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I'm new to the LA session singer community. What are some resources to help me get connected?

You’ve come to the right place!

  • Check out SAG-AFTRA Singers on Facebook and “like” us to get notifications of union events – many of which are open to “pre-union” singers.
  • Sign up for our e-mail newsletter, which will give you news about changes in rates/contracts and some of what our community has been up to.
  • A helpful e-book by two veterans of the session world is Session Singing in Hollywood
  • A great many LA session singers have taken Gerald White’s Sightsinging Classes at SAG-AFTRA, open to union and non-union singers alike. They teach an essential skill for session work, and also help connect you to other local singers. Gerald also offers online sightsinging classes, as well as helpful online guest interviews.
  • Lauri’s List is a paid subscription service for classical professional singers in the LA area to find all kinds of gigs. Some services are free.
  • Singer Friends L.A.  is an open Facebook group for all L.A. singers (even men!) to exchange information about gigs, teachers, and other singing-related information. They also organize occasional happy hours.
  • Southern California Singers’ Collective is a similar Facebook group you can join to exchange singing-related information.
  • If you’re already SAG-AFTRA, make sure you call the Singers’ Department (323-549-6864) and ask to be put on the Singers’ e-mail list to get notifications of relevant events.
  • Also, if you’re already SAG-AFTRA, you can join our Yahoo group. Click on “Join group.” You need a Yahoo account (free), even if you have all the e-mails sent to a different e-mail address.
  • Follow @LASingersOrg on Twitter.

Do I need an agent or a manager to be a session singer?

No, not for session singing. If you are also an actor, a voiceover artist, or an independent recording artist, you’ll probably need to look into getting an agent or manager for those areas of work. But session singing work in L.A. is almost all gotten through referrals from a variety of music business people, including other union singers, all of whom can also be vocal contractors, depending on the particular job.

How do I get on a recording session as a singer?

Vocal contractors learn about new singers through referrals from other singers. The best thing to do as a new singer in town is to sing anywhere and everywhere. Church/temple jobs, casuals, caroling companies, professional and semi-professional choirs are all great choices. Also, network through the resources listed above. Attend singer caucuses and events, listen, and learn from your peers, while never forgetting to work on your voice and musical skills. Eventually, other working singers will get to know your work and feel comfortable referring you. “Your job, until you get the job, is to constantly be working on your craft.” – Quincy Jones.

Live performances are a great way for vocal contractors and other singers to gauge your abilities. A demo recording can be auto-tuned and/or take a hundred “takes” to get right, but in person, you have to show what you can really do in “one take” under pressure. However, having said that, you will eventually have to record a demo reel in order to show prospective hirers your vocal talent and the different styles you can sing. A word of caution: “shameless self-promotion,” either inside or outside the studio, is neither desirable nor necessary. If you are an excellent singer and follow these suggestions, the vocal contractors will discover you quickly.

How can I make a great demo reel?

Pick out a good variety of different styles of music with which you feel very comfortable.  Learn songs which will really show off each of those styles (and which you can sing excellently).  Don’t choose urban/R&B songs, for instance, if you can’t easily sing the vocal “runs” or “riffs” of that style – only choose styles you can sing WELL. If you only feel comfortable singing “legit” (classical), for example, sing the different variations of “legit” – opera, straight-tone early music, and perhaps a motet in which you overdub all the parts. You will still get hired for session work if you are excellent at what YOU do. For ideas on what to record and which vocal demos work (or don’t), visit singer websites and listen to as many reels as possible.

