December 8, 2016

Can you be a UK session musician and NOT live in London?

As a non-Londoner, this topic is pretty close to my heart and one that I really wanted to air my thoughts and first hand experience on.

I’m definitely that guy who, if you say to me “you can’t do such and such” I will want to do it more! So when I started out as a session musician 5 years ago, and everyone’s advice was “you need to move to London”, instinctively I felt the need to absolutely not move to London. Not because I don’t like taking advise, but because for me, it never made sense that where I live should affect where I work (within reason, obviously) – afterall, I do have a car…and a sleeping bag!

I should probably say at this point that I don’t have any hate towards London, I actually love it – but I enjoy my space, and the outdoors and London really isn’t where I want to live…I think this could be the same case for a lot of people who have also been told you need to live in London to work as a musician – hense why I want to write this post to share my experience and advise.

Plenty of successful working session musicians live outside of the M25, so it’s definetly possible, but how do you make it work? Here’s a few things that have worked for me (and also not worked for me) in the past.

  1. Have a plan. Be organised, punctual and mobile
    The biggest thing you will need to prove if you are going to commute to London for work is that you are reliable and that your home location doesn’t affect your work. So have a plan – do you drive? If so, how long would it take you to get into central London for 10am…with time to spare…because traffic…and coffee! If you don’t drive, how reliable are the trains and buses around you? What will you do about your gear (I store mine in London and get a cab to drop it off to wherever I’m working). What will you do with your gear after a show if your lockup is closed?

    You really can’t afford to be a liability on a gig when you’re from out of town, so being organised like this will mean that other people don’t have to spend their time worrying about how to get you from A to B, or how to ship your gear about, or even whether you’re going to be able to make it to your gig!

  2. Budget your own travel expenses
    I never expect to be paid my travel expenses. Since it’s my choice to live outside of London, I don’t expect to be put up in a swanky hotel or have my train fares paid. Having said that, thankfully, the people I work with respect that I don’t live locally and are happy, most of the time, to pay my expenses or put me up in a hotel (although, I often miss a couple of petrol receipts or train fares off my invoices). It has to be said though that I have spent many a night in a shared dorm in a five-pound-a-night hostel in London…hugging my bass for dear life! Or top and tailing with other band members, or sitting in a bus stop until the first train back home…I’ve done it all!

    Here’s my top tip though if you’re on a budget and you need a hotel, go on really really late on the day you want a room – like 10/11pm – I’ve never paid over £30 for a 3* in central London…in this case, lack of organisation actually pays off!

  3. Embrace the fact you live outside of London
    OK, honesty time. When I first started out, I remember thinking it would be a great idea to just pretend to live in London when people asked…at the time I thought I was as cunning as bloody Jonathan Creek, now I look back on that I realise it was a dumb idea which didn’t actually land me any more gigs than when I just said where I lived for reals!I did live in London for a few months (had to try it) and in honesty, I didn’t get more gigs just because I had a London postcode…all that really happened is I spent loads more money!! Ironically, the day after I moved back to the Midlands, I got a call for the biggest pop gig I had done at the time.

    But here’s what I learnt from all that – Not all music work comes from London! Everywhere has local function bands that you could get involved in, or pick up some students who don’t mind keeping a flexible schedule, or find a local studio and start working with a producer, or even work your way into doing remote sessions and sit in your boxers and record (not that I do that)…there is plenty of stuff you can do locally or remotely which still means you are able to earn as a session musician without being in the big smoke. These gigs are a great way of sustaining you whilst you spend your time going to London to meet other musicians, go along to jam nights and expand your network, all things that can help you work towards getting the bigger gigs that work from London.

  4. Don’t be a burden
    This point is kind of similar to my rant about not claiming expenses, but it’s something I think is really key. Remember, you chose to live out of London, so if you have to get up at 4.30am to make the start of your rehearsal, or if you have to drive for 45 minutes to get to a pickup point on the motorway so the tourbus doesn’t have to take a detour – then do it!! Don’t make other people’s lives difficult.
  5. Show your face
    The amount of times I’ve heard people ask me “You came all the way from the Midlands…” as if I live on the moon. Truthfully, it takes little over an hour for me to get to London, so there is no excuse for me not to be there whenever I have free time and show my face. By doing so, you’re letting people know that it’s not actually an issue for you to be available….plus you also get to hang with some really amazing people.

    I used to block book train tickets at the start of each month, in advance, every Wednesday – Friday, and head down to meet people for a coffee and make my way to jam nights to meet other musicians. I’d sleep on couches, hostels and train stations, but it meant that people became familiar with who I was and that I could start making friends with people doing the same thing I wanted to do.

I think in reality, the whole living outside of London thing will always be something that initially makes people who want to hire you wonder if you are going to be reliable – which is fully understandable. If you’re going to do it (and it’s 100% possible), expect it to take that little bit more work and determination and a few more redbull-fueled late night drives than if you did live in London.

