Kenny Aronoff: The Art Of The Deal

Kenny Aronoff

Lots of drummers record and play with top-grossing pop acts, but Kenny Aronoff is the session man’s session man — the cat who takes the red-eye to Nashville for a 7 a.m. call time and gets back to Burbank in the afternoon to tape American Idol. To give you an idea how busy he is, Aronoff is scrolling through his Blackberry fielding offers while we have him on the phone. Now that’s a hustler. Anyone wanting to get similarly paid for plying their rhythmic craft is advised to heed the man’s words.

What’s A Contract?

“Most of it’s not fine print. Most of it’s negotiating and you got to be willing to work at all kinds of different levels. A lot of people are like, ‘We can’t afford you anymore.’ I’m saying, ‘Yes, you can‚’ because the whole pay scale has changed. Some drummers at the higher levels are saying, ‘You’re lowering the standard.’ I’m saying, ‘Dude! What world are you living in? The rules have changed. There are no budgets. There’s barely any labels.’ Sure, I respect the standard, but you got to be flexible. There are gray areas and sometimes you might get screwed and sometimes you don’t. But you can’t score goals if you’re not on the field.”

Start High

“For the young kids there’s no rule of thumb. First ask [producers, artists, etc.] what they can afford. And then you ask people at your level, what are they getting? Or you ask someone on the session, ‘What are the other people getting?’ You should just come out and ask, ‘What can you afford to pay me?’ And you’ll have to ask yourself if you’re willing to do it for that. And ask the players what they’re getting per session. It all depends on what instrument they play. You go down the list.”

Working Both Sides

“With the union they’re paying scale now mostly. I used to get double scale and over a certain number of hours I would get triple scale. It’s funny because, before, you used to have to file with the union to get paid at all. But the recording budgets just aren’t there. Producers, studios, they don’t want to use union. A lot of it is private money now where the band is just writing me a check or giving me cash.”

The New Drumming Economy

“I’ve got a drum room now. Most drummers in L.A. have a drum room. It’s kind of like if you want to play ball, you better have one. Yeah, most of them are home studios. Some sessions are just all overdubbing. That’s why I’ve got a drum room — it’s bringing work in.”

Money Vs. Sanity

“Sometimes the money is important. Like the time I flew to Africa for one gig. That’s when I’m asking for certain things. You get there at midnight, next day is sound check and show, and you fly back that night. It kicks your ass. But money isn’t everything. If money was everything then I wouldn’t do things like the [recently telecast] Kennedy Center Honors. I probably shouldn’t have taken it [laughs], but typically I do.”


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  • You have to know your professional worth. Years ago, Eric Gravatte decided he’d insist on a minimum for any gig. He was a local DC musician at the time, and a lot of his fellow musicians scoffed at his decision (I believe it was $50 in the early 1960s); they believed it was an arrogant position, that it would hurt other musicians because it would lead to undercutting. Instead, Eric’s insistence that time and talent equals worth won him respect and helped move him up the professional ranks to Weather Report, and other name acts. Not everyone is as versatile and experienced as Kenny Arnoff, but all musicians should evaluate their experience, their versatility and their ability to get the job—any job—done in a professional manner. What’s your years of sweat and tears worth? Know it and stick to it.