Go into a recording studio only when you are thoroughly rehearsed on this material, and can practically “sing the songs in your sleep.”  You can easily use pre-recorded karaoke accompaniment tracks as your instrumental backing; they’re readily available commercially (on iTunes, for example), and generally much better (and far cheaper!) than hiring people to play for you, or trying to play your own accompaniment yourself.  Record only the portion of each song which will most effectively show off your voice (generally a verse and chorus of a song is quite sufficient). No long instrumental introductions or solos, please! Make sure your voice is up front in the mix, and that the recording is of excellent quality. Then, have a recording engineer tightly edit together short excerpts of each of these songs you’ve sung. 30- to 60-second lengths are usual. Have the engineer put the song excerpts into a playing order, starting with the excerpts containing what you feel are your strongest vocal performances, with zero seconds of silence in between. Try to have back-to-back excerpts contrast each other, and try not to have duplication of similar styles (i.e., don’t include three excerpts with very similar styles; one good one is enough).

It’s fine to use recordings you’ve done from previous professional sessions on your vocal demo, but only if they achieve the main objective: showcasing your particular voice and skills. If your voice is buried in a background choir while a famous artist is singing in the foreground; or you’re singing a solo that we can barely hear because it’s so low in the mix; or you have a nice up-front solo, but it’s just a little bit out of tune – that’s not helpful for a demo reel. Save it for a line on your resumé.

Before duplicating lots of copies and distributing this vocal demo to the entire world, try to get it listened to by a few experienced music business veterans, and get their honest feedback as to which vocal excerpts of yours are most effective (or LEAST effective), and why. They may have helpful comments on the sequence of excerpts, the length of individual excerpts, overall recording quality, quality of your vocal performance, or the effect your vocal demo has on them. Take this constructive criticism seriously, and adjust your vocal demo so that it will have maximum effectiveness when you get it out to the music world. Overall length of your vocal demo reel should usually be 2-4 minutes, maximum.

The packaging of your vocal demo CD (the jewel case insert, tray card, and CD label) doesn’t have to be fancy, multicolored, or with long liner notes. The jewel case insert, tray card, AND the CD label should all contain your name, contact phone number(s), your e-mail and/or website addresses, and any performer unions you belong to (i.e. SAG-AFTRA, AFM, AGMA, Equity, etc.), in case the pieces get separated, which frequently happens. Print all this information in as large and clear a typestyle as possible, for ease of reading. The jewel case insert and tray card should also contain a numbered list of the cuts on your CD, with tune titles, short style descriptions of each tune, and playing times for each excerpt, and possibly even a photo of yourself (although this is not always as necessary as the rest of the information listed above, it’s a nice touch).

Once you’ve completed recording and professionally duplicating your vocal demo CD, give away copies to EVERYONE you meet (or whom you’ve been referred to) who’s remotely able to potentially hire you or refer you to other employers. Employers may include (but are not limited to): composers, arrangers, orchestrators, conductors, directors, songwriters, music supervisors, music editors, producers, ad agencies, ad music houses, instrumentalists, vocal contractors, and, of course, fellow singers! If you mail copies to anyone, accompanying the CD with a nice, short, professional-sounding cover letter on your own stationery (done with a word processor, not handwritten) will show the prospective listener that you’re a professional, and they’re more apt to take you seriously. Don’t forget to follow up with an e-mail a week or two later, asking if they’ve received your demo (never ask if they’ve listened to it!). Even if this vocal demo CD costs you hundreds of dollars to record and distribute, if you get ONE recording session as a result, you’ve paid for it!

Once you have a vocal demo, get a simple website where you can post mp3 audio files of all your vocal excerpts, both as individual clips and edited together as one reel. Myspace, ReverbNation, or Facebook are not sufficient for a professional singer’s needs. You can pay to have a professional website made, or build one yourself, if you’re web-savvy – the important thing is to have a site that’s easy to find, functional, and looks professional. Get an easy domain name, such as yourname.com or yournamesinger.com. Get a professional e-mail address, too, while you’re at it – it’s time to retire that ready2partay@hotmail account! Have your reel and all the individual clips ready on your computer to be easily e-mailed when needed; many music business professionals today (but not all!) prefer an electronic demo to an actual CD. SoundCloud is a good way to host your clips – it’s a free online audio distribution platform.

How do I become a member of SAG-AFTRA?