Would love to hear people’s thoughts on this, is anyone feeling like they are expected to live in London to work as a musician? Or did anyone make that move already? For me, where I live has always been my first priority and work second, so this is my experience in trying to achieve that balance.

21 Comments on “Can you be a UK session musician and NOT live in London?

Patrick White
December 8, 2016 at 7:52 pm

Sincere and up front great blog Sam

Dan Whitehouse
December 9, 2016 at 2:23 am

great blog Sam

Peter Aves
December 9, 2016 at 5:18 am

Nice one Sam, this is definitely a topic I’ve battled with in my head multiple times. Luckily the residency stuff I do these days means I don’t get a choice of where I live. My Mrs lives in Essex though, which I think would make commuting to London much more of a breeze and less of a challenge…but she hasn’t invited me to live with her yet, haha!

December 9, 2016 at 8:49 am

Haha, yeah I’m staying out of that conversation…but Essex is definetly closer 😉

December 9, 2016 at 9:37 am

Loved this post, very interesting and honest!

December 9, 2016 at 10:05 am

Thanks Monique!!! Hope you’re well lovely

Jay Stapkey
December 9, 2016 at 11:12 am

In the nine months I’ve been doing online sessions I’ve done more sessions than in the last five years. I have over twenty regular clients who send me repeat work. I live on a beautiful island in north Essex.

December 9, 2016 at 11:18 am

Mate online sessions is such a revelation – such a great use of technology and a great way to have control over where you work from!! Although I might be more tempted by a beautiful island in the Maldives rather than essex, but each to their own 😉

December 9, 2016 at 11:31 am

This is great Sam! I also do the same too (minus the sleeping at the bus stop haha) Ive some great relationships with people in London who let me use the couch when needed! Now to find a place to leave gear….

December 9, 2016 at 11:34 am

Cheers dude!! Yeah storing your gear in London makes life a lot easier – I have a lockup at a place in Camden called New Rose studios ( costs me £8 a week and the guys are lovely. But if you need something more accessible (like 24 hour storage) then it’s worth finding some people to go in with and split the cost of something like a Big Yellow Storage (think it costs about £150 per month, but would be enough for 4 peoples gear)

Gail Ford
December 9, 2016 at 7:26 pm

Yup. Agree totally – I’ve always been a non-driver, so getting around the UK for work’s never been an issue to at least consider. Just that with our wonderful transport system, some gigs just aren’t practicable. (Like those that need an early departure on a Sunday, or involve travelling across the country, as opposed to up and down. Trains just don’t seem to do lateral thinking). All I really need now is some session work to go to..

Ainsley Johns
December 11, 2016 at 10:33 am

Excellent piece bro! Really enjoyed it!

December 11, 2016 at 10:34 am

Cheers dude – thanks for reading!!!

December 11, 2016 at 12:54 pm



[…] such a positive response to last week’s post – Can be be a UK session musician and not live in London, I thought I would talk about that thing that comes before getting work, something that I feel […]

December 12, 2016 at 9:49 am

An inability to spell and punctuate is obviously a key part of ‘session’ work.

December 12, 2016 at 9:55 am

I dont no wot ur tawkin about 😉

Jake woodward
December 12, 2016 at 10:52 pm

I enjoyed this blog. It’s a subject close to my heart. I live a bit further away but still make it work. I like your idea of block booking trains to make regular appearances.
Any good jam night recommendations?
Jake W- Drummer 🤓

December 12, 2016 at 11:22 pm

Thanks for your comment Jake – it can 100% work – if you’re organised and determined then there is no reason why it can’t. Going to put out another post about Jam nights (possibly later this week) – add me on facebook or something and you’ll see when I post it!!

December 30, 2016 at 11:52 am

Great piece, but i’m not sure it’s quite as applicable to a lot of classical instruments or horns. There’s a lot less online session work (and session work in general!) for things like clarinets, flutes, oboes, bassoons, tubas, bass trombones, cellos, violas, harpists etc, and obviously these instruments don’t have the option to play in a standard function band and realistically will be never appear at jams (where can we network?!), so in that respect really do have to be inside of London for work and networking. I know a lot people who really expect travel expenses for coming outside of London, which makes my life difficult as a fixer and makes them realistically unbookable when there’s so much great talent in the city who don’t need travel.

December 30, 2016 at 9:02 pm

Hi Bob, you actually make a really good point that this isn’t a fool proof plan for ALL musicians. Really, i’m aiming these thoughts towards the contemporary instruments – I think when it comes to classical instruments you may be right – perhaps London is where you need to be since the opportunities are more centred around there. One thing that I hope comes across in this post though is that I think your “home life” should come before work – at least for me that has been really crucial!! Thanks for reading though and for your valuable feedback!


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