It’s likely that most seasoned drummers have been both a bandmember and sideman/woman at various times in their career, and understand the difference between the two. If you haven’t yet experienced both, though, it’s good to learn that they are two distinct camps, each with its own code of conduct, set of expectations, advantages, and challenges.
Being a bandmember is like being in a family. Players share a sense of unity and security. Decisions are made democratically and address everything from business and creative expression to even the most mundane drivel, like whose turn it is to buy light bulbs for the rehearsal studio.
While this process reads well on paper, beware – true egalitarianism can lead to inertia in practice. I’ve sat through interminable band meetings that cycle through the same circular discussion ad nauseam. Hours pass, and you’re still trying to overcome the same stupid hurdle – even as a host of other, perhaps more important items wither on your agenda.
But there’s hope. The right group of bandmembers can develop a unique simpatico, not unlike a good, long marriage. You practically finish each other’s sentences. One reaches for something, the other unconsciously steadies the ladder. And so it goes, trickling through the creative process, onstage and offstage, encouraging bandmembers to toss ideas into arrangements, set lists, riffs, and – dare I say it? – even contribute entire songs.
That’s the big potential payoff for bandmembers – songwriting royalties. But sidemen might never taste that action. They’re like pieceworkers, paid to perform specific tasks – gigs, recording sessions, rehearsals, and so on. They can work with a single artist for decades or find themselves out on the street when the next tour winds down.
So why would anyone choose to become a sideman? Primarily because it can be a fast track to real, professional work. If you’re a great drummer and dogged self-promoter, you have a better chance of working your way up the ladder as an independent contractor, unencumbered by the whims and weaknesses of bandmates who might slow you down.
But sideman money is short-term money. Don’t bank on seeing royalty checks sail through the mail slot during your golden years. You earn your pay gig by gig, and spend a lot of your time simply looking for work.
Each approach demands a certain type of temperament. Bandmembers must be empathetic and patient in order to work within the communal structure of a band. Sidemen have to be confident enough to compete for gigs and yet subservient to the bandleader’s needs.
You don’t have a choice, actually. Unless you become your own bandleader, you most probably will be a bandmember and sideman at numerous times throughout your drumming career. Be sure to make the most of what each has to offer, because either way, you will be playing drums. And in my book, that’s a privilege.