Everyone's A Critic
True story. Around 1976 or so, as my quasi-psychedelic rock band strode offstage at some Northern California love-in, an audience member approached our flute player (this is back when it seemed like a good idea to have a flute player in a rock band), and said, "Hey man, you were bad."
"Thanks a lot," our flute player answered, understandably thinking he’d just received a compliment (this was also back when hipsters used the word "bad" to connote the word "good.")
"No man," the audience member deadpanned. "I mean, you suck." And sadly for our flautist’s rapidly deflating ego, he could find no other possible interpretation: "You suck" could mean nothing other than he sucked.
I did almost the same thing to a pianist the year before while living in Chicago. I’d gone out to hear a friend play with his progressive rock band, and was not only struck by how adventurous the music was, but also how downright terrible the keyboardist was.
Elbowing up to the bar during the band’s first break, my friend asked what I thought. "You guys are incredible," I answered, "but I couldn’t believe how bad your pianist is." And even though my friend’s face slowly turned ashen, I continued. "I mean, seriously, he can barely play! What’s the deal? Does he own the P.A. or something?"
With a wide-eyed glare and nearly imperceptible nod, my friend silently signaled something or someone right behind me. Slowly turning around I came face-to-face with the pianist, who’d been leaning in to hear our conversation, at which point I said something extra smooth like, "Wow — I, uhh — really need to go to the bathroom," and disappeared into the crowd.
Here’s one last true story. After wrapping up the very first album I ever recorded, my ’70s proto-metal band was listening to final mixes in our rehearsal studio, when an old college friend of the lead singer walked in. After a couple songs, our singer asked what he thought.
"It sounds really good, except for the drummer," the friend responded. He very likely didn’t realize I was the drummer in question, but that didn’t stop me from getting in his face. "What the hell you mean by that?!" I retorted, once again, extra smoothly. He went on to point out how I played too many fills, and my drum sound was dead and lifeless. Of course, I was too jacked on adrenalin and anger to believe a word he said.
Flash forward three decades. A CD player replaced my turntable, and then an iPod replaced my CD collection. Yet, for some reason, I still had a closet full of vinyl. So my girlfriend bought me a record player for Christmas and I began listening to my old records.
Within seconds of dropping the needle onto the wax of the very first album I ever recorded, I realized I was indeed playing far too busily and my drums sounded like cardboard boxes.
Criticism. I’ve observed it, dealt it, received it, and now fully appreciate how its value is decided in its delivery. So if you want to hurt someone’s feelings, use blunt force. They’ll get over it. But if you can point a fellow drummer in the right direction, try offering advice tempered with compassion. You’ll feel better about yourself in the long run, and won’t need to take quite as many fake bathroom breaks"
Paradigm For A New Era
You've heard the Chinese axiom, "May you live in interesting times." Well, it turns out the phrase isn't from China after all (thank you Wikipedia), though the mystery of its actual birthplace doesn't alter the wisdom behind the words.
At first blush, I'd bet most people interpret it as some sort of friendly greeting, as I did, since Westerners tend to equate interesting experiences with good times. On closer inspection, though, the implied sentiment is precisely the opposite.
The wish isn't a blessing. It's a curse. The logic goes that life is easy and comfortably predictable when times are uninteresting. Things become interesting only when the calm is disrupted by storm clouds, or worse, which brings me to my point.
We live in interesting times. Politics, economics, climate — big changes are reshuffling multiple decks in every direction. And while it might pale in comparison to more globally pressing issues, musicians also face an ever-shifting set of rules while trying to launch a career in 2015.
It wasn't always this confusing. I've lamented more than once that digital media, and the public's wrongheaded thirst for free music, chips away the profitability of recording revenue. Admittedly, it was never exactly easy to make a living as a musician, but in my opinion, defanging one of its key incentives — royalties — can only dissuade future musical innovators from ever picking up an instrument.
But now, I couldn't be more pleased to admit I might have been wrong. While the number of players inspired by the profit motive has shrunk, a new generation who are truly invested in the art appears to have emerged. And instead of plying the dusty record deal model to get their music out, today's creators are finding ways to use to their advantage the very technology that displaced many of their immediate predecessors.
