Case Study: Background Vocalist

Posted on February 24th, 2014 by Chhaya Kapadia in Financial Case Studies, Participant Data. 2 Comments

Previous: Recording Income

Reflections on Mailbox Money, Dependencies and Unions

One thing is clear from this case study: mailbox money makes a difference. This session musician makes as much and sometimes more from TV and film residuals as she does from the appearances themselves. Reuses, new uses and royalties from television and film appearances have a huge impact on this session musician’s ability to make a living. Similarly, record royalties – or recording mailbox money – has a positive impact on this musician’s bottom line, even if the amount received from recording mailbox money isn’t as substantive as that from television and film.

Session work has pros and cons.

While a session musician makes money from residuals and royalties without having to do anything for it after the initial performance, the opportunity to earn that income is the result of third-party decisions over which a session musician has no control.
For example, if an older song on which our background vocalist initially performed was licensed for use in a new hit television show, the song would begin to generate royalties for many rightsholders.  The song’s sudden popularity would generate sales and plays on online radio, both of which would generate royalties that trickle back to the background vocalist. Or if a television show on which a session musician has appeared becomes popular on a new online television viewing platform, the episodes of the TV show might be broadcast more often, which would later translate into residual checks for a session musician.

However, income from mailbox money isn’t guaranteed. A reuse of a TV or film appearance depends on its ongoing success and audience demand to watch older content. Income from recording mailbox money is not only dependent on the popularity of the featured artists, but also on a willingness from the record label to license to new and existing interactive online music services. It also depends on the applicable union’s ability to negotiate rates effectively, and on the music services’ commitment to accurately maintain and report the music metadata that ensures that income can flow back to the right session musicians and singers. The increasing digitization of older catalog repertoire represents an opportunity for older sound recordings to gain a new audience, but without correct metadata to match sound recordings to the original performers, session musicians stand to lose out on potential income. Similarly, while it’s likely the appearance of new online music services in the marketplace represents a net positive for background musicians, it’s no guarantee. Though only applicable to the rare artist with the power to withhold licensing of sound recordings, a few very popular featured artists are choosing to forego making their music available on new digital music services (most notably, Spotify has experienced this dynamic). While not likely to become a trend because of the way contracts are structured, the incomes of the background musicians who perform on the applicable recordings may be negatively impacted as a result.

For the person who chooses to make music as a career, having unpredictable amounts of income arrive seemingly at random so many years after the initial outlay of time and effort makes it difficult to plan for professional or personal expenses.

Next: The Value of Unions

About the Case Studies

Graphs do not have a Y-axis dollar value in order to observe the conditions of our privacy policy. In addition, graphs and visuals in case studies are not comparable within or between case studies. For more details about this, read about our financial case study protocol.

Information detailed in case studies is based on data received directly from the artist or their authorized representative. The data analysis and lessons learned here are based on individual experience, and do not necessarily reflect the experiences of all musicians in genre or roles.

Case studies are one of three ways this project is looking at music creator income.

2 responses to “Case Study: Background Vocalist”

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