Becoming a Session Player
Bob Knight is a drummer and the owner of BEK Music Ltd., a company based in the UK that provides session musicians ranging from soloists, horn and rhythm sections, to complete orchestras. Originally from Harrogate in Northern England, Bob grew up studying music, eventually earning a jazz degree at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied with renowned musicians including Bernard Purdie, Clare Fischer and John Abercrombie. Throughout his 16-year career as a session musician and musical director, he has performed, recorded, toured with, and directed many prominent artists including Charlotte Church, Seal, Eminem, Nik Kershaw, Michael Bolton and Cee-Lo Green.
I recently got to sit down with Bob and talk about the evolution of his music career, the qualities an artist needs to have in order to get steady work as a session musician and some advice he has for musicians that want to make it in the music industry.
Thanks so much for taking some time to talk, Bob. What does your current work in the music industry entail?
I kind of have a dual personality. I exist as a drummer/musical director. And then I have a fixing company. The fixing company itself is called BEK Music Ltd. It’s really just a name for registration purposes, but I tend to go by my own name, because it’s a bit more succinct. It also avoids some complication, because sometimes people who work for me, especially the younger generation, don’t realize I play music. They just think I put things together, because they haven’t seen me play or I haven’t played with them. Sometimes people who know that I play don’t know I can put things together for them if they require it. The company is a way to make sure everyone knows about everything I do.
And how did you get your start in music?
I started out a lot like everyone starts out. I’m from the North of England, from Yorkshire County from a town called Harrogate, which was a great town to grow up in. It was very geared towards the encouragement of youth music and education, and the programs were beautifully run and well involved. It was kind of a middle-class town. I studied there privately with some great drum teachers.
After I left Harrogate, I moved to London to go to the Royal Academy of Music. I did the four-year jazz degree there, which was amazing. It’s a hard course to get into. They only take eight players each year from around the world: one drummer; one bass player; one piano player; a couple horns and a singer. It was a whole day of auditions. But they have the greatest teachers and the greatest visiting faculty. If someone’s in town playing a show, the college will get an “in.” So, I had master classes and one-on-one lessons with Bernard Purdie, Clare Fischer, John Abercrombie – really heavy people.
I studied there for four years. I’m quite lucky because my brother is four years older than I. He went to Berklee and then he came to the Academy. So, I’ve always had the benefit of hindsight, because I’ve been able to see – not the mistakes that he’s made, but the problems that he’s faced trying to get established in an industry that’s already oversaturated and unregulated.
Before I graduated, I made sure I had some teaching opportunities lined up and had made fairly decent in roads with corporate function bands, etc. So, I knew I could sustain a living from music regardless of “making it” in commercial music. For me, and for anybody on the session musician side of things – not necessarily if you’re an artist – you have to do a little bit of self preservation, because of the nature of the business; there are a lot of things they don’t tell you in college about taxes, bookkeeping and accounting. It’s all quite boring, but it’s incredibly necessary. There were a lot of musicians that came out of college and got massively stuck by either earning huge amounts of money – because they got on a big gig and didn’t deal with it properly – or who could’ve gotten benefits or paid less tax because they didn’t understand what they should be registered for and how they should deal with it.
I was prepared when I left college. And I did a couple years of teaching and scratching around, playing everywhere I could and never saying no to a gig; I still try to keep that as an ethos now, especially if it’s with people I never play with. But my brother and the guys I knew that were older than me and playing clubs had opportunities come their way, one of which was my friend Steve, who got made music director (MD) for Alison Moyet. I started with her in 2003, and I still play with her now. We’ve done six or seven big tours.
