Though their voices blend into the background on recordings and in live performances, back-up singers are vital to a song's dynamics and quality. In fact, some successful singers began their careers as back-up singers. Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey and Sheryl Crow are examples. Though they may not earn as much as the singers they support, back-up singers can make a decent living and can even earn residual income.
The average hourly wage for singers as of 2008 is $21.24, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The middle 50 percent earns between $11.49 and $36.36 per hour as of 2008. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not report annual salaries for singers due to the lack of consistent employment for singers. However, Simplyhired.com lists the average salary for a back-up singer at $88,000 annually as of 2011.
Under AFTRA's "Sound Recording Code," singers and back-up singers earn more than $130 million dollars collectively each year. Because many record labels have agreements with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), singers must join the union to begin recording. This includes back-up singers. Under a partnership agreement between AFTRA and AFM, back-up singers, or non-featured singers, are paid royalties and a session fee. Soloist and duo rates for a three-hour recording session for a CD is $203.75 as of 2008. Singers working late night, weekend or holiday sessions may receive an additional 50 to 100 percent surcharge added to their wages. Making a CD may require more than 50 hours for vocals recordings and the average back-up singer may work on a few albums per year.
For sessions of three or more back-up singers, a contractor is required and must be one of the singers unless the ensemble is all male or female. Contractors earn an additional rate per session based on the number of singers. Contractors for groups of three to eight singers earn approximately $44 per session, $52 per session for groups of nine to 16 singers and more than $75 per session for groups over 25 singers.
From the Mouth of a Back-Up Singer
Chinah Blac, a former background singer for Dave Matthews, Jill Scott and Raheem Devaughn, began commanding her own salary as a back-up singer after serving as the vocal director for Erykah Badu and vocal arranger for Jill Scott. As a result, she launched her own independent career, but notes that she earned more money as a back-up vocalist. Veteran back-up singers typically earn more than independent feature singers.