Meet the Contractors!

John Miller, Jill Dell'Abate and Neil Balm

Volume CV, No. 1January, 2005

How do you find work in this town? That’s the number-one question asked by new members of Local 802.

As musicians quickly discover, the union’s main mission is to help you improve and sustain your work.

We do have a few ways to help members find work — such as our referral service — but the union has no secret formula to invent work for our 10,000 members.

Many younger musicians believe that they can come to New York and simply ace auditions. “I was the top player at my conservatory — of course I’ll find a job,” is their attitude.

Open auditions do exist, but more often than not the key to work is through contractors, many of whom are 802 members.

A contractor is simply someone who knows musicians. Good musicians. Musicians who they can trust.

So a conductor or producer, instead of holding auditions, will ask a contractor to find musicians for a job.

On these pages, we hear from three contractors — from the worlds of Broadway, recording and classical music — about how the contracting system works for musicians.

— Allegro Editor Mikael Elsila


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?

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.

The Big Question

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.

What to Do

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.

We’re In It Together

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.

Start By Subbing

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.

Making First Contact

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.

The Next Hoop

Let’s now assume that somehow or other, you’ve made contact with the regular player who has invited you to come watch the book.

When you go, here’s what you want to do….

John Milller’s article will continue next issue, with what to do now that you’ve got a show.


Jill Dell’Abate has been contracting in New York for about 10 years. She contracts the Grammy awards when they are on the East Coast as well as a host of other TV shows and recording sessions. Jill is also a session singer and has been a Local 802 member since 1992.

Mikael Elsila: Members call the union all the time asking how to find work. Sometimes we recommend they call contractors. In your opinion, as a contractor, how do musicians get work in this town?

Jill Dell’Abate: That’s a good question. I’m asked that question often and it’s always difficult to answer. I would never discourage a musician from sending a resume. There have been situations when I’ve received a resume with a musician whose credits sounded impressive and I’ve kept it on file. If I’m booking a large enough orchestra there is a chance that they might be called in. It would have to be a circumstance where I had already exhausted all the names on my list. A much more effective way is to get a recommendation from another player who’s well respected. If you can involve yourself in scenarios where you’re working with other session players, and they get a chance to hear you, I’m much more likely to hire a musician who’s recommended to me by someone who I trust.

ME: So in other words, it’s better for musicians to network with fellow musicians rather than contractors?

JD: Yes, depending on the circumstances. In the classical world, definitely. A lot of musicians who have made it to the top of my list are musicians who have been recommended by someone who I know and think highly of. If a violinist, for example, comes to me and say, “This person is very talented and has a great demeanor in the studio — you should really put them on your list,” then I do. When it comes to pop music, then it’s more my determination. I have recommended musicians who were just getting by for projects which have turned their careers around. It’s great when that happens.

ME: How is a musician supposed to get noticed by you without bugging you? Should they call you?

JD: A call every once in a while is not a problem — but a few times a year, not a few times a month. But calling me and merely reminding me who you are isn’t really going to help. I really need to have some sort of validation. I would much prefer to have, for example, another violinist say, “Well, this musician sat next to me; I heard her play, and she’s definitely good and you should give her a shot.” Without that, I wouldn’t really be inclined to hire someone if I had no idea how they played. And with a rhythm section, it’s the same thing. If my top six drummers aren’t available, I’ll ask the drummers who they recommend. I want to know who they think can handle what they do.

ME: Will the producer always accept your choices of who to hire?

JD: Not always, but much of the time. It depends on who the producer is. Some producers and composers have a very specific idea of who they want and it is not open to interpretation. And then there are others who let me call the shots completely.

ME: In your opinion, why would a producer use a contractor to hire musicians instead of holding auditions?

JD: There is no advantage to holding auditions in a recording situation. There are qualified contractors with years of experience under their belt who have lists of extraordinarily talented musicians hundreds of names long. It costs money to hold auditions, it takes time and you have to weed through dozens or more musicians just to find one that is good.

ME: It’s just that, when young musicians new to New York call the union, they are often amazed to find out that there aren’t auditions everywhere open to them where they can try out.

JD: I can appreciate their frustration but it’s hard to break in and get noticed.

ME: How do you think that the contractor field has changed over the past several years?

