Scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. That’s it in a nutshell — the endorsement game. Of course, the relationship between a pro drummer and his gear companies — and how they even hook up in the first place — is more complex than that, so we surveyed some industry veterans on the subject of product endorsements to get to the bottom of this mysterious subject.
Mike Farriss handles artist relations for Pearl Drums, which has nearly 300 artist endorsers in the U.S. Bobby Boos is the East Coast artist relations man for Sabian, though he says his busy job is better described as “industry relations.” Rodney Howard — an endorser of Pearl, Sabian, and Vic Firth — is a young drummer out of New York City who has played with Avril Levigne, Gavin DeGraw, and Regina Spektor. And Todd Sucherman, drummer for Styx, has developed solid professional relationships with Pearl, Sabian, Remo, and Pro-Mark.
Which brings us to the most obvious question …
Because frankly, ever since we put that mirror in the practice room, we think we shred pretty rad, and might want to parlay some moves into free gear.
Well, not so fast. Qualifying for an endorsement deal requires more than chops. “I had a long period without endorsements,” says Howard. “It was hard for me to realize that it was not about my ability level but about my visibility level.” Sucherman, who landed his first paying gig at age six, went a long time without worrying much about endorsements. “I was always concerned with working, and being a good musician, playing good music with good musicians,” he says. “Endorsements were kind of secondary to me. I think some young players get it turned around, and they want endorsements as a sort of validation of their playing. But what good is a free drum set when you’re home watching TV?”
Farriss looks at the big picture: “Often a young band gets signed to a label deal and they think they’ve made it. That’s not true. Getting signed is just the beginning. What you do with that opportunity is what matters. Young drummers need to remember that there are lots of guys that are ahead of them. Our hope is that all the guys achieve the success of a Dennis Chambers or a Virgil Donati, but that’s not necessarily the case all the time.”
Which brings us to our next burning question …
It’s not uncommon for drummers to speak of “getting an endorsement” rather than giving one. It’s as if they believe manufacturers of sticks, drums, cymbals, and heads will give them both gear and glory (and anything else they can put their hands on). In fact, every year at the NAMM show, the industry-only convention of musical instrument manufacturers and dealers, scores of players descend upon artist reps trying to get hooked up. Younger players often hope to squeeze their names into ads as a step toward Billboard’s Top Ten.
But Farriss confirms that the artist is the one waving the flag. “It should be the artist endorsing the product, not the other way around. If a guy doesn’t feel good about what he’s playing, he shouldn’t play it just because it’s free.” Boos considers his endorsers to be Sabian’s first line of salespeople: “If Johnny Bagodonuts sees the guy playing Sabian cymbals in some club somewhere and he wants to know more about the cymbals, we hope he asks. But if the endorser doesn’t know much about what he’s playing then he’s actually doing us a disservice. We want artists who actually know and love our products, not just some guy who says, ’Hey, I want some cymbals.’”
Usually not — an irony that isn’t lost on Farriss, who says, “I’m friends with most all of the other companies’ artist relations people, and one of our favorite observations is that when an artist finally has enough success to buy whatever he wants, he gets it for free. That’s not really funny.” And the notion of free gear by the truckload is off the mark, too. “Not everything is free,” Farriss said. “The vast majority of our artists pay for the product. It’s on a per-case basis, and the price depends on the return we get from the exposure the artist can offer us.”
Let’s dispel yet another myth — about the big payouts top endorsers supposedly reap when they ink a deal with a drum company. “Frankly, the percussion industry is a very small part of the music instrument industry, which is not a huge industry,” Boos says. “There are no big-money deals going on. People don’t get paid to be in ads. If Phil Collins takes time from his busy schedule to do something with Sabian, it’s because he really likes us.”
Sabian operates on a tier system that reflects the market visibility of the artist. “There are about 700 Sabian endorsers in the U.S., of varying levels,” he says. “There might be a C level endorser whom we offer a discounted price and some help in selection, but then it’s up to them to come back with that million-selling record and the MTV and the big tours, and then we move to the next level.” And in case you were wondering, the C-Level folks do not get to handpick cymbals at the Sabian factory.
“B-level would include a limited number of cymbals at no charge and the rest at a discount, and, of course, service. You have to be clear on these things, or assumption will cause confusion at the end of the day. We try to be really clear on what we expect and what we offer.”