SessionExchange – the online session directory

SessionExchangeSessionExchange is a comprehensive directory of professional musicians who are able to offer instrumental and technical recording services at short notice from their own recording studios. All listed members have to apply to be included in the directory, and we have strict criteria for inclusion. Members must be working professional musicians, have a minimum of 3 years’ professional session experience with at least 3 remote session credits and their own high quality recording setup. The directory is run by UK-based composers Deryn and Dan Cullen.

The directory started as a document in a composer group on Facebook, which consisted of the names of some very talented instrumentalists recommended by various composers in the group. Like all composer forums, the topic of live instruments over samples is always a hot one. Dan and I are both composers and I am also a session cellist, so we know what it’s like on both sides of the fence. Session musicians see more and more of their work being chipped away by sample libraries; composers are constantly having their budgets squeezed. It’s a very familiar (even stale) story and while there are no simple answers, we all have to accept that we work in a fast-changing industry, embrace technological advances and work out how we can make them work for us.

SessionExchange looked like a good way to do that. It is completely unrealistic to expect a live orchestra on every library, TV, film or game cue we knock out, but the difference a well-placed live instrument or two can make to a sample-based track can be the difference between a lucrative placement and a life sentence on a dusty hard drive. Like anyone running a business, self-employed composers have to speculate to accumulate. Spending £140 on a skilled session musician won’t guarantee success for the composition, but it will certainly improve its chances. This approach may not suit the purists who believe that synthesisers amount to the final nail in the coffin of credible music, but it is a compromise that brings work to session musicians and injects life into media music and challenges composers to write to the strengths of their libraries and their preferred live musicians.

The list was becoming rather bulky and difficult to wade through, so we decided it was time it had its own dedicated site with instrument categories, more information about the musicians, and clickable links to their websites. We spring cleaned the list, removing anyone we felt lacked experience or expertise, and implemented an online application process for any new musicians wanting to be listed. We also created a Soundcloud profile to feature recordings of some of the listed members and integrate audio into the site. With no subscription fees (the featured listings were only introduced earlier this year), we had no advertising budget and relied on Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth to publicise the directory. In spite of our rather limited reach, our members were starting to get gigs and many more wanted to join.

By January 2014 we knew that we couldn’t sustain the number of applications coming in and the growing costs of running the site without charging something. We thought long and hard about the best way to do this. A donation button on the site had been stoically ignored for the 6 months it had been there in spite of gentle reminders. With the fairly limited facilities of WordPress.com where we host SessionExchange, we can’t create a sign-up process for members and/or composers, and we didn’t want it to become a pay-to-play racket that anyone could join so long as they coughed up subscription fees. So we settled on a featured listing model where anyone wanting a detailed listing (which is time consuming to create) pays a small annual subscription fee, and those happy to have a basic listing only need to place a permanent link to our directory from their site. The application process is unchanged, and subscription fees are only payable when a listing has been approved.

To our huge relief the model was accepted with great enthusiasm: several of the existing members upgraded their listings, while new applications for both levels come in at a steady rate. We now have 65 members (of which 21 are featured) and 100 listings (of which 26 are featured). Every member is an experienced professional with a dedicated recording setup and the skill not just to play, but to record themselves to a high standard. We have attracted some pretty high profile musicians. To name a few, Public Image Ltd. bassist, Scott Firth; Florence and the Machine harpist, Tom Moth; session wizard Chuck Sabo, who has recorded drums for Elton John, XTC, Tina Turner, Billy Preston and Roy Orbison amongst many more.

Our hope for SessionExchange is that it becomes the industry go-to for composers on tight deadlines and budgets, encourages more composers to insist on at least some live elements in their cues, and keeps the difficult career path of session work alive and well. We are not trying to replace traditional recording studios. As long as the desire for live instruments remains, there will always be a need for studios. If a composer’s time scale and budget don’t stretch to booking a studio for an afternoon to record an instrumentalist, his options are to use a solo sample (no matter how good, never as good as the real thing), change the composition to omit the solo passage, or book an online session and receive the stem on the same day. The composer who chooses the online session is flying the flag for live instruments and is far more likely to book a commercial studio when a future budget allows for it.