Revolutions Aren’t Born In Boardrooms
Nobody saw it coming, not even the legions of baby boomer kids positioned squarely in the path of the oncoming cultural tsunami, watching as the very fabric of society began to tear asunder on Sunday, February 9, 1964, when The Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Elvis and Sinatra were a prelude to the grandiose influence that historic broadcast would have on American life. I remember, for ￼example, my entire third grade class discussing the performance the next morning, led by our 20-something teacher, no less, who seemed as awestruck as we were. She asked if any of us wanted to play an instrument like The Beatles. Nearly all hands shot up.
Now multiply that by all other classrooms in the country on that same morning, and you get a hint of how quickly things would change. Garage bands sprouted in every neighborhood of every town, as likeminded teenyboppers tried to emulate the surge of pop bands from England and the US that jumped on the bandwagon.
Bands weren’t the only ones cashing in, either. Once sleepy music stores were soon swamped with new customers demanding the latest gear. We’ve heard tales of the golden years on Music Row in New York City, when Manny’s and Sam Ash sold Stratocasters and Ludwig kits nearly as fast as delivery trucks could unload them.
The mid-’60s music explosion was so pervasive that it bolstered music commerce for decades. However, if you charted the progress of the musical instrument market from 1964 to today, you’d see a gradually descending line, punctuated by occasional peaks spurred by popular musical trends.
Whenever the line tracked upward — as a U2 or Red Hot Chili Peppers spawned wannabes — drum set sales would peak for a number of years, and settle back down. Then video games and other options started grabbing a big share of adolescent time. Later, file sharing and streaming content drove a nail into the heart of the recording industry. Young consumers saw fewer reasons to spend decades learning an instrument to get a $100 gig, when they could invent Instagram, then jump out of an airplane, or something like that. So here we are. Even though the economy has sputtered to life in recent years following the Great Recession, the music products industry still faces challenges. Unlike those heady days on Music Row, percussion industry leaders are now worried about supply outstripping demand, and some have joined forces to develop ways to stimulate interest in drumming.
They send teachers to elementary schools to give workshops, hand out goodie bags at Warped Tour stops, and sponsor similarly well-intentioned promotions. I’m sure such efforts help create new drummers. But it’s pocket change compared to seeing Ringo for the first time in 1964, when the entire world suddenly wanted to be in a band.
We need a cultural revolution all right, but it’s going to happen on its own timetable. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe 20 years from now. One thing is sure — it will be born on the streets and not around a conference table.
Do Whatever It Takes
To those on the outside, drummers can appear to be classic underachievers who just want to bang on a drum all day. We’re only ever seen onstage — smiling, thrashing, sweating, spinning sticks. Casual observers don’t realize those peak moments are just tiny fractions of the time we spend working on our art.
Whether hobbyists or professionals, drummers spend a lifetime practicing, investing in equipment and education, studying in school and with private teachers, learning new styles and material, cultivating professional networks, and traveling long distances to advance our careers and skills.
We also must survive. For weekend warriors that means holding down full-time jobs to subsidize the occasional gig. To pros, though, it often requires big sacrifices. That’s easier said than done. Few drummers actually make a comfortable living by only playing drums. Most piece together a monthly paycheck from a number of sources, commonly by teaching lessons or working in drum shops on the side. If you surveyed every professional drummer, you’d discover many who’ve had to take temporary or part-time jobs at times to stay afloat.
I certainly have. Before cashing in my chips to go into music journalism, I spent time working in retail, shipping and receiving, furniture refinishing, janitorial work, construction, dishwashing, deliveries — the list goes on. I took jobs in which I had no emotional investment, so that if I was offered a plum tour, I didn’t mind quitting on a moment’s notice, even if I burned a bridge on my way out the door.
It was like living two very different lives at once. During the day I was an unskilled laborer, nearly invisible to the rest of the world. At night, I was on stage in front of a packed venue, watching from the drum riser while the audience went wild. Every once in a while, those two worlds would intersect, and the results could be surreal.
For instance, there was a period in the mid-’80s when my band, The Naughty Sweeties, was between record deals. Our mangers feverishly negotiated with labels while my bandmates and I were in a strange limbo. We worked on new material and developed demos, but weren’t playing many gigs, since we expected to go into the studio at any moment. Our cash flow finally dwindled down to almost nothing, so we all got day jobs.
I found a job in a warehouse in North Hollywood. For eight hours a day, a Filipino guy named Saul and I sat at a workbench facing a bare brick wall as we stuffed handfuls of cotton into decorative pillowcases shaped like geese and bunnies. It was kind of humiliating.
We blasted the radio over speakers that ringed the warehouse throughout the day, and every so often a local station would play one of my band’s songs. It’s hard to describe the dissonance I felt at those moments. Most people driving down the L.A. freeways blasting their car radios would never have pictured the drummer they were hearing stuck in a sweaty warehouse stuffing pillows for minimum wage.
But I did what I had to do and, in retrospect, am glad that I was willing to take a bullet for the band. Within a couple months, the Sweeties got a decent record deal, cut a new album, and began gigging in earnest, as if nothing had happened. So don’t feel mortified if you have to do a day job once in a while. Be proud you’re willing to do whatever it takes. You’re just acting like a responsible adult, and I salute you for it.
An Endorsement In Name Only
Much has changed during the nearly quarter century we've spent publishing DRUM! Magazine. Looking back, DW was still an upstart custom drum maker when we published our first issue. Travis Barker was a 16-year-old kid playing (instead of wearing) tattoos with his high school marching band. No one had heard a blastbeat, tweeted a message, or taken online drum lessons.
Even endorsements were different. In 1991, when we published our first issue, nearly every drum and percussion company had a long list of endorsers.
Back then, like today, most companies offered several levels of endorsements — from drummers who paid wholesale prices to others who got free gear to the elite few who received fat checks for licensing the use of their names and likenesses.
All three categories still exist, although the gold rush seems to have ebbed. Following the great recession, and the subsequent contraction of the drum industry, endorsement deals are harder to come by as companies tightened their criteria commensurate to their belts. To be considered viable, today's endorser must have enough gravitational pull to elevate a brand in the minds of potential customers.
This is true everywhere except in one unusual and still embryonic corner of the market, where a few cymbal companies set up shop on the Internet to sell directly to drummers, bypassing distributors and retailers altogether. At least in a couple cases, it seems pretty easy to get an "endorsement." Just buy some cymbals and the company adds your name to its list of artists. No muss, no fuss.
But is that really an endorsement? Sign with a major brand and you can expect to get some level of tour support, promotion in print ads and catalogs, posters in drum shops, and even clinic tours. But you get little more than a bargain price from one of these online cymbal brands, which dangle the lure of an endorsement to close the deal.
Okay — maybe there's nothing wrong with that. If you like their cymbals and enjoy the bragging rights of being an endorser, who am I to rain on your parade?
But do you really know who's on the other end of that transaction? I'm aware of at least one instance in which many drummers were promised endorsements but never received the cymbals they paid for. It wasn't long before the company's web site disappeared, phone lines went dead, and the owners vanished into cyberspace with the cash. Full disclosure — these same thieves even ripped us off after failing to pay for a couple full-page ads. Now, I don't want to tarnish all the legitimate small cymbal companies out there. Some offer endorsements because they are sincerely interested in your genre, or in identifying young drummers with promising careers. But others offer endorsements merely to move merchandise.
Do yourself a favor. Next time you see a great price from an online-only cymbal company that doesn't have a familiar name, do a little research to see whether the offer is a good deal, or something you need to investigate further.
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.