Russ Miller

Thoughts on Professionalism and Career-Destroying Attitudes

by Russ Miller

I was recently asked to do an oral-history interview for the Percussive Arts Society. During the interview, we talked about developing business relationships and how that relates to continuing to work in the long term. As an exercise, they asked that I trace career success backward, to see how I ended up in that situation. They chose a Grammy-award-winning record that I had recorded. How did I get there?

You don’t go from practicing in your basement to winning Grammys all at once. There are many steps in between. How do those steps build a staircase that leads that high? Will every staircase you build be a success? Which steps do you focus on that might have the most potential? These are all great questions. While I formulated my answer, I was struck with one profound truth: We are in a constant state of bridge building. We need to forge ahead in our playing careers with each step getting us closer to our goals. This should be our primary focus, but it’s also important that we not set everything ablaze behind us each time we move a step ahead.

In this article I’d like to discuss moving in a forward direction toward your career and playing goals in a way that builds a solid foundation and long-lasting relationships. I love this month’s quote because it’s so true. You may need those bridges—situations and people—that helped you move forward at some point in your career. So don’t destroy everything behind you as you climb your staircase to success. Let’s take a look at a few versions of a bridge-burning attitude.

What Have You Done for Me Lately?

You’ve probably met people who are your friends only when you can do something for them. You hear from them only when you have something they want. The most common manifestation of this idea is the guy who takes calls but never makes calls. I work with some of the busiest contractors in Los Angeles, and I often hear them say, “I hired that guy for every gig, and he’s never reciprocated anything.” Usually the contractors stop calling those people after a time, even if they’re amazing players.

My point is that it’s not always about taking gigs and opportunities. If a situation comes up where you can recommend somebody for work, even if it doesn’t immediately benefit you, do it! We are all in this together. There have been many times when I’ve put guys on jobs, and later down the road they’ve ended up being the contractor on a gig or session and I’ve gotten the call. Think about building your reach in the music industry by building bridges for other players.

Been There, Done That

This is an easy trap. We all need to progress in our playing, relationships, and career, and we want to work with better players in higher-paying situations with more visibility. So it’s natural to question whether or not you want to do a gig after you’ve already done it for a while. But this can be a dangerous attitude. There have been times when I’ve been on a gig for a period of time and then gotten a call for a bigger tour. This presents a crossroads: Do I just quit the other job and leave them hanging?

I find it works better to gradually become “unavailable” instead of outright quitting a gig. (You never know when you might need that gig again!) Just fill up your schedule and work on availability scenarios. I’ve had many crazy travel itineraries over the years to keep multiple gigs moving forward. Once I flew from Japan to Mexico for a one-nighter and then went back to Japan the next day to finish a tour. Being able and willing to navigate that type of scenario shows the band members and leaders how concerned you are with their gig.

That’s a Bit Beneath Me

This one is big trouble. Here’s the reality of economics as a freelance drummer. You start by doing whatever gigs you can, taking home maybe $50 a night. You focus on filling up your schedule with $50 gigs until you’re really busy. Then you raise your rate to $100. Some of the jobs you were doing will meet the new rate, while others will drop off. This is a natural transition. Now you start to build new clients at $100 a gig. When you get your schedule filled, you can raise your rate to $300. The drop-off will happen again, so you build it up and move to $600 a gig, and so on.

As you move to a higher pay scale, do so in a smart and respectful way. Don’t insult the clients that can pay you only $300. Just let them know that you’re not able to do every gig for $300 anymore but you’d be happy to cover anything that works with your schedule. It’s not a good idea to take the “I get more money than that” approach. If the money is too light, then don’t be available for it and instead invest that time into practicing, writing, or doing something else that profits you.

I’ve had several players ask me over the years, “How do I get into that higher-dollar circle?” My answer is always the same: When your schedule is filled up with $1,000 gigs, you can start to have $1,250 ones. Usually this isn’t the case, and these guys are looking to jump from $300 jobs to a much higher amount. Keep in mind that there are a lot fewer gigs that pay $1,250 a day than ones that pay $300, so be careful what you wish for. There’s a definite backlash to doing bigger-money gigs. Everyone sees that and starts to think, He probably won’t accept a $500 gig.

Rock-starring people is never a good idea. Don’t alienate yourself with super-high fees or make anyone feel you’re “above” them. A gig is a gig. Some events have bigger audiences, better players, and more money, but they all rely on the same principles of professionalism: Show up early, be a nice person, play at your highest level, and present yourself in your best light.

Phoning It In

This attitude is probably the most destructive of all. Phoning it in is a phrase used to describe someone doing a gig with the least amount of effort. We spoke about this in the November 2014 column, titled “Being Prepared.” Not putting the proper effort into short-term preparation for a gig can lead to disaster. I can’t stress enough how important it is to always present your product at its highest level. Otherwise, you can gain a reputation as someone who’s not serious about your work. I give the same effort and level of diligence to every gig. If you’re hired to do a job, always do it with excellence. It’s much easier to build a good reputation from the start than it is to fix a bad one.

To conclude this month’s column, here’s the breakdown of how I ended up on a Grammy-winning record. The sessions came through a recommendation from an engineer I met doing soundtrack sessions for a film composer. I had been referred to that film composer by a bassist I’d played with on several other sessions. I was on those record dates because of a sax player I’d played with on some jazz gigs, and I was on those jazz gigs because of a piano player I’d played with in a house band at an amusement park (which paid $85 a show). I was on the house-band gig because I was subbing for a drummer friend of mine. So basically I played on a Grammy-winning project because I had subbed on an $85 amusement park gig!

Russ Miller has played on recordings with combined sales of more than 26 million copies. His versatility has led him to work with a wide range of artists, including Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Nelly Furtado, and Andrea Bocelli. For more info, visit