Usually, you need to be offered a SAG-AFTRA job in order to be eligible to join, but you may also be eligible if you are a member of another performers’ union. See the SAG-AFTRA site for details.

What is the etiquette for recording sessions?

Be inside the studio 15-30 minutes ahead of the scheduled start time. This is L.A. – prepare for lots of traffic! Come prepared: warm up your voice ahead of time, and bring a pencil, water, snacks, a sweater (studios are cold!), sufficient sleep, a smile, a great attitude, and your top game. Be considerate of your music-stand partner and shower first, but leave off any scented body products – many singers are allergic. Listen to and blend with the singers around you – if someone had wanted to hire you as the soloist, they already would have… If you have an IMPORTANT musical question, on a large choral session, ask your section leader first, who will ask the vocal contractor – never directly ask the conductor or the people in the booth.  On a smaller session, you can directly ask the vocal contractor your questions.

Keep absolutely silent unless you’re singing; wait until the break to chat. Leave the noisy jewelry and shoes at home. Keep your phone OFF – there is nothing more distracting than someone texting away, even with their phone on silent, while you’re trying to work.

Treat each session as the gift that it is. Each session will be run differently, some more efficiently than others. None are worth complaining about, ever. If you have a legitimate complaint, bring it to the vocal contractor or to a union representative at a later time. Bear in mind that the microphone may be on at any time, and people in the booth are very likely to hear what is said between takes. Never gossip or say bad things about other singers (or the people in the booth!) to one another, either inside or outside the studio. And don’t forget to thank your vocal contractor afterwards!

And of course, sing solidly and consistently, and read the charts accurately and musically. “Make a doggone hit!” – Oren Waters.

Also, it’s best never to discuss any ensemble session with other singers, either before or after the session. No one wants to learn accidentally that they weren’t called for something. And never post about an ensemble session on any social media, for the same reason. Conversely, never ask another singer “Who else sang on that session?” It’s okay to let people know about solo sessions, however.

It’s common to send vocal contractors and other potential employers an e-mail newsletter twice or three times a year, updating them on your latest vocal doings and perhaps sending a newly-recorded clip. That’s the correct time and place for self-promotion.

Is there a contract I can use for songwriter demos?

Yes indeed! When the composer doesn’t know for sure if the project will be used, or in what medium, you can use the all-purpose SAG-AFTRA LA Demo Agreement. Those rates are 50% of the Sound Recordings Code rates, which are extremely competitive. The songwriter becomes the “signatory” to that contract with a simple one-page agreement. The composer is responsible for paying the singer directly.

Songs/cues that are written on spec for a film or TV show are covered by the Theatrical Demo Agreement. With this contract, the signatory must be a producer, film production company, or other company (the composer’s music company is fine), and that signatory is responsible for paying the singer. The rates are 50% of the applicable theatrical film or TV scale, and then if the demo is used in the film, an additional 100% of the scale is owed to the singer(s). The form to be filled out at the session by the singer or contractor, and signed by the employer or a representative, is the SAG-AFTRA Singer Member Contractor Standard Report Demo

Songs that are written on spec for a commercial are covered by the Commercial Demo Agreement for TV or Radio. With this contract, the signatory party is the ad music house or their designated payroll company, and that signatory is responsible for paying the singer. The rates are here. The form to be filled out at the session by the singer or contractor, and signed by the employer or a representative, is the SAG-AFTRA Commercial Demo Member Report.

What are residuals?

Residuals are additional compensation due to performers when the project is exhibited in markets beyond the use covered by the initial session compensation (for example, a theatrical film being released on DVD, TV, and foreign markets). Residual payments are the responsibility of the signatory producer/company.

For TV work, residuals begin once a show starts re-airing or is released to video/DVD, pay television, broadcast TV, basic cable, or new media.

For film work, residuals begin once the movie appears on video/DVD, basic cable and free or pay television, or new media.

For video games, there are no residuals owed.

What is the difference between overdubbing (or multi-tracking) and sweetening?