For evidence, I submit a blog I recently read by Jack Conte, one half of the California duo Pomplamoose. Titled "Pomplamoose 2014 Tour Profits (Or Lack Thereof)," it reveals in painful detail the various new hoops through which artists must leap to get their music out.
In short, to produce their self-financed tour, they hired back-up musicians and a road crew, rented vehicles, and spent $26,450 on production expenses, $17,589 on hotels and food, $11,816 on gas, airfare, and parking, $5,445 on insurance, $48,094 on salaries and per diems, $21,945 on merchandise, publicity, supplies, and shipping, and $16,463 on commissions, for a total outlay of $147,802.
On the other side of the ledger, without the benefit of a major label's tour support, the band took in $135,983 in income from ticket and merch sales, as well as a strategic sponsorship from computer technology company Lenovo. You saw that right — in the end they lost $11,819 on the tour.
It might sound as if the effort was a failure, but not according to Conte. He wraps up his tally by stating "the loss was an investment in future tours," and goes on to explain that the two bandmembers otherwise sell about $5,000 per month on YouTube and Loudr, and each draws a monthly salary of $2,500.
See, they're too busy writing music and producing videos to waste a minute reminiscing about the good old days. To paraphrase Conte, one final time: While they haven't "made it," they are "making it," and I salute such pluck.
Time To Freshen Up
You can't play the same licks forever (though, Lord knows, I've tried). Sooner or later, for the sake of your bandmates' sanity or your own self-esteem, through diligent practice or subconscious osmosis, every drummer will expand his or her vocabulary and freshen things up a bit.
Drummers aren't alone. Virtually everyone involved in a specialized field wants to learn how to sharpen crucial skills, including your pals right here on the DRUM! team.
Throughout our 23-year history, we've always sought unexplored avenues and improved ways to deliver information that'll help you become a better, more informed player. We've taken two different tacks to update these pages. Sometimes we swallow hard, conduct endless planning sessions, and scribble ideas on whiteboards to bundle a swath of improvements into a single, dramatic relaunch. But more often, in fact almost every month, we like to tinker around the edges, tightening design and editorial elements to enhance clarity and make things more, well, fun.
Occasionally the tinkering seeps beyond the edges and into the middle of the page, like our recent overhaul of the Soundlab department. These hands-on product tests had begun to look cluttered, dotted with cramped sidebars that weren't exactly reader friendly. So we opened up the layout by using graphic call-outs to highlight details and specs right inside each product photo. Bye-bye fussy sidebars. Hello more white space.
We also enlisted a couple more ringers for our Practice Pad drum lessons. Even though he's best known for his work with such hardcore acts as Dillinger Escape Plan and, more recently, Marilyn Manson, Gil Sharone shares his secret love affair with Jamaican drumming in his new Reggae column. And Spin Doctors drummer Aaron Comess takes over our Groove column from a trio of heavyweights who came before him — Stanton Moore, Jeffrey "Houseman" Clemens, and Chad Smith.
Flip forward a few pages beyond this one and you'll land in our Single Strokes department, packed with practical career advice that goes beyond flams and paradiddles. While there, be sure to see how our two new specialists can help. Need to sign a contract? A drummer with the hard rocking outfit One Bad Son and entertainment lawyer from Vancouver, British Columbia, Kurt Dahl now pens our Legal Beat column. Can't get that snare drum to sing? Meet Chris Achzet — 20-year drum tech and founder of Los Angeles Drum Services — who will explain how to sound your best with his Drum Care column.
Every issue is a new adventure, and we're glad you're along for the ride. As always, thanks for reading DRUM! Magazine.
Romance And Touring At Odds
[Ed. Note: Andy Doerschuk originally wrote this for the August 2014 issue of DRUM!, which was devoted to the subject of touring.]
Ever notice how life can force you to choose between one thing or the other, when you actually want some of both? Unfortunately, that’s how it’s often worked when I’ve tried to strike a balance between romance and drumming. So on the occasion of this special touring issue, it seems appropriate to illustrate how those two irresistible and occasionally opposing forces can twist you into knots.
First, though, let’s all admit it isn’t easy to date a musician, especially when the better half has a normal work routine. It requires the empathy of Gandhi to accept the notion that your loved one disappears on Friday and Saturday date nights, then blows your weekend days by waking up at noon. Tension only multiplies when a musician disappears on tour for months at a time, so I hope the two of you are either deeply in love or have a great marriage counselor.
