Defining Your Role

Six Degrees of Communication

by Russ Miller

Music is a team effort, and figuring out our position on the team is key. This will help us better communicate in any scenario, which leads to more contentment on the job. This month we’re going to look at the six main roles that you might play in the music business.

Over my career, I’ve been in all six of these situations. Recently, I was reminded of the need for everybody to understand his or her role in each one. If you think your role is different from what it actually is, there can be turmoil. I was asked to do a gig a while back that comprised a jazz quartet and a singer. Everyone in the band was older and very established. The bulk of the material was from the vocalist’s previous albums, but it wasn’t presented to me as if we were sidemen on the singer’s gig.

The job didn’t pay very much, but I agreed to do it because everyone in the band was a world-class player. Also, it was a straight-ahead jazz gig, which I am focused on now, giving me more opportunities to substantiate my studies with my current teacher, Peter Erskine. We rehearsed as a quartet, and it was great. But at the first gig, the vocalist went “lead singer” on us and started asking us to play differently, requiring many things with the attitude of “I’m the leader and you’re the sidemen.” The instrumentalists looked each other, like, What just happened? The same scenario occurred at the next two shows. The gigs were sold out, and we had some great moments, but we were frustrated by the attitude.

Then the time came to do the record. At the sessions, the singer started asking us to play things that didn’t make artistic sense. I disagreed and explained that, in my humble opinion, these weren’t the best musical decisions. The vocalist was taken aback by this and didn’t accept it very well. I explained that in this particular scenario we were in a band environment and this was my opinion. I became “unavailable” for the group after that incident.

This singer didn’t understand everyone’s roles. If we were getting regular sideman fees, and if the gig had been presented that way from the start, there would never have been an issue. I still might not have played what was asked, but I would’ve approached it differently. Let’s talk about some of the roles we might find ourselves in and how to define and navigate them.


This situation is the easiest one. You are a hired hand—an employee. What the boss says goes. This is typically the role when you’re called for sessions, working for solo artists, or being hired by contractors. You need to supply what the client wants, and you’re not in a position to disagree with much.

The biggest issue here is that you don’t have much negotiating power and you need to basically shut up and play. The positive side is that you make money whether or not the gig or record sells. Also, you have no liability. If the project fails, you move on to the next one with no negative effects on you. You’re there to play the best you can and serve the situation as fittingly as possible.


When I grew up, the youngest guy on the gig held the older players in respect. We discussed this in the March 2015 issue, in my “Time Keeps You Humble” article. It’s important to have humility in your presence and playing. I always say that you can’t learn anything when you’re talking. When you enter a situation as the youngest or least experienced player, it’s time for you to listen and learn. Don’t get me wrong: Say what you have to say musically when it’s your turn, but don’t come into the scene with a “dig me” attitude. Most of the time, older players are coming from an entirely different perspective. Take the opportunity to grow as a musician, and be an information sponge.

Old Cat

I’m a firm believer in sharing information. This is why I created my various books and DVDs and have an online classroom. When artists acquire information over a long career, it’s their responsibility to share it with younger players. If our role models didn’t do this, each generation would be starting from scratch. I know several established players who don’t share, and I personally think it’s a selfish attitude. Of course, not every great player is a great teacher, but high-level professionals gain experience that few others will ever have. I feel it is the obligation of those players to share their information. This holds true on a gig where you are the elder statesman.

But just because you’re the oldest guy on the gig, that doesn’t mean you automatically play better and know more than everybody else. As jazz great Tony Williams said, “Don’t confuse experience with mastery.” I’m talking about situations where you see things being done in questionable ways. Speak up! The younger players need to respect the fact that you’ve been around for a minute. Help when you can and hold yourself responsible to make a positive and solid contribution. Lead by example.

Featured Artist

This is a term used to describe a situation where you’re being hired to be you. It can happen in two different scenarios. The first one is complicated. A solo artist (who is the boss) hires you because he or she wants you to do the gig, and only you can be you. In this situation, you’re able to negotiate more than a traditional sideman (more money, a drum tech, cartage, and so on).

Getting hired to be yourself in a high-level situation is the goal of most players. You’re expected to contribute musically, but—and here’s the complex part—you’re still a hired gun, rather than the main draw. The show can go on without you, but the artist would like it to go on with you.

The second version of the role of featured artist involves your being a part of the draw of the show. This could be an all-star gig or a situation where a lead artist wants to have other well-known players on the bill to help sales and create a higher level of musicianship. In the promotion business, it’s called a “soft ticket” sale. People are coming to this event. More might come if you’re there, and fewer might come if you’re not. But the gig will probably still happen. This is similar to being a band member. You should have a say in the decision making in this situation. Your name is attached, and you have a responsibility to your personal brand. Take these opportunities seriously, and make your contribution.

Band Member

Being a band member is often misunderstood. The fundamental idea of this situation is equality. Everybody shares in the spoils and the failures. You should have the right to express your musical opinion at all times. Usually, you are not told what to play. You take suggestions from your bandmates, but your chair is your chair. Also, band members should be getting a split of things like ticket sales, merchandise, and royalties. The songwriting and publishing can be a discussion of contribution, but the overall aesthetic is a group effort. The backlash is that you also have the most to lose. Even though this can be the best situation in terms of money and artistry, it can also be the hardest to navigate, due to potential clashes of ego and personality.


Here is where the work starts! This situation, which could comprise your solo material, your band, clinics, and so on, is all about you—you’re the main draw. This is called a “hard ticket” sale in the music business. If you’re not there, the gig doesn’t happen. You’re responsible for everything, and everybody else (your sidemen) gets paid first while you get what’s left over. If there’s a big profit, plus high visibility and great musical achievements, then you win! If not, you’re the one who pays for it. It’s the dream of most musicians to be the star, but a lot comes with this scenario. It’s more difficult than the band situation, because you have no one else to share the workload, finances, or failures.

The purpose of this discussion is to help give you a clear definition of the various situations you may come across in your drumming career. Knowing what is expected of you in the beginning can help you navigate your job. Learn to communicate with the people surrounding you. Understand how much you can add to the music and to the conversations. But, most of all, work as hard as you can to achieve excellence in whatever you do.

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