Tips for the working drummer (part 1 – attitude)

I played my first gig in 2003 at a crummy bar outside of Philadelphia. About 20 people were in the room, maybe 3 of them danced, many weren’t listening, and the bar made us pay for our drinks. We played classic rock and didn’t care about the crappy paycheck. We yelled at each other about our mistakes and smiled ear to ear in those glorious moments that brought us together as a band. It was an amazing gig.

Now I’m 28 years old with some extra grey’s, a little bit of wisdom, and very few regrets. I’ve played with grammy winners, on television, on the radio, at world renown venues, and it’s been an awesome run so far. I love music. I absolutely love it. That attitude kept me behind a drum set all these years. Once I learned I could get paid to do it, there was no other career I was willing to accept. And now I’m rich, famous, and married to a model…. OK, I’m not but I have signed 2 autographs.

Playing drums is one thing. Getting paid to do it could be an enormous game changer. I remember the moment I realized I was “working”. I was on a bus back to Philly from New York at 2:00 in the morning following a day of unsuccessfully soliciting booking agents and a rehearsal that went terribly. The next day, I would have to wake up early for other work obligations, teach a bunch of students in the afternoon, follow up with industry people that had been ignoring me, argue with one of my bands about petty nonsense, pay a sound engineer for studio time, accept a gig I didn’t want to do, hit up another rehearsal, get home at midnight, and pretty much plan on that being my life… Since then, I’ve seen highs and lows. Some paychecks are crap, some gigs are embarrassing, some circumstances are almost torture. But it’s work… and all things considered, it could be a lot worse. The most important advice I can give to any career-embarking drummer is to LOVE MUSIC. Nothing else matters if that basic piece is missing. Once that’s in place, consider the importance of your attitude as you move forward:

Form goals not expectations. This business has a lot of talking heads… “My friend knows this guy who knows John Bon Jovi and he says he can get us a record deal” kind of nonsense. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been let down by this type of stuff. The last time I let it happen, my band was supposed to play a big 4th of July show with The Roots, Earth Wind and Fire, Michael McDonald, and a few smaller acts on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia… Well guess what happened? I threw a party on my roof deck because I didn’t have a gig that night. I swore I would expect nothing from the music business ever again. Aside from all the talk, it’s highly competitive. With thousands of people competing for the same gigs, you’re going to be let down if your expectations are shattered. At that point I went back to the drawing board and wrote out a list of goals. In moments when I’m evaluating myself, I refer to those goals, not the expectations I have for them or of other people. This has helped my mental outlook significantly. I’m getting gigs, having more fun than ever playing music, and have rediscovered the satisfaction of being a musician. I don’t discredit the times I’m told big things are supposed to happen, but I also don’t expect them to actually go through. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, I still have goals to shoot for.

Your goals don’t have to be realistic. Shoot for the stars and you might land on the moon… Nobody ever accomplished big things by thinking small. So you want make the leap from working drummer to Jay Z’s drummer??? Super tough but not impossible. His current drummer  landed the job somehow. Why can’t you? It can be difficult to think past your limitations but that’s what goals are for. Consider where you are and where you want to be. Just because you won’t be there in a week, a month, or maybe even a year, doesn’t mean you won’t be their eventually. As for the talking heads I mentioned in my first point, I guess I can’t be resentful. While some people are full of it, others are just eager to break the confines of reality. When its realistic, its normal. When its normal, its not exciting. As a professional drummer, I want to be exciting. I want exciting opportunities and exciting rewards. So as far as goals are concerned, I have found value in making them extreme. If I aim to be the best fusion drummer ever, I will practice hard to get there. I may not ever reach that status but I’m not “expecting” to so it won’t let me down.

