How To Stay Alive As A Drummer

how to stay alive as a drummer

You became a drummer in order to play drums. When you made that decision, you probably envisioned a career in the studio and on stage. And while you should expect to spend plenty of time playing the drums, it is impossible to predict what the future may hold.

What will you do if you never get that big gig that insures a lifetime of fame and fortune? Will you give up drumming altogether and find a lucrative day job? If that is your choice, you wouldn’t be alone. It can be very difficult to make a living as a professional drummer, even when you do get a few lucky breaks along the way.

No matter how famous a musician is, he or she is rarely as wealthy as most people think. But for many professional drummers, the very act of drumming provides such an overwhelming degree of satisfaction that it justifies having to make certain sacrifices. So if you love playing drums, and can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, there are a number of time-tested ways to piece together a decent living from a variety of jobs – including live performances and studio work – even if you never become rich and famous.

Day Jobs

You shouldn’t be ashamed of working during the day to finance your passion for drumming. After all, you have to take care of yourself if you expect to land a big gig somewhere down the road. There are all sorts of day jobs that can provide you with working capital, though you should never lose sight of your musical goals. Many drummers take day jobs that they wouldn’t mind suddenly quitting when a good long-term gig rolls around. Some like to take jobs that somehow relate to drumming, while others try to pursue professional careers completely separate from the music industry that will give them “something to fall back on” if drumming just never pays off.

Many drummers make ends meet by working in drum shops. In many ways, this is the perfect day job for drummers who aspire to make it big. When you work in a drum shop, you get the opportunity to network with other drummers in your area, which helps tie you into the grapevine. You can be among the first in your area to hear about choice gigs and sessions, as well as new equipment innovations that can greatly enhance your competitiveness. Depending on the store in which you work, you might have opportunities to meet successful drummers in your area, or ones who pass through on clinic tours. Not only can you pick their brains for business and playing tips, but you can also try to develop a professional working relationship with them, either as their tech or as a sub.

The other advantage to working in a drum shop is that your employer will most likely be sensitive to your career needs. Let’s say you are offered a month-long tour. It is possible that your boss will give you a leave of absence, allowing you to return to your job after the tour wraps up. This is hard to do if you work for the phone company.

Yet working in a music store can be its own career. Don Frank manages the drum shop at Gelb Music in Redwood City, California. Even though he has played with internationally successful artists like Ronnie Montrose, the Doobie Brothers and Mark Bonilla, Frank takes his retail job seriously.

“This is my first priority,” he says. “I enjoy this job because I like being around the instruments and talking with the players who come in. It helps me stay in touch with other musicians, and reminds other players that I’m around and available. If a band is looking for a drummer, they know how to get in touch with me.

“But there’s more to it than that. This job has helped me to develop good communication skills and work habits that I’ve been able to apply to my drumming. There are a lot of drummers out there, and if you can have a bit of an edge because of your organizational skills, it can really pay off.”

Teaching

There is no better way to supplement your drumming income than taking on some students. You can arrange your teaching schedule during hours when you normally wouldn’t have conflicting commitments, such as gigs and recording sessions. This translates into late afternoons and early evenings, as well as slow gigging nights, such as Mondays and Tuesdays.

Being a drum teacher is a real job, though, requiring you to be organized and responsible. Students pay good money for your time and expect to get some real, concrete information in return. Like any other aspect of drumming, it is important for a drum teacher to be prepared, show up on time and be willing to work hard.

Most drum teachers work with students from all levels of drumming expertise. Some will be utter beginners who need to be walked though the fundamentals, including how to hold the sticks, read basic notation and play the simplest figures and rudiments. However, if you develop a reputation in your area as a hotshot drummer and teacher, you may attract semipro and even professional drummers who want to learn particular aspects of your technique and style.

