Want Work? Mark Wheeler of WantSax.Com offers advice on becoming an online session musician

On March 1, 2020, Mark Wheeler was preparing to release his first album, Left of Right, had a day job as an IT specialist for a cruise line, and spent weekends and evenings gigging with his band.  By April 1, he'd been furloughed from his job, the performing gigs were gone, and he was forced to look for other ways to create an income.  

Wheeler's story isn't unique; musicians all over the globe saw their incomes evaporate due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  We've had to become creative.  Some are giving online concerts, some are teaching virtual lessons.  Wheeler chose a different route: marketing himself as an online session musician. As part of my ongoing series of articles on how to get paid to make music in a post pandemic economy, working as an online session musician is an option for all musicians, not just pianists.

I asked Mark if he'd be willing to be interviewed for No Dead Guys (even though he's not a pianist) and share his thoughts on how he launched his virtual recording career and he graciously agreed to answer my questions.  Here are his thoughts on remote recording and advice on how to break into this market.  

You’ve had a career as a performing musician.  What drew you to the idea of marketing yourself as an online session musician?

Well, I'd thought about it for while, albeit casually. When I decided to record my first album, I realized I would need real drums, but there was no one locally that I knew who could do that - record drums and send the tracks to me. So I looked online, found a great drummer, and learned the process of recording remotely. The same week I released the album, my work hours were cut in half, due to the pandemic. A month later, they were completely eliminated. It was then I decided to offer my services as a horn player. 

Briefly, what is an online session musician and what do they do?

They do the same thing as any other musician being recorded in a traditional recording studio - except the studio is in your home. The musician receives a track or sheet music (or both) and records the part. It's then sent to the client for approval. Once approved, the musician is paid and the final recorded track is sent to the client.

Successful online musicians have the opportunity to work on projects all over the world.  How do people find them (and you!)?

You can be found several ways. I found my drummer organically via a web search. That's most likely the usual way, but word-of-mouth and previous client recommendations, too, are common. Interviews are equally helpful, especially when you're just starting out. All this takes time, like starting any business, to build up your reputation and clientele. You can find me at WantSax.com.

How do you calculate what your time is worth when you are negotiating with clients from other countries and thus different currencies?

I look at it this way: the need dictates the cost. In other words if the client needs an 8 bar solo versus playing throughout the entire song, that will take less time, so it costs less. It's pretty much based on how long do I expect it will take me to get from start to finish. As for currency, I calculate how much it would be in US dollars, and that is converted to the client's currency at the time of payment, via PayPal, who does all the credit card processing.

How difficult is it to break into this market, and where do you need to be listed in order to get exposure and referrals?

I honestly don't know how difficult it will be. There are other online session players, and they cover pretty much all the instruments and vocals. If you need a musician to record for you, they are out there. There are web sites ranging from large "distributors", such as soundbetter.com, which offers just about anything you can musically imagine, to dedicated sites like mine.

What skills and recording devices do you think are needed to be a successful online session musician?

You need to have an understanding of recording and post-processing. That means having a setup that provides a professional sound to the client. You can't put your phone on a music stand and expect that to give you the necessary results. You will need a good mic, audio interface and a computer to recored the audio into. That will require a DAW (digital audio interface) that is the program that does the actual audio capture. From there you do post-processing (fix little things that get in the way of a deliverable recording). That's just the audio portion. Then there's dealing with the clients. You may need to do several takes before getting it just right, so there's some back and forth. Finally, you're running a business. That means bookkeeping, taxes, etc. Bottom line - you need to communicate well, and be equally artistically and business minded.

What advice would you offer to other musicians who wish to enter this market?  

The reason we are musicians is because we love (and live) it so much. Music is what makes up so much of who we, as musicians, are. So if you are thinking of jumping in, go for it. For me the recording process has always fascinated me. Mixing that with my love of my horn and all kinds of music, it's a great fit. But like any other job, it's not always going to be fun or easy. It takes time, like any business startup, to gain traction and sales. It's not going to happen overnight. As well, it's not always about the music. But all the stuff that's not "musicing", allows you to "music". Just do it because you love it so much.

Mark Wheeler is a classical-trained saxophonist who has enjoyed a career as a jazz, R&B, pop, and blues musician.  His album, Left of Right, is a collection of original smooth jazz compositions and was released in April 2020 and can be heard on all major streaming services.  He has appeared in countries ranging from Ireland to Cuba to China and many others in between. In addition to his extensive performing, Mark has recorded, produced, and arranged for orchestra and studio projects, but is happiest inside a small combo on the backside of a deep groove.

For more information, visit WantSax