Alison’s manager used to do the press for Charlotte Church, so I started playing with her and working as her MD. She had just put an album out, and we did a very small tour, because she didn’t really like touring. And then, she got her own TV show on Channel 4 here, which at the time was more cutting edge than other channels. We did three seasons of that show – over 33 shows. We had a 9-piece house band, not unlike a Letterman-type situation. And at the end of the show every week, she would do a duet with the guest. We had artists like Fergie, Nelly Furtado and the Manic Street Preachers. My job was to sort the arrangements for the theme music and all the other music played. And then – just to meet the artist and make them feel comfortable – we would prep the artist and talk to them through email in advance and argue about the key, etc. and a lot of other things drummers don’t often think about.
It sounds like as much as you are a drummer, you are also a music director and thus somebody who knows his way around arrangement.
I’ll be honest with you. The key thing I do is book a really good band. If you book a great band, most of the arrangement takes care of itself. I never write arrangements out in manuscript form – never physically score or arrange music. I book great players. And I trust a great guitar player knows more about playing the guitar than I know. I can tell him the feel I want and what I’m looking for and then let him find the part. I do the same with horns. I always book a section that work together and know how to communicate. I am a pretty traditional drummer in the sense that my harmonic knowledge is fairly piss poor. It’s as basic as it needed to be to earn my degree. And since then, I haven’t spent lots of time working on it.
By booking the right people with the right mindset and the right ability, I am able to be the MD. I’ve found that the majority of the responsibility that falls on the musical director relates to dealing with record companies, management and making an artist feel comfortable, secure and supported. And it’s also about establishing a decent line between having a good time and taking care of business.
You’ve hired a lot of musicians over the course of your career. And I know a lot of people that have been banging their heads against a wall in their original project and saying, “I love playing music so much, I have to figure out a way to stay involved. I better do some hired gun work.” What is it that you’re looking for in a session player, other than talent? And where do you find quality session musicians?
I’ll tell you what I look for. And then I’ll tell you how I come across people.
The most important thing for me, talent aside, is finding musicians that understand the music. It sounds flippant. But I’m not a fan of the gospel chops approach of playing higher, faster, louder, better. I think a lot of people don’t really grow out of that. I’ve seen so many people blow auditions by getting their chops out, because they feel that they need to prove they can play rather than just play the song. The majority of things I book are song based. So, chops aren’t that important. You need to have a degree of facility or technique beyond the music you’re playing, but that’s kind of a given. We all studied lots of things we don’t necessarily need so they would open up our musical vocabulary.
Personally, I’m really looking for people with ears, people with a good attitude and people who go the extra mile when the paycheck doesn’t necessarily dictate that they have to. I want them to want to go that extra mile because they care about turning in a good performance. Obviously, budgets these days are a real fight. I’m also looking for people who are socially aware and know how to behave in front of an artist and with other musicians. And because I’m a drummer, I’m always looking for the feel.
From a non-musical perspective, I need people to be punctual, always. You can never be the last in the lobby. You should always strive to be the first for a bus call, a lobby call or a sound check. To turn up last, a minute before the call time and say, “I’m here on time” really isn’t good enough for me. Specific timings are set out by tour managers as the latest you can arrive, not the time you should arrive; because there’s something that can go wrong – public transport or your own private transport, etc. If people are late for me, I usually give them a three strikes option. And on the third strike, they get fired. I’ve seen it through on a couple occasions, and it’s not particularly pretty. I don’t think people think you’re actually going to do it. But in a professional environment, music can be a bit deceptive: it feels quite social; everyone is getting on; you’re not in an office. I think sometimes people forget they’re at work, and they think they can take a lot of liberties.
Of course, maintenance of equipment and general personal hygiene, etc., as ridiculous as it sounds, are all really important. You don’t want guys coming on tour with a toothbrush and one shirt when you’re away for six weeks. But you’d be amazed.
As a bass player, I’m a hobbyist at this point. But I was always amazed at the gigs I got to hang onto just by being sober, punctual and doing what the part called for rather than overplaying. I can play eighth notes and I can play them really well.
That’s all you need. You’re hired!
It’s just always funny to hear it out loud.
How did you progress past Charlotte Church into having a fixing business? And what exactly is a fixing business?