Therefore, if you decide to become a drum teacher, you need to be prepared to exercise some flexibility. Certain students will desire a highly structured lesson plan that methodically develops their drumming skills. Others may not be interested in taking such an academic course, and will only want to learn certain beats and licks that they’ve heard on albums. It’s best to allow the student to dictate your lesson plan – at least to a degree. After all, the whole idea is for you to keep them interested in drumming and inspire them to move forward with their technique. So you must get to know each of your students in order to determine the method that will work best.

“That’s something I learned when I first began to teach,” says Wally Schnalle, a San Jose jazz drummer who has released three solo albums, and is the music editor for DRUM! magazine. “At first you think that you’re going to teach them to have the same level of commitment that you have yourself, and quickly you discover that isn’t going to be the case. But everybody who goes through my doors as a student has to cover three areas: good hand technique, reading abilities and four-limb independence.”

As your roster of students expands, you will find that it is imperative for you to keep detailed notes of each student’s progress. Write down the exercises, techniques and assignments covered in each lesson. Review your notes from the previous session before you begin a new lesson, so that you never duplicate material or appear to be confused.

Some drum teachers work out of their homes by converting a spare bedroom or garage into a teaching studio. There are definite financial advantages to this approach, including a low overhead and even some tax benefits. However, in this instance, it can be difficult to develop a roster of students. Identify the magazines and newspapers in your area that seem best suited to reach prospective students, and test each of them with a classified ad offering your teaching services. Track the response from each ad to determine which magazine draws best.

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Perhaps a more effective way to quickly build a roster of students is to teach out of a drum shop. Many stores have teaching rooms in the back, outfitted with drum sets and related equipment, which they rent out to teachers on an hourly basis. The relationship between a store and its teachers can be mutually beneficial. Since most drum shops serve as the hub of a particular drumming community, they naturally attract young drummers who need instruction. And since drum teachers usually see students on a weekly basis, the stores can count on a certain amount of regular customers walking through their doors.

Generally, private drum lessons are taught by the half hour, and usually cost between $20 and $25 per lesson. Cancellations represent the biggest headache for private drum teachers. To counteract this problem, most teachers require payment in advance for an entire month of lessons, and 24 hours notice for any lesson cancellation. That way, if the student doesn’t show up, the teacher retains payment for the lesson.

how to stay alive as a drummer

Leading A Band

Just because most bandleaders are singers or guitarists doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t consider forming your own band. If you are a songwriter, the advantages of leading your own band are obvious, since you would be the lucky duck who gets to keep the songwriting royalties.

But even if you don’t have a knack for penning catchy tunes, you can greatly enhance you earnings from gigs by leading a cover band that specializes in playing Top 40 hits or oldies at parties, wedding receptions and corporate functions. For one thing, party gigs tend to pay a whole lot more than club gigs do. For another thing, if you are the leader, you can reasonably expect to keep 15 percent of the gross revenue as a commission for booking the gigs. Add to that your regular pay as the drummer in the band, and your nightly earnings increase significantly.

Let’s take a look at some real numbers. Your five-piece band is hired to play a wedding for $800. As the booking agent, you take your 15 percent off the top, which comes to $120. After splitting the remainder, each bandmember receives $136, including yourself. So when you add your booking agent fee to your drumming cut, you walk away with $256. Not too shabby for a night’s work.

Of course, there are other responsibilities that come with the job. John Xepoleas is a San Francisco Bay Area—based drummer who leads a party band called the Fundamentals. “I do everything from payroll to contracts to dealing with advances for gigs, which in my case numbers about 120 dates a year,” he explains. “At this point, most of my business comes from word of mouth, from contact agencies and destination management companies.” Destination management companies are hired by corporations that want to put on an event. They hire everything from the busses to the ballroom to the band.

“I also have a production company, so that when the Fundamentals are booked, I’ll book another band,” Xepoleas continues. “There are a dozen bands that I currently work with, and they’re all booked into September of next year. I probably have six bands booked on New Year’s Eve,” which is not bad at all when you consider that Xepoleas keeps a 20 percent commission for the other bands that he books.

