As I stepped from the stage onto the cramped dance floor of The Saloon – the smelliest, dankest, dirtiest, and most hallowed blues bar in San Francisco – I ran into my old buddy Rodney, a former cop who even in his seventies hits at least one of the city’s blues clubs every night, dancing like a 20-year-old. I admire the guy.
“Hey man, it seems like you’re playing with everybody these days,” he shouted in my ear.
“Well, I’m pretty busy, no doubt,” I admitted. “Almost too busy, to be honest. This month I’ve got 16 gigs – more than one every two days!”
“And you’re still working at the magazine, right?”
“That’s right, which means I’m pretty much working all the time, night and day.”
“Whoa! I don’t know how you do it.”
“To be honest, I’m not exactly sure either. But you know what? I’m not complaining. I feel lucky to be able to do the things I most love for a living. Not many people can say that.”
“I hear you,” Rodney said. “But the truth is that you don’t want to turn anything down, either. As soon as you begin turning down work bandleaders start calling other drummers.”
Rodney is wise. Every professional drummer is a freelancer, and must perceive him- or herself as a walking/talking small business. Like any other small-business owner, we have to keep our clients happy. And our clients are bandleaders.
I learned the hard way. After being very active in the local music scene during the early-to-mid-’90s, I stopped playing altogether toward the end of the decade. I wanted to concentrate on building DRUM! Magazine and, quite frankly, had begun feeling burned out doing so many gigs every month.
So I just quit playing and adopted a middleclass lifestyle. I’d come home from work, have dinner, chill out in front of the TV, and hit the sack for eight solid hours of sleep every night. Weekends were wide open. For a long time it seemed like a vacation, but after a few years it felt a lot more like a routine.
Finally, I was bored. I missed gigging, and began calling old bandleaders to see if I could round up a show here or there. It wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped. I’d been out of the circuit too long. A new crop of talented young drummers filled the gaps I’d left. Even worse – I’m sure bandleaders were thinking, “Andy bailed on me once before. He could do it again.”
It took a couple of years to prove I was serious, and get back to where I am today, gigging nonstop with great players. I guess the bottom line is that there is no grey area – either you’re willing and available to work or you aren’t. It’s your choice.