With the Charlotte gig, I fixed the band; I put it together. A “fixer” is essentially the same as a contractor in the States. But we don’t work on contracts in the UK, so the range of what I do is fairly broad. Because of all the guests that came on Charlotte’s show, I met all the record company people. As you know, there are only four labels: Universal; Sony; EMI and Warner Bros. And they pretty much own everything else, unless I’m missing anybody.
There are a few large independents, but those represent the majority, sure.
For over 33 shows, I met all the reps for promo and good in roads there. I should go back a bit. Even before I got a gig with Alison or Charlotte – in about 1998 or 1999 – there were a couple people I was working with doing this fixing kind of thing. Neither of them were musicians. And neither of them were doing it very well in my opinion, because they didn’t know who to book or what they were booking. Essentially, I saw a gap in the market. And I knew people at a couple labels.
I bought a crappy old black-and-white camera, got in my beat-up car and drove around the whole of London photographing friends of mine in black and white standing against brick walls to make a portfolio book and try to get labels to take meetings with me so I could tell them I could supply them with musicians. I had a meeting with Steve Lillywhite, who was head of Mercury Records at that point. I knew him through a few different degrees of separation. He and a couple other guys saw my portfolio, and I managed to speak to a girl at Warner Bros. who was head of TV promotions.
For a while, I didn’t hear anything from anybody. But I kept building the book. And I was dropping cold emails and cold calls to people to let them know this is what I did. It took two years before I got a call. And the first call I got was from Sarah Adams at Warner Bros, who needed a TV band for Craig David. He had a touring band, but they wanted a younger look to do his TV appearances. I had the photographs all ready and had scanned everything into my computer, so I put a band for his shows on TV together.
At the time, there were a lot more shows on TV in Britain than there are now. And that band I put together did the whole campaign, which was about nine or ten shows. And then someone else in Sarah’s office said, “That band looked great. Where did you get them from?” So, she passed my number along.
And that was literally how it grew. I’ve been doing it for ten years now. As I was saying before, it was all about booking the right people who had the right attitude and turned up at the right time with the right dress, had learned the track, etc. Pretty much 85% of the live music on TV in the UK is mine.
Are you also doing fixing for people who need a touring band when there’s no television appearances?
I’m taking all kinds of calls now. But it wasn’t that way at first. I was predominantly mining TV stuff. So, through that, I would meet management and other members of labels. Most live things tend to come from different parts of the company or direct from an artist or their management, rather than through promotions; because by the time a project gets to promotions it’s mostly complete.
That’s how my fixing business got started. And it’s really progressed from there in the same way your career progresses when you’re a musician. Through word of mouth, by being organized and by delivering what I’m asked to deliver when I’m asked to deliver it, word has spread. And maintaining relationships with people has been really important.
So, your business is built largely on being affable and on being someone people keep in touch with and vice versa. It sounds like you’re a living example of someone whose Rolodex has sustained his musical career.
Yeah. I would agree with that.
And how are you balancing running a music business with being a session player and keeping your chops together?
I find it easy, to be honest. The internet is everywhere, and I have a smartphone and all the other necessary tools. The only thing working against me sometimes is the time difference. But if I’m in L.A. or New York, and I have to get up at stupid o’clock, then I just have to get up at stupid o’clock. And when you’re touring, there’s plenty of downtime. So, if I have to deal with something urgent related to my business when I’m out on tour, I can usually get it done. Most things you get good notice on.
On the live side, things take care of themselves. It’s very rare someone calls me needing to fix a whole band. There’s a girl called Rumer on Atlantic who I’m MD’ing for at the moment. And for her, I don’t fix the band. I just put the band together, because it’s very important to me that everyone gets paid fairly and correctly. And when we got the gig, the wages weren’t spectacular. And I didn’t feel it was right to take a commission there. So, I took an MD rate. But while the band is answerable to me, they essentially work for themselves. They’re not invoicing me; they’re invoicing her or the label.
