Breaking into the music industry can be a frustrating and confusing experience for newcomers. Most other career paths offer a comparatively clear-cut strategy involving education, apprenticeship, and a slow climb up the ladder, but a livelihood in music can be far less predictable.
As valuable as it is to earn a degree from a prestigious music school, it doesn’t guarantee that you will land a lucrative gig in the long run. Incredible chops aren’t always the key either, since other factors often come into play at auditions, like image or compatibility. And even when you do get an opportunity to play with a successful band, sooner or later you will likely face the fact that almost every tour or band comes to an end, leaving you, the drummer, once again hunting for work.
Since there are virtually no rules when it comes to finding employment as a musician, it can be tempting to cut corners and fudge the truth to get a foot in the door. And believe me, I understand how quickly the survival instinct can kick in when phone and utility companies begin sending disconnection notices. But if you choose to exaggerate your résumé, or claim to be expert in styles that you haven’t quite mastered, or anything else that isn’t entirely aboveboard, you risk earning a bad reputation that can follow you around for perpetuity. And in this microcosmic industry, that can be your death sentence.
I remember a situation in the early ’90s that challenged my trust in humanity. One day my office phone rang and a fellow on the other end of the line introduced himself — let’s just call him Ralph (a pseudonym, since I have no desire to damage his career any more than he already managed to do).
A charismatic and convincing salesman, Ralph began running through his bio, which sounded very impressive, and claimed that he was “the drummer” with one of the top-selling rap artists of the day. I’m embarrassed to admit how naive I was, and yet I swallowed his story hook, line, and sinker. He asked and I agreed to do a cover story on him.
I set up a photo session for his cover shot and lined up a writer to conduct the interview. Both took place in Los Angeles with freelancers that I had worked with many times. The photo shoot came first, and the results were striking — I was really beginning to get excited. But then, about a week later, I got a very curious phone call from the writer minutes after the interview took place.
I asked how it went. “Well, to be honest, it was kind of weird,” the writer replied. “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the guy seemed evasive. It was as if he didn’t want to get too specific, or didn’t actually know the answers to the questions, even though they were all pretty straightforward. I don’t know — I just got a very strange vibe from him.”
A cold chill went up my spine. What if Ralph wasn’t who he said he was? I didn’t waste a moment, and called up the rapper’s publicist to explain the situation and ask if Ralph was the rapper’s drummer. She said that he wasn’t, and gave me the name of the real drummer, as well as a tongue lashing for not working with her in the first place.
I was furious. We had invested time and money into this story, which was about to be tossed into the trash. Needless to say, I called Ralph and explained why I had cancelled the story — but that wasn’t all: I promised that I would never trust him again. I saw Ralph a couple times at trade shows and then he just disappeared. I haven’t heard anyone mention his name again.
So play it straight, even when times are so tough that you can’t think of any other way to play it. The truth always prevails in the long run.