In case you are tempted by the math, here’s a little tip. If you do decide to form your own party band, be sure to play it straight with the tax man. By law, you are an employer, and are responsible for reporting the earnings of your bandmembers to the I.R.S., and providing each player with a W2 form at the end of the year. “I would go to jail if I didn’t do that,” Xepoleas warns. Better safe than sorry.

Writing Books And Making Videos

Very few people have become rich from writing drum-method books or producing drum videos. But quite a number of drummers have discovered that book and video publishing is a good way to supplement your income, especially with titles that enjoy a long lifespan.

If you would like to explore the idea, the first thing you need to do is come up with a good idea. Just keep in mind that there have been plenty of drummers before you who have had good book or video ideas. In order to compete with them at the retail level, you need to offer a fresh concept. So go out to your nearest drum shop and investigate the titles that are currently available. Make some notes. Try to identify a niche that hasn’t been exploited. Believe me, it’s going to be difficult. There are more instructional materials on the market today than ever.

Drum books generally fall into one of two categories. Instructional method books are the most common. They provide a study course that covers a particular drumming style or technique, include lots of musical examples and target readers at a certain level of proficiency. Narrative books thoroughly investigate a topic, which can be historical – such as the story of swing drumming – or technical – such as a how-to book about recording drums.

Once you land on your utterly unique book idea, you need to decide whether you want to self-publish or sign a contract with an established publisher of music-related books. The only real advantage of self-publishing is that you retain a greater percentage of the profits, though you will still need to cut a distribution deal with a publishing company,which accrues its own costs.

Most authors choose to work with publishing companies, and for very good reasons. After all, drumming is your real profession. You don’t want to spend all day marketing and promoting your book, and chasing down debtors. When you sign an agreement with a publisher, they take on the day-to-day headaches, and you only have to collect your royalty checks.

To pitch a book idea to a publisher, you need to write a brief summary of the book, a table of contents and at least one or two chapters. Even though you don’t have to present finished, designed pages, make sure that the presentation is neat and organized.

Most standard publishing agreements promise to pay the author 10 percent of sales. But what kind of sales? Wholesale or retail? That is actually a negotiable point, and naturally, 10 percent of retail is much more attractive than 10 percent of wholesale. Often publishing companies will ask an author to accept only 5 percent for foreign sales revenues, which is negotiable.

After signing the contract, you can expect to receive an advance against future sales, which can amount to anything from $500 to $5,000, depending on how much of a wheeler-dealer you are. From then on, publishers tend to pay royalties every six months. John Xepoleas has published three books: Studies for the Contemporary Drummer, and Lessons with the Greats, Part 1 & 2, and has learned a thing or two about reading publishing contracts.

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“You look for the things that are missing from a contract,” he says. “It’s not always what’s there. The most important thing you need is a reversion clause – that’s what I learned from my first book. A reversion clause protects the author if the book goes out of print. If you don’t get a statement within a certain period of time, all the rights to the book revert back to you. Then you have the ability to shop it to another publisher or publish it yourself.”

Videos are a whole other animal. Practically all drumming videos are instructional, and like method books, they provide a study course. If you are an up-and-coming drummer, it is much harder to break into the video market than it is to author a book. For one thing, the video market is completely saturated with titles that cover an incredibly wide range of styles and techniques. And video companies are entirely focused on signing big-name drummers, even if they aren’t particularly good in front of a video camera. So if you have your heart set on becoming a video star, you will first need to get your drumming career rolling.

how to stay alive as a drummer

Teching

Always an available option, teching for other drummers can be a lucrative enterprise, depending on the level in which you work. It can also lead to bigger and better things. White Zombie’s John Tempesta, Bad Religion’s Bobby Schayer and former Megadeth drummer Nick Menza all spent some time working as drum techs before they got their big breaks. It’s a great way to learn the ins and outs of the drumming biz up close.