Truth be told, I had a marriage fall apart while I was on the road in 1981. I was 26 and on my very first major road trip, as my band spent the summer opening for Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers on the Hard Promises tour.
I’ve written about it before, so I’ll skip the gory details. Suffice to say that once it was
clear our relationship was over, every day became a crazy rollercoaster. In the afternoon or early evening I would realize my wildest dreams by playing for tens of thousands of people in basketball stadiums and outdoor festivals. At night, I would sulk back to my hotel room and cry in my beer.
Whoever said absence makes the heart grow fonder clearly never toured with a rock band. There are exceptions, though. I’ve known couples that have nurtured a close family life — buying houses, raising kids, going to little league games, the whole wonderful package — even while mom or dad periodically goes on tour. I wish I could tell you the secret to their success, but it always eluded me.
But there’s yet another scenario, which I’ve personally experienced only once. I was
playing with a promising young guitar prodigy who quickly gained notoriety on the west coast. One night I met a woman at a show and we hit it off. Before long we began dating and, as illustrated earlier, she came to every show in the area.
But rather than grow tired of the experience, she started traveling in the van to out-of-town gigs — always backstage, yucking it up, acting like one of the guys, having a grand old time. So was I, as a matter of fact, but my bandmates didn’t dig it. I soon got the word from the top — no girlfriends allowed in the van. The story continues from there, but for the sake of brevity let’s just say the ultimatum didn’t exactly sit well.
Under the best circumstances, romantic relationships require mutual understanding and willingness to work out differences. So if your heart is set on being a full-time touring musician, prepare to make some sacrifices at home, because that’s where every road trip will ultimately end.
An Open Letter To Cheapskates
Dear pop icon, country superstar, or rap mogul,
Just thought I’d let you know — word has begun to leak out. While the outside world gazes with vicarious envy as you spend lavish amounts on fast cars, the finest threads, and gar- ish jewelry, insiders know you’re just a cheapskate. And they’ve started to talk.
Don’t stand there (in that $1,000 Vanessa Price haircut) giving me a quizzical look (through your $383,000 Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses). You know exactly what I’m talking about. While you, your managers, and agents take home six-figure bankrolls every night, you pay your drummer as little as $200 per gig.
Your bodyguards earn more. Hell, I’ve been paid more to play in the dirtiest, smelliest, grungiest dive bars in San Francisco. Seriously. You should be ashamed. I have to ask — how do you sleep at night (in your $6.3 million Baldacchino Supreme bed), or look at yourself in your ($1,300 Bella Venetian) mirror, knowing you’ve perfected the black art of squeezing blood from human stone?
You may ask, “Why should I care? Drummers are a dime a dozen. If one of them doesn’t want the gig, another one will.” After all, your drummer doesn’t have to deal with nearly as many headaches as you do. You provide him with a perfectly good coffin-sized bunk on the tour bus and free munchies backstage with the crew, while you travel in your $45 million Gulfstream V-SP private jet and scarf down $500 entrees at the world’s finest restaurants.
No. Your drummer’s problems are far more mundane than yours are. He just needs to pay the mortgage, bills, and health insurance, buy clothes and braces for the kids, put food on the table — you know, frivolous stuff like that. With a little coupon cutting, he should be able to stretch the $600 to $800 (more like $400 to $600 after taxes) he earns per week far enough to cover all that, right?
Never mind that your drummer studied with respected teachers, practiced thousands of hours, attended music school, and probably knows more about music theory than you do. None of that can compare with your innate talent for rhyming words like “cat” and “hat” (a skill you share with Dr. Seuss, among others).
Face it, ace — the convergence between the paths taken by you and your drum- mer is as much the consequence of dumb luck as any other factor. So if you want some respect, show some respect for those people who make you sound good every night. It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.
A Note To Drummers: Not all bandleaders are as tight-fisted as this, but — without naming names — some very famous ones are. So if you’re less concerned about the size of the venues you play, and more interested in sharing an equitable slice of the pie, join a band in which you are an equal member. Better yet, start your own band — but just don’t forget where you came from.