JD: In the past 10 years, I think it’s loosened up a bit. In the good old days, I think there was a certain rigidity to session work. Everything was exactly by the book. Now there’s a little give-and-take; a little bit of logic enters into it. I want and need to respect the musicians’ rights but I also need some flexibility from time to time. I don’t want to think that if I go overtime by one minute that these musicians are going to charge me for another session, especially if we’ve been going all week. It’s just a more casual attitude. The players that I book trust me and know that I won’t take advantage of them.

ME: Do you break in new musicians each month or each year, or are you constantly working with the same core?

JD: No, I constantly have new people. I hired two people on a date today who I’ve never met before. If I have a very large group, or if I’m booking at the last minute, I may have to go through all of my players and if I’m still stuck, then I call my concertmaster and say, “Can you help me? Can you give me a couple more names?” We’ll brainstorm a little.

ME: How did you start contracting?

JD: I was a production coordinator and did product management for record albums. I started working freelance for Phil Ramone. He kept needing large orchestras and bands for things and I would call one of the old school contractors and ask him to do it. After doing this several times I started realizing that I could do this myself. I started that with a tiny group of people. It was almost comical now that I think about it. Then I connected with Elena Barere, who’s a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera. I had watched her work and had admired her greatly. We became friends and started working together. She acts as concertmaster for my dates whenever possible and her exposure to major orchestras in New York City opened up a whole new world of players to me. That, coupled with my experience with musicians in the pop world, really solidified my database — and it keeps expanding every day.

ME: Who hires you?

JD: Composers, arrangers, producers, record labels, artists and artist managers, music supervisors… I also work for one music house.

ME: What kinds of mistakes should musicians try to avoid?

JD: If you get your shot, don’t blow it. Just recently I hired a musician for a live event on a recommendation from someone and his first questions to me were when will I be paid, can I get backstage passes, are their comps to the show and will they feed us. I immediately called the person who recommended him to find out what was going on. He was young and inexperienced but turned out to be a great musician once he calmed down. He had a “What can you do for me?” attitude instead of “What can I do for you?”. You can’t have an annoying presence in the studio. You should always feel free to speak up to have your musical questions answered but everyone in my sessions is pretty easygoing and pleasant to be around. You almost want to be less of a presence rather than more.

ME: Any last thoughts for musicians trying to break into the field?

JD: I don’t want to be negative, but people always want to get somewhere solely because they are talented, and unfortunately it’s only half the battle. That’s why auditions are so appealing — “I can play really well, let me just showcase my talent and I’ll be done with it.” But it’s the same thing in any entertainment business: you have to put yourself out there, you have to meet people — you have to do things that probably go completely against your grain to be noticed. It’s always an ongoing process. We all have to prove ourselves every day, even the people who have been doing it for 10 or 15 years. You’re only as good as your last job, as they say.


Neil Balm, along with his business partner Jonathan Haas, has been contracting in New York for a decade. They are the contractors for the New York Pops and Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. Balm is a trumpet player and has been an 802 member since 1979.

Mikael Elsila: A lot of musicians call 802 wanting us to help get them a gig. Sometimes we suggest calling contractors. What do you recommend?

Neil Balm: I do get phone calls. Generally what I say in the phone call is, “Send me your resume.” A phone call is fine, but it’s not going to go much further than that — I want to see something in writing. If I get an e-mail or a resume in the mail, I can look at it at my own convenience. And therefore I’ll give it better attention than if I’m wandering around my house or my office and the phone rings.

ME: If you’re a musician trying to get work, how important are the references of your fellow musicians?

NB: References are extremely important. The way you get work — and this is a “state secret” — is from people who play your instrument. I can’t emphasize this enough. In general, contractors don’t give you work. They’ll make the phone call. But if a contractor worth his salt knows that you’re not competent, he’s not going to call you. And the only way he knows that you’re a good player or a bad player is that he’s heard you or he’s worked with you or he gets strong recommendations from people who know you. And generally those are people who play your instrument or related instrument. For instance, if you’re a bassoonist, you may ask other bassoonists for contacts, or you may ask a clarinet player or another a woodwind player.

ME: How is a musician supposed to get noticed by contractors without bugging them?

NB: Well, I guess to a certain degree our job is to be bugged. I’ve been in the situation when I was trying to get work and I didn’t want to bug people. I’ve never personally been very good at calling up someone cold, saying “I can do this; I can do that…please hire me.” Some people are better at it. And for some personalities it works; for others, it doesn’t. I think it’s kind of an individual thing. I think a lot of contractors feel put upon by that.

ME: Is one strategy to take lessons from musicians in order to network and find work?