Some of my friends that are MDs will put their own band together. But then they might call me. For example, there’s a band called Hurts that’s doing really well in Europe. They’re just now going to arenas. Their MD Pete is a friend of mine. And he will call me and say, “I need a girl who can sing, play the saxophone and play the violin.”
That’s pretty specific.
It’s very specific, and it’s also very unlikely. But because I know loads of people from college, from being out of college and making it well known that I do this kind of thing for a job, lots of people have gravitated towards me or have been recommended. I knew one girl who could do all those things, and I had to see if she was free. She had been on the road for most of last year just playing violin, but had just finished. I was able to negotiate her wages, put everything in place and send her down for an audition. She got the gig and has been out with them for about seven months.
On a gig like that, I don’t have to deal with any day-to-day stuff. I just deal with the invoicing, any contract negotiations for DVD or TV buyouts and other things like that. She becomes the responsibility of the tour manager. She and I have no contracts. She knows if she decides she doesn’t want to work for me anymore, she’ll never work for me again and I’ll never put her up for anything again. More often than not, that type of relationship is good enough, so you don’t have to contract people.
Contracts for session musicians don’t exist here. I’ve never had a contract as a session musician ever. I don’t know what it’s like in the U.S. But over here, you don’t get a contract for a tour or anything else similar. At the higher end, I’ve had musicians with contracts. For example, I have a girl out on tour with Shakira playing violin and a bunch of other things that has a contract. When an artist is that big and is playing arenas and some stadiums, they obviously need everyone on contract because of the sheer volume of people. But on a tour with a six-piece band and a ten-piece crew that is doing festivals and five- or six-week runs in different parts of Europe, it’s very rare you have a contract.
With something like Shakira, there’s insurance and liability, etc. You’d have to have that all nailed down.
It also sounds like your music direction and your fixing has improved your ability to find gigs as a drummer and that you’ve really leveraged one against the other.
I already had a reputation as a drummer. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t just work for myself. I play with a lot of other artists and get booked by other people – including other fixers – to play drums. And playing drums is my passion. It is always first and foremost. But as a session musician, there is a lot of downtime. And I’m not one for resting on my laurels. So, with my business, I saw what I thought was an opportunity.
I definitely have gotten some gigs because I’ve done something well for somebody as a drummer. And then maybe they needed a guitar player or someone who played the saxophone or guitar and as a result has come back to me on their next project and said, “We need a whole band for this.” And if I’m suited to it, I’ll also play drums. I’m very much aware of what my strengths are and aren’t as a drummer. I don’t really work with electronics. That’s not to say I won’t, but I haven’t as of yet. If something in that category comes in without a lot of prep time, I have guys I call.
If I’m being honest, I’ve managed to keep the two things I do very separate. And I like it that way. That’s why I set up the company in a way that, although it’s my initials, it’s not instantly recognizable to someone who might say “That’s Bob Knight, I know him,” or, “That’s Bob Knight, I don’t know him.” I still feel like I have something to prove as a drummer, as a result of people knowing me for doing many other things.
From the perspective of your 16 years of experience, which advice do you think would’ve helped you if you had heard it when you were just starting out?
Always give a good account of yourself, professionally and musically. Make sure that wherever you are or whatever gig you are on – regardless of how bad or how brilliant (but mostly of how bad) it seems – you are always giving your best. People always say, “You never know who is in the audience.” And you think, “That’s bullshit.” But, for example, I play with Nik Kershaw, and I’m very proud to do so. I grew up listening to his music. And I got that gig because I played a wedding with Nik’s bass player. And unbeknownst to me, the bass player went back to Nik and said, “I know who we need to get to play drums on the next tour.” And I’ve been holding that gig down for three or four years now.
With that in mind, you should always give the best account you can.
To learn more about Bob Knight, his business and his music, please visit the Bob Knight Drums website.