John Miller – On Broadway

I get so many emails asking about ‘how to get work in the big city’. Have a look at this. From New York’s leading contractor – a most comprehensive view of the state of our music industry in 2005.

John Miller has contracted 45 Broadway shows. He is a bass player and has been a Local 802 member since 1966. The following article was originally a speech given by Miller to the Bass Player Live Workshop on Oct. 17, 2004.


I never met a bass player who said his or her dream growing up was to play in a Broadway pit. Play in an orchestra, maybe. Play jazz. R&B, rock, funk, pop, you name it – but not in a Broadway pit. So how do you explain why these guys are playing on Broadway: Steely Dan’s bass player and keyboard player, Aretha’s bass player, Sting’s former guitar player, Simon and Garfunkel’s guitar player, Bobby McFerrin’s bass player, and 50 percent of the musicians in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra?

Clearly something has changed. Why do these caliber players want their own Broadway show? The answer is not complicated. The studio scene isn’t what it used to be.

Very few of us can make a living solely as studio musicians. Even to make a living from a combination of gigging plus studio work is challenging at best.

How did this happen and where did that work go?

That’s another conversation with someone smarter than I am, who can explain it to all of us.

But we all know those days are over. Embrace the inevitable. A vacuum was created in the industry and Broadway became the new studio scene.


Why Broadway? What’s the attraction?

For openers, a livelihood. In 2004, the minimum weekly gross salary was $1,500 for eight shows plus all benefits, for no more than 24 hours a week of our time. Play electric and upright? That’s one double for an additional $180.

You must belong to Local 802. The union negotiated a powerful benefit for Broadway musicians that allows us to take off 50 percent of the time and still protect our chair for the entire run of the show. That time is usually taken so we can do other gigs.

You get to play your instrument eight times a week and play with great musicians who share your commitment for playing at the highest musical level. And you’re often playing some amazing orchestrations. And not to be underestimated, there is potentially a great hang with some fascinating people.


Now, let’s get to the heart of the matter: the big question and probably the only one musicians want to ask: how do I get a Broadway show?

Let’s first talk about how you don’t get one and dispel one of the greatest myths: “Calling the contractor will help me get work.”

It won’t.

Let me repeat that. It won’t.

What feeds this myth is the misguided view that the contractor is the one solely responsible for hiring musicians for shows. It’s simply not true.

The conductor is the Buddha. He or she is ultimately the one who must be comfortable with the choices.

And sometimes the composer has musicians to recommend.

And don’t forget that orchestrators also have a strong voice in the final selection. They know the level of difficulty they’ve written and they often write with specific musicians in mind.

Of course contractors make recommendations, but we don’t necessarily have the final say. Our job is to work with everyone – the conductor, orchestrator and when possible the composer – to select the musician who they all feel is the perfect player for that style of music, for their show, that specific instrumentation and the unique combination of personalities in the pit.

But does knowing all of that stop us from wanting to call the contractor? Doesn’t seem to. It’s not a good idea. I don’t say that because of my contracting work. I say that because of my experience as a bass player.

No one has called more people looking for work than I did when I first started out. Someone, I’m sure with good intentions, told me I should call all the movers and shakers; a particular contractor, a conductor, an arranger, a leader. You name it, I called them.

These people had no idea who I was. I was slow to realize they didn’t like being solicited. And it began to sink in when a few slammed the phone down. I had been given the wrong advice. Calling as a stranger, unsolicited, was a professional liability for me. But more important it got me further from my desired goal; to play for them.


So what can we do? Send a letter to introduce yourself Include a resume. Why not? But don’t tell a contractor that you need work. (Who doesn’t?)

And don’t lie. It’s a small industry.

And it’s just not smart.

In your resume make sure that you indicate any show experience you’ve had. It’s also very helpful to mention if you’d be willing to go out on the road for a year. You never know.

Make sure, while you’re at it, that you know something about the person you’re writing to. Some young musician wrote me a very flattering letter about how anxious he was to meet me because he knew that I was “one of the most successful drummers in the industry.”

I’ll tell you what I do with the resumes I receive:

I file them and put the names in a database.

I look through them when I’m stumped.

I particularly look for people willing to go out on the road. That’s a real good way in. But once again, calling the contractor won’t help.


Here’s what I think really does work if you want to play on Broadway or anywhere else for that matter: we are, each of us, one another’s contractors. All the time. Anytime someone asks us to recommend a musician, we are acting as contractors that very moment.

I believe I can say that almost every job I’ve ever gotten as a bass player is because another musician recommended me.

I encourage you to take every opportunity to play. Do readings, workshops. Take an Off Broadway show, an Off Off Broadway show. Hopefully, when those conductors get their first shot they’ll bring you along. Sometimes you’ll meet these conductors on non-show-related gigs. I was so hot to play that I’d even go with singers and their accompanists to auditions.

I remember being embarrassed to call a major Broadway drummer for a workshop of an Off Broadway show. The union wages were low and the time commitment was extensive. He told me that not only would he love to do it; he’d bring his own drums.

Later he explained that he takes jobs like these because he wants to build relationships with the new, up-and-coming composers and music directors to keep himself current and hopefully secure work for himself down the road. Smart long-view thinking.

Bass players are asked which drummers we like to play with. And musicians are like athletes, we always tell the truth about how good someone is: “This drummer lays down a deep pocket, great time, great feel. I just don’t want to sit next to him on the plane.”

That bass player’s recommendation might very well be the reason that particular drummer gets hired, or not.

Your goal is to make sure you’re the person everybody wants to play with.

And don’t overlook the obvious: make sure they know how to reach you, and you them. Have your business card handy and get theirs, that way you can “contract” one another.


How do you get started? The most obvious answer is subbing and the good news is, the regular bass player is always on the lookout for great subs. They need you more than contractors do.

Your goal is to sub for the regular and begin building your own reputation with the conductor and the musicians as a great player with a great attitude.

Now you need to find a way to hook up with the regular player because they choose the subs they feel will best protect their chair. Ultimately it’s the conductor who approves or disapproves the sub after hearing them play their first show.

With a little bit of legwork anyone can find the names of the regular bass players doing all the Broadway shows. They’re all listed in the Local 802 directory (available free to members).

The next step is to make contact. Here’s where we all need help because self-promotion has never been our strength. Let’s assume you don’t know the bass player. If you can find another musician who knows your playing and knows the regular and is willing to put in a good word for you, that’s the best. If you’ve been playing in New York for a while, you probably know enough musicians to play the six degrees of separation game: someone who knows someone who knows the regular bass player.


Now you’re ready to make contact with the regular. Call at an appropriate time or e-mail.

Keep the conversation short and simple. Introduce yourself. Use your best credentials. Ask if they’d like your resume or a CD of your playing. Remember with your resume, give names and contact numbers of other musicians you’ve worked with. Again, don’t lie on the resume.

The point of your phone call is to find out if there’s a convenient time for you to come and watch the book. If they say “yes,” great. If they say “no,” let it go. For now. Don’t push. Move on to another show and try again in six months. You don’t want to irritate the regular.

If you find that getting to sub on Broadway is an obstacle, go Off Broadway, or Off Off. Go where you can find an “in” someplace. The point is, you need to get started.

We’ve all heard stories of musicians, new to New York, who land their own Broadway show in three months. That’s like lightning striking. Don’t wait for it. It rarely works that way. Find where your services are needed. Working Off Off Broadway is better than waiting around for Broadway and hitting a brick wall. This can be a slow process. Embrace that.


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