NB: That’s another strategy that people use. They’ll have lessons with the principal player in the Met or the Philharmonic. For instance, people call me and ask, “Can I take lessons with you?” And my first question is, “Is this because you need a teacher or is this about finding work?” And generally I’ll say, “Let’s get a cup of coffee and we’ll talk,” so I can get a feel for what this person is about.

ME: Is this a good idea, or is it too much of a tactic?

NB: I think it’s a good idea. Certainly, it’s an obvious tactic. And certainly the people giving the lessons know what’s up. For people who teach a lot, it’s certainly worthwhile. I don’t really teach that much; occasionally I’ll have a student here or there. So for me, do I want to take your money so that you can come and play for me, when really what you’re looking for is work? So I’ll sit down with somebody for an hour and tell them, “This is what I think you should do strategically given what your priorities are, and these are some people you can contact. Talk to them, get to know them, listen to music, learn your craft. Just get to know people.” Basically the advice that I was given when I first moved to New York still holds true, which is that any opportunity you have to play, take it. And then when you have that opportunity, go in and play as well as you can. Be a nice person and get along with people. It’s not that hard. It’s not rocket science.

ME: I’ve heard that when you play, you’re really auditioning your personality as well as your instrument. Is this true?

NB: Sure. Because 90 percent of the time, you’re not necessarily playing your instrument. You’re on break or you’re hanging out at lunch or there’s an eight-bar rest.

ME: Let’s say you decide to hire a musician whose references have checked out. Will you make this person audition for you?

NB: We don’t audition people. Basically it’s on referrals. If someone’s name comes up either through a resume or a phone call, or someone else says, “I’ve heard this player — he or she is very good,” then we’ll talk to some other people — usually people who play the same instrument, asking “Do you know this person?” or “This person gave you as a reference — what do you think?” Then we go from there.

ME: If you decide that a musician deserves to be hired, will the conductor always go along with your decision?

NB: It depends on the conductor and it depends on the group that we’re hiring for. For instance, at Mostly Mozart, which we are the personnel managers for, we have no control whatsoever as to who gets on the sub lists. The sub lists are put together and maintained by the people in the orchestra — the musicians in each section. We will get phone calls and resumes from people saying, “We’d love to sub in Mostly Mozart.” And, at best, we can refer them to someone in the section. But we hesitate to do that because we don’t want to put these people in the line of fire of getting a hundred phone calls.

ME: Why do you think employers use contractors instead of holding auditions?

NB: It depends on the group. If you have a more substantial season, I think you’ll hold auditions for everything. I think if you’re offering musicians $100,000 a year for playing their instruments, and you’re offering them 50 weeks of work a year, then yes, you’re going to hold auditions. If you’re doing one or two concerts a year, probably not. Holding auditions is time consuming. If you’re going to do a real fair audition, you have to advertise the position. It’s going to take time, money and effort. If you’re only doing one concert, it really doesn’t make sense to hold auditions for every position. That’s going to take you exponentially much more time than it is to rehearse and give the concert. So the reason for the contractor is to rely on somebody’s knowledge and reputation in the business. Generally the conductor will have some ideas and preferences for certain players — he may have a particular principal clarinet in mind, or concertmaster, or some people who he wants in the sections. And then usually you’ll go with that and fill out the rest.

ME: How long have you been contracting?

NB: We started our production company 10 years ago. But when I used to put together a brass quintet or a chamber group to play something, technically that’s contracting. I think that there are a lot more people around that are actually contractors — they just don’t realize that they’re contractors. There’s lots of us out there — just varying levels of how much of your life it takes over.

ME: How has the field of contracting changed over the years?

NB: I’ve been in New York since 1976. I think the approach of the contractor, how contractors treat musicians, and how contractors are treated themselves, has changed dramatically since I started working in the early 1980’s. When I was a musician back then, I had turned down a contractor a few times for work and he finally said to me, “If you turn down this job, you’ll never work in this town again.” It was the old cliché — he was really going to take it out of my hide. I don’t think there’s really anybody who’s going to do that in this day and age. Maybe I’m naïve, but in this day when the union has really asserted itself, for great reasons — collective bargaining agreements, tenured rosters — musicians have rights. They should. Rights that they didn’t have in the 1930’s and 40’s. Because of that, things have changed. And they’ve changed for the better. I think contractors now are more administrative and less controlling of people’s lives. And I think that’s a very good thing.