Overdubbing/Multi-tracking is the recording of additional vocal tracks of the same notes sung on the original vocal track, just to enhance or thicken the “sound.”

Sweetening is the singing of tracks of additional harmonies or parts that differ from the notes sung on the original vocal track.

Is a vocal contractor always required at a session?

For solos or duos, no vocal contractor is required. A vocal contractor is required for vocal groups of 3 or more singers.  Any SAG-AFTRA singer can act as a vocal contractor. He/she is responsible for handling the paperwork required and choosing singers based on the musical style and skills required by the project. The vocal contractor must be part of the vocal group with the following exceptions:  a woman contracting male singers; a man contracting female singers; either one contracting child singers; or anyone contracting an established vocal group (such as The Four Tops).

What documents am I responsible for turning in to SAG-AFTRA at a session? What is the composer/producer’s responsibility?

The composer/producer should ideally NOT have to gather and fill out any documents on vocal sessions. That responsibility is generally that of either the vocal contractor (for group vocal sessions) or the singer him/herself (on solo/duo vocal sessions). The only thing the composer/producer usually needs to do, from a paperwork standpoint, is to sign the Member Report (see next paragraph) in the appropriate place, just to verify that the singer(s) showed up and did the work, as listed on the Member Report!

For theatrical film and TV, the singer (or his/her contractor) is responsible for filling out the SAG-AFTRA Member-Contractor Standard Report Form, getting it initialed by the singer(s), and signed at the end of the session by the employer or a representative. The singer or contractor is also responsible for turning in two copies of this report to SAG-AFTRA, one to the employer or their payroll company, and keeping one for the singer’s own records.

For theatrical film and TV, each singer must also fill out a Day Player Contract. Often the production company will have its own customized Day Player Contract for singers to fill out, but if not, here is SAG-AFTRA’s standard Day Player Contract for TV or for Theatrical which can be used instead. The Day Player Contract is turned in along with the W-9s, I-9s, and photocopies of backup documentation (see page 9 of the I-9) to the production company by the singer or contractor at the end of the session. A production company representative then should countersign it and mail a fully-signed copy of the contract back to each singer for their own files.

In addition, if you are the singer or contractor on a vocal session for theatrical film or TV, you will need to bring a SAG-AFTRA Production Time Report/Exhibit G Form, which is simply an official time sheet on which all of the choir members list their session arrival and departure times, along with their name, signature, and Social Security number. (Some payroll companies supply a “start form,” which includes all this information.)

For Interactive (Video Games), Industrial/Non- Broadcast, or Live Entertainment sessions, the applicable Member Report (Interactive or Non-Broadcast) should be filled out by the singer or contractor, and one copy given to the producer, one sent to the union, and one kept by the singer or contractor.

For a commercial, the singer or contractor needs to fill out the SAG-AFTRA Exhibit D: Member Contractor Standard Report Form Television Commercials, listing all details of the commercial recording session. This form needs to be signed by the employer or a representative of the employer, and then one copy is sent to SAG-AFTRA, one is given to the employer, and one is kept by the singer or contractor. In addition, singers will typically have to fill out payroll company “Start Form” paperwork, including W-9sI-9s , and photocopies of backup documentation (see page 9 of the I-9) and leave it with the payroll company or its representative.

Demos for theatrical film/tv, commercials, and general use are addressed above.

If I act as a vocal contractor, what are my responsibilities?

The vocal contractor has responsibilities both to the singers he/she hires and to the composer/producer clients. Before the session, the vocal contractor prepares a budget for the client, and helps suggest options to fit within the budget; assists with SAG-AFTRA signatory paperwork if necessary; and selects the appropriate singers for the project based on the composer’s needs. At the session, the vocal contractor handles union and payroll paperwork, including completing union member reports and obtaining completed W-9 and I-9 forms from the other singers at the session.

Vocal contractors often also fill a musical role similar to a concertmaster for a string section. They act as a mediator between the conductor and the singers, suggesting or developing technical solutions for achieving what the conductor wants.