Face the challenges in the music industry. IT IS NOT 1975!!!! ITS NOT 1995 EITHER!!!! ITS 2012 AND VERY FEW PEOPLE BUY RECORDED MUSIC!!!! It is a very different time for this business. Many would argue that it is unclear how to make good money but the optimists would say there are just different avenues that should be considered. Record sales have tanked, everyone steals music,  home production studios have allowed EVERYONE to produce music, and social media allows all those people to thicken the competition on public forums. It’s not all bad though. There is a lot of creativity out there and a ton of technology advancements that could bring new life to your playing. Performing is emphasized as a better money maker than recording these days and there are a ton of music venues, festivals, and parties to play at. Yes, there are still opportunities to make money selling recordings and licensing music, but the days of people spending $17.99 on an album at Sam Goody are gone. This means record deals aren’t what they once were. They don’t necessarily benefit you and to be honest, they are leaving a lot of artists penniless and watching their earnings go to managers, lables, promoters, and publishers first. None of this is meant to be discouraging, but it is meant to be a wake up call. Face the realities and don’t compare your band’s opportunities to Led Zeppelin’s opportunities. As awesome as your band may be, you live in a very different time.

Don’t stop searching for inspiration. I go through music droughts. During these times, I’m likely to practice less, listen to sports radio instead of music, and develop doubts about myself. Surely when that continues long enough, my chops are a bit rusty. Then I’m in a position to start losing gigs and students… No no no. As a working drummer, I can’t let that happen. I overcome these lulls by getting inspired. Easier said than done, but just look around you. Open your senses and absorb the inspiration the world has to offer. This might be listening to music but it might be cooking… It might be watching a movie… It might be hiking… It’s amazing where inspiration comes from and when it hits. Inspiration has also guided my musical direction. I’m not in love with the Dave Matthews Band but I am obsessed with Carter Beauford. That dude is one of the greatest influences I’ve come across in my life and his playing has been a HUGE inspiration for me. By listening and watching, I began wanting. By wanting, I started learning. By learning, I began improving. Now I’m SHREDDING! Find those things in your own life. They are all around you. Take a second to notice what happened at a moment you suddenly wanted to play your drums or what was going on around you when you started tapping a rhythm on your desk. Again, its not just music but if your body responds musically, inspiration from other sources will bring it out of you…

Your opinion matters most. Your friends who work in finance probably make a lot of money. Maybe your mom thinks you will have a better life if you follow their footsteps. That’s her opinion. You love her and you want to make her happy but she doesn’t fully understand your direction. You will encounter the nay-sayers. I’ve gotten the “oh how cute” reaction after telling people I play in bands… It can be very irritating but we live in an opinionated world and you will encounter those who feel music provides an unreliable and unrealistic income. Then there is social media, a modern day necessity that has allowed everyone to publicize their thoughts, which at times can be demotivating for those of us dreaming a little outside the box. The arguments in this article are biased opinions that are probably pissing off someone. But they are my opinions and I feel they will help you. If I’m wrong, that is your opinion. Whatever the case may be, I encourage you to form your own opinions – about your playing, your career, your strengths, your weaknesses, and music in general – stick to them if they makes you better. Don’t let this make you a know-it-all. Stay open to criticism but believe in yourself… So what is your opinion about yourself as a drummer? Whatever you just answered, go with that. If its not the answer you wanted, do something to make it the answer you wanted.

Money is of different value to everyone. Some people need to make $80K a year to live the lives they want. Others are fine with much less. I hate hearing “don’t quit your day job” because it is a relative statement. That might work for guy A but guy B has different plans. More importantly, assess what is really important to you and understand that very few musicians sip champagne by the pool outside their Malibu mansion. The concept of “sacrifice” is something every professional drummer must face. If you can do without a nice home, a nice car, and expensive meals every night, you will have more money to put towards touring, buying gear, and living a less lavish lifestyle. If you need those things in your life, that’s not a problem for your music career. You just might have to balance it with a day job. This is how most musicians live and plenty of them have very fulfilling careers. The tricky part is finding a job that is flexible with your musical commitments. None the less, it is very possible and probably the reality for most musicians. So quit your day job if you want to but understand the sacrifice involved before you do.

Also read Tips for the Working Drummer (part 2 – action)

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