My research project, tentatively titled Musical Livelihoods: Life Histories of American Session Musicians, is a multi-participant life history project focused on American session musicians. Popular documentaries and niche periodical articles on popular session musicians abound, and yet academic research is lacking. My project’s life history approach allows for a multi-scalar analysis of individual experiences from personal to global.
Session musicians such as Leland Sklar, Steve Lukather, Tony Levin, and Steve Gadd have continuously relied on work-for-hire as rhythm section members for artists ranging from James Taylor and Carole King, to Dolly Parton, John Lennon, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, and more. As such, they hold a prestigious status among their fellow musicians, having been active since the 1960s and 70s, and yet the average listener is not likely to recognize them on the street.
As contracted musicians, they are hired on a job by job basis, and do not often collect residuals or royalties on album sales or streams. Because of this, they must continue to work full-time to support themselves. Some of the artists they have recorded or performed with might have one hit album and then fall from the limelight, but still collect royalties on their music years later. Also, due to their age the collection of life histories is valuable and urgent.
Rapid changes in music performance, recording, distribution, and consumption occur year after year. Sampling culture and the prevalence of electronic music which often borrows riffs and musical passages crafted by these session musicians makes these earlier contributions relevant today. I seek to elucidate the ways that these musicians have continued to navigate the music industry and the complex social networks of working musicians in the epicenters of the American music business, NYC, LA, and Nashville in particular, but also transnationally as members of touring groups that play all over the world.
I earned a BA in Cultural Anthropology from Syracuse University in 2016, followed by an MA in Audio Arts (with music industry and studio recording foci) in 2017. My research interests include ethnomusicology, career building in the music industry, music and technology, expressive culture, and the relationships between socioeconomics factors, new technologies and their impact on career possibilities. I also have interests in feminist theory, activist movements, and the anthropology of work.
I am an electric bass player fluent in many styles, as well as a freelance studio recording technician and mixing & mastering engineer. Being born and raised in a small town in Michigan far from the musical epicenters of the United States impacted the possibilities I had for making a living as a musician, later providing the foundation for my interest in how professional musicians continue to earn a living in a musical landscape that changes on a near-daily basis.
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