There are two types of techs: one specializes in setting up and tuning drums in the studio, and the other performs similar duties on the road. At the professional level, there are only so many available jobs out there, and like many other aspects of the music business, most of them go to those who already have built solid reputations.

The studio tech market is the most elite, and hardest to break into. Well-known studio drum techs like L.A.’s Ross Garfield, New York’s Artie Smith and Nashville’s Harry McCarthy have built their businesses by renting high-end drum gear to album producers and first-call session drummers, and providing cartage and in-studio tuning consultation. All of these studio techs are expert drum tuners, and launched the businesses by developing extensive collections of rare and vintage drums and cymbals. When you rise to their level, you can expect to earn a pretty penny for your efforts. But none of these fellows plan to retire anytime soon. However, they occasionally hire talented techs and less skilled humpers, so if you happen to live in one of these three cities, you could try to land a position with one of their production companies.

You’ll find that there’s a greater turnover among road techs. And that’s because it’s a tough gig that requires a strong back, resilient attitude and plenty of patience. Road techs tour with a particular band, and are responsible for maintaining the drum gear in tip-top condition. This can include not only setup and tear-down, but tuning, regular maintenance, cartage, ordering replacement parts and, the bane of all live drum techs, polishing cymbals. And depending on which drummer you end up working for, the job can also require taking crap from a condescending employer and sometimes being a psychologist, marriage counselor and bail bondsman to boot.

Getting a gig as a drum tech is not dissimilar to getting a gig as a drummer. It largely depends on who you know, and being in the right place at the right time. Bands never interview prospective candidates when they need a new tech. They don’t need to. They always just seem to know who is available at any given time.

So if you are interested in becoming a drum tech, the best thing you can do is become a regular face on the scene. If you live in a big music town, try getting a job at one of the major rehearsal studios like S.I.R, where bands rehearse for tours and do auditions. Network with whomever you meet, and see what happens.

The Drum Industry

While some view jobs in the percussion industry as a graveyard for failed drummers, it is actually an area that offers a number of career options, even for gigging players. By working with a drum company, you can remain closely involved with the one thing that you love most – drumming – and can sustain a long career with plenty of room for upward mobility.

Many drummers get their start in the drum industry by working as customer service representatives. This can be a particularly thankless job, requiring you to take calls from consumers, some of whom can be hostile. But as you work your way up the ladder, you can find a wide range of jobs available, such as artist relations, sales, and even product specialist.

If you’re interested in a career in the drum industry, you need to conduct yourself with a bit more of a business-like attitude than you would as a performer. Compose a resumé that emphasizes your work history over your playing credits. Dress appropriately for job interviews, with a shirt, jacket and tie, and act professionally.

Clinics

Successful drummers can beef up their incomes by performing clinics. These are usually arranged through endorsement companies, who underwrite clinics from their promotional budgets and hand them out as bonuses to retailers who have moved a lot of their product.

The sponsoring store is usually required to purchase a particular drum set or set of cymbals for the clinician to play during the workshop, which the store can later sell. Some clinicians make special arrangements with the sponsoring store to also teach a handful of private lessons, either before or after the clinic, which can generate a little more income for the clinician.

Drummers are usually paid somewhere between $500 and $1,500 per clinic. In return, they are expected to deliver an authoritative educational experience for the clinic attendees. There’s nothing worse than having to sit through an unorganized, badly prepared clinic. “When I first started doing clinics, I kind of wrote out a script, because I was really scared,” says Chad Smith, who regularly performs clinic tours for Pearl and Sabian. “I’m so flattered that people would come out and see me play. It’s a chance to just talk about my take on drumming.”

Oh, Right. We Forgot. It’s About Drumming.

After all this folderol about the music biz, it’s far too easy to lose sight of the fact that you must be a good drummer if you ever plan to break into the music biz. No matter how fabulous your haircut, or how fancy your business card, never stop working on your technique and musicianship. That’s the most important thing of all.