Of Gasoline & Groceries: Economic Survival Tips for the Working Drummer
by Bernie Schallehn
The following article originally ran in the April 2009 issue of Modern Drummer magazine, which is available as a back issue. To find out what issues are currently available in digital form, go to the Apple iTunes Store.
I’m no doomsayer stockpiling toilet paper, bottled water, and Spam, waiting for Armageddon. But I’m acutely aware that gasoline and grocery bills have taken a significantly larger cut out of my income. Granted, gas prices have dipped for now, but there’s no way to predict if and when they’ll spike back up. If I’m to remain a working drummer, I need to proactively keep my expenses under control. Here are some tips that’ll help keep me and you out there playing as much as possible.
Maximizing Rehearsal Time
Unless you have band practice at your house or apartment, you probably drive to a rehearsal space. Since you’re burning gas to get there, you need to maximize the time you have in rehearsal to either work up new material or polish your existing repertoire.
Before you leave for practice, take advantage of some of the technology that’s available. Use emails to send MP3s of new songs or song ideas you want to work on to other band members so they can familiarize themselves with the music. You might also want to discuss over the phone specific issues that you feel are reducing productivity during practice. Maybe someone always shows up late to rehearsal, or the keyboardist is constantly running scales when someone is trying to make a point. These might be issues worth discussing prior to arriving at rehearsal.
If you or your band mates have day jobs, there’ll be certain dynamics that occur when you get together to practice, especially if rehearsals are held on weekday evenings. Fatigue from the workday affects motivation and focus during practice. And because we’re social animals, there’ll always be a certain amount of chitchat. However, tiredness, being distracted, and shooting the bull can all cut into valuable practice time. So take on the responsibility to gently steer your crew back on course if your session isn’t being particularly productive. You might have to take some flak for being the “taskmaster,” but if the session turns out to be nothing but a social gathering or a place for your bassist to complain about his family, you’re wasting time and money.
If you spend two hours at rehearsal, check your watch to determine how much time is actually spent playing your instruments. If you have to load in and out every time, how much time is eaten up with that process? Then there’s the chitchat, maybe a disagreement or two, and a coffee/smoke break. You may discover that you’re really only making music for an hour and ten minutes. If that’s the case, you either need to become more focused or consider three-hour practices.
You might also want to consider longer practices on Sunday afternoons. Granted, you might be sleep-deprived after a late Saturday night gig, or you’ll miss a ballgame on TV. But there are always trade-offs in life. If you can push through four or five hours of practice on the weekend, you might find that you’re being much more productive than if you were getting together once or twice during the week.
If you’ve visited a local car dealership lately, you’ve probably noticed that they can’t give away trucks, vans, and SUVs. Back in the ’80s I drove a cargo van. In addition to my mammoth drumkit, I usually had enough room to cart around an enormous PA system. In retrospect, it was a cocky move buying that gas-guzzler, since I had waited for hours in serpentine lines at gas stations when there was the supposed “shortage” in the 1970s.
If you’re still cruising to your gigs in a vehicle that spends most of its time at the pumps, consider downsizing. I’m not talking about buying a Smart Car, but consider purchasing something smaller that’s not drinking up your take-home pay.
Realize that if you go with a smaller vehicle, you may also need to downsize your kit. In a previous article, I discussed the advantages of gigging with fewer drums and cymbals, and possibly smaller drums. Give it some thought.
Open Mics and Exposure
I’ve never gotten a paying gig that resulted from playing an open mic night. The club owner and the audience have enjoyed some free music, but basically I’ve waited around a couple hours to play four or five songs and enjoy a couple overpriced drinks.
Plus, the house drumkits are often cheap junk or have been horribly abused. If your intention is to get exposure for your band that would lead to some paying gigs, why would you represent yourself playing on drums and cymbals that sound awful? Plus, unless I use public transportation, I’m again burning fuel to get to the club. So you have to ask yourself: Is this supposed “exposure” worth the time and money?