The vocal contractor is responsible for clearing all singers for work by contacting SAG-AFTRA’s Station 12 Department (323-549-6794) or by fax (323-549-6792). Any problem with the singer’s membership status must be resolved BEFORE the work begins. If the vocal contractor hires a singer for work without clearing Station 12 and that singer then has a problem with their membership, the producer will be fined.

Remember, any singer can act as a vocal contractor, but if it’s your first time (or your twentieth), SAG-AFTRA staff are more than happy to walk you through the process. Call them.

What are some arguments I can use to convince a composer/producer to make a project union?

If the project is a film, ask if the project is already using SAG-AFTRA actors. If so, let the composer/producer know that the only thing the music department needs to pay is your session fee. The singer back-end payments, or residuals, come out of a percentage of the distributor’s gross revenue that the producer is already paying the actors. Many composers and producers do not realize this. It is completely different than the back-end payments owed to AFM musicians.

Also, please see our great arguments for hiring union singers, as well as our Composers’ FAQ!

I’m not sure a project I’ve been asked to do is covered work. Whom do I call?

Check with the SAG-AFTRA Singer Department about what type of productions, generally speaking, are covered (theatrical film, television, commercial, or music for a parade somewhere), and for answers to other questions. SAG-AFTRA Signatory Records Department (323-549-6869) is the place to clear a SPECIFIC project as being signatory to SAG-AFTRA. 

Previously, I sang some song demos and recorded miscellaneous tracks for a struggling composer. I was paid cash and signed a release for my work. Now that I am in the union, do I have any recourse if the material is used in broadcast form?

If the material is used in film or TV, unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done. However, if you hear your vocal used in a commercial, please contact the Music Entertainment Contracts Department at (323) 549- 6460 for a Demo Agreement and specific instructions.

What about live shows that are not recorded?

Live shows are not covered under any SAG-AFTRA agreement. If a client would like to hire singers for a live show that is not being recorded, the rates are entirely negotiable between the client and the singers. (Certain choirs, such as the Los Angeles Master Chorale, have rates set by AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists, but LA Master Chorale singers can sing with other ensembles for different rates.)

How soon after the session will I receive my session fee? When can I expect residuals?

You should receive the session payment within 5 working days after the completion of the work day. If you haven’t been paid within 2 weeks, check with the vocal contractor. You should start receiving residuals for film work 4-6 months after the end of the first quarter in which it becomes available, e.g. after the DVD release. For information as to broadcast TV and other supplemental markets, please check with the SAG Residuals Department.

How can I check on my residuals payments?

Each singer is responsible for making sure he/she is properly paid for residuals. If you want to check on your residuals payments (a very good idea!), fax the SAG Residuals Department with your request at (323) 549-6500, and include your SS#, membership number, date you started working, name, address, and signature. You will receive a master list which you can use to check what they have with what you’ve sung. If anything is missing, let the department know, and they will make sure you get the missing checks. Please note that commercial residuals are mailed directly from the advertising agency to the performer. SAG-AFTRA does not mail residuals for commercials.

How can I check on other money that might be owed to me?

Please see our Show Me the Money document!

What do I do if I get called for session work, but I already have something else on my schedule?

Because of the high-paying nature of session work, most singers prioritize it over almost everything else. Each case should be looked at separately, however, and a decision made depending on the circumstances. It’s a good idea to make sure in advance that other obligations can be cleared if a session comes up. If an extremely high-paying session (like a commercial “final” session) comes up and conflicts with another previously-booked session, speak to the vocal contractor of the originally-scheduled session about the possibility for flexibility at that time.

I have more questions that aren’t answered here. Whom should I contact?

Call the Singers Department at SAG-AFTRA (323-549-6864).  If you have questions about the website itself, contact the singers on the IT Subcommittee of the SAG-AFTRA LA Singers’ Committee on the Contact Us page.