The Conversation website recently ran a piece talking about Australian session musicians and the fact that they do not collect royalties for their work. The piece explained that Australia is one of only a few countries that do not guarantee royalty payments to session musicians. Author Rod Davies also states that U.S. session musicians do get royalties. But it is not as simple as that.

U.S.-based session musicians are not prohibited from earning royalties for their work. But they are not guaranteed to receive royalty payments by law. In this country, royalties are governed by the terms and conditions of the contracts session musicians work under.

Where and How They Work

Most of the work done by session musicians occurs in the studio. That’s why they are often referred to as studio musicians. But session musicians also play for artists on tour. A group of session musicians might spend a year or more on tour with a major artist. A single musician might fill in on one or two dates because another musician is out ill.

The question of royalties comes into play when recorded music is distributed, broadcast, streamed, etc. If a studio musician is fortunate enough to receive royalties, they get a small payment every time a piece is utilized. For example, every time a given song is played on the radio, the musician receives a small payment.

As previously stated though, such payments are not guaranteed. Contract language makes that determination. And in most cases, a session musician must be a member of a union or industry trade group in order to get royalty payments.

Working for Major Artists

When session musicians contract work for major artists, it is pretty much a given that the finished product will be a commercial success. Therefore, their contracts may call for royalty payments as long as the musicians are part of an industry group that administers royalty payments. Two examples of such groups are the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).

Though there are exceptions to the rule, contracts generally don’t allow for royalty payments if a musician doesn’t belong to an organization capable of administering those payments.

Working for Independent Artists

Artists not already signed to major deals are considered independent artists. This is where session musician royalties get tricky. Because there is no guarantee that an indie project will make it commercially, it’s more difficult for session musicians to get royalty payments included in their contracts.

Imagine being an artist working with New York-based Supreme Tracks. They assist you by providing full online music recording and production, including supplying the session musicians who will ultimately record your tracks. Supreme Tracks says right on their website that you don’t pay royalties for session musicians.

Musicians know this and are fine with it. As an indie artist, you own all the rights to your creative work. Therefore, you do not have a record label or publisher who controls any aspect of your music. Such organizations would normally control royalty payments. But since you don’t work with them, royalties are a non-issue.

A Hit-or-Miss Thing

Royalty payments to session musicians are a hit-or-miss thing in the U.S. Quite frankly, the same scenario exists all over the world. It is really not possible to say with certainty that session musicians in the U.S. always get royalty payments while their counterparts in Australia never get them. It’s not that cut-and-dried.

It all boils down to contract language. Here in the U.S., royalty payments are possible for session musicians. They just aren’t guaranteed.