Be wary of the concept of playing for free in order to get “exposure.” In many ways it’s a con. If you’re not being compensated in some way for the endless time you’ve spent honing your chops, plus the wear and tear on your vehicle and your body, you’re getting ripped off. That time could be better spent working on a demo and putting together a good band bio and photo. Then you could approach the club owner with a promo package to help secure a paying gig. You could also use those materials to sign with an agent or management company who’ll line up gigs for you.
If your band insists on playing open mics, call the club ahead of time to find out what’s waiting for you there in terms of a drumkit. Or go to an open mic as an observer—maybe carpool with your band mates—to see what gear the other bands are using. Take the time to find out what the club provides. Ask if you need to bring your own snare or bass pedal, and always bring your own stick bag.
Playing in Several Bands
A number of drummers I know have tacked together a rewarding musical life by being a “member” of several different bands at the same time. By earning income from various ensembles, they’re able to stay solvent. Some even manage to gig full-time. If you plan to take this route, you need to be a quick learner and be able to retain what you’ve worked on in rehearsals. You may also want to freshen up your reading/transcribing chops, so you can create charts of songs that you haven’t had a chance to memorize.
When you connect with a new band, find out if their intention is to play out and get paid. If they only want to jam and never leave the garage or basement, ask yourself if that’s what you want. If you agree that you want to make some money in addition to expressing your passion for performing, is the material coming together at a reasonable rate so that you can get out and play gigs soon? Is the band and repertoire something that club owners would want? Finally, has it been established who books the gigs? You may also want to discuss the minimum dollar amount for which you’ll perform.
If you do end up in multiple bands, be prepared to deal with some anger or hard feelings if you’ve already locked in a date with one band and then get a call from another for a gig on the same night. My advice is to honor your date with your first commitment, even though the second offering may pay more. Being dependable speaks volumes about your character, ethics, and integrity.
Negotiating for a Meal
I’ve been talking about fuel for your ride, but now let’s move on to fuel for your body. If you’re playing a gig at an establishment that serves food, see if you can negotiate a meal with your pay. I realize some of you might feel like a hobo asking for a handout, but groceries are getting pretty expensive. Most likely the club won’t serve you surf & turf, but why turn down a sandwich and fries? That’s at least one meal you wouldn’t have to pay for out-of-pocket.
If the pay offered at the gig is really sad, see if the club’s management would give you some gift certificates. That way you can come back to the club with your significant other for a dinner date that’s at least partially covered by the certificates. While you’re enjoying your meal, try to find the owner or manager. Throw out a few compliments about the food and about how much fun you had at your last gig there. This face-to-face interaction goes a long way in promoting a friendly relationship between musician and club management.
About a mile from my house there’s an ice cream stand that books music on Friday and Saturday nights during the summer. I’ve played there with different artists and bands over the years. It’s not Madison Square Garden, but the pay is decent, the hours are early and short, and the owner always insists that you have something to eat. In addition to the ice cream, he serves simple but tasty food—burgers, fish fries, hot dogs, sausage ’n’ peppers, and salads. The “exposure” is excellent, too. They have a ready-made audience who are happy to lick their frozen treats while listening to music. On breaks I’ve often been approached for future gigs, usually at private parties.
It’s possible that even with all the previous suggestions, you’re still struggling when you reach the checkout counter at the grocery store or when you swipe your credit card at the pump. If that’s the case, you might want to sell off your unused equipment. As drummers, we tend to look at our instruments as works of art—and they are. But do you really need to hang on to gear that you haven’t used in a while? Do you have a snare that’s collecting dust in a corner? Is that third djembe really necessary?
I’ve had good luck selling equipment on Craigslist and on eBay. Back in the 1960s I bought a 16″ brand-name crash cymbal. I always hated its sound, but I continued to cart it around in my cymbal bag until I realized how foolish this was. I recently sold the cymbal to a young drummer who absolutely loves it. He walked away happy, and I bought a small bag of groceries and pumped a few gallons into my gas tank. It was a true win-win situation.