knows and loves or hates. These are the people who record and perform music themselves, whose names top music charts, and you can find at music venues and festival. Often, these performing artists are singers who play another instrument or a combination of singers with other musicians. We call the latter bands or music groups. Frankly, the role of a performing artist within the music industry deserves an article on its own because their position differs strongly and has particular characteristics compared to the recording and performing musicians.

Recording musicians are instrumentalists who only focus on recording music in studios. They have refined their ability to play music on record as smooth and efficient as possible. They are creative and have a good understanding of what elements are beneficial to the potential success of a song. Their collaboration with the people hiring them is often short-term, albeit that quality recording musician as frequently requested by the same people repeatedly. Recording musicians can be contracted by recording studios, other musicians, producers, and record labels. Synonyms for these recording instrumentalists are session musicians or studio musicians.

Performing musicians are instrumentalists who only focus on performing music in music venues, festivals, and shows for media. They can play their instruments while interacting with the dynamics of a real-life audience and other musicians as well. The importance of understanding those dynamics well enough is often underestimated. Just like the recording musicians, their collaboration with the people hiring them is often short-term from one show to an entire tour. However, that is not always the case. In some cases, performing musicians have long-term contracts for multiple years or album cycles. Although not that common anymore in today’s industry, performing musicians can also be long-term hires for clubs or other companies. Other names you will hear to define these performing instrumentalists are session musicians or live musicians.

As the term session musician might have already given away since it is a synonym for both recording and performing musicians, the combination of both is commonly called a session musician. These instrumentalists are most common in today’s music industry because it is getting harder and harder to earn a living without being both a recording musician as well as a performing musician. They gain fame within the professional music scene but often remain unknown to the common public, and are contracted by performing artists, other musicians, studios, producers, venues, and record labels. A nickname for successful session musicians is “hired guns,” which is also the title of a documentary about session musicians and is available on Netflix.

To end this article, I want to point out that the information written above is based on my idea based on my personal experience in the music industry. Not every statement I make will be accepted within the community, even though I have over fifteen years of experience as an active participant in the music industry as a musician, an industry professional, and an educational professional. Colleagues will have different points of few or have different experiences. Therefore, I want you to look around the industry and talk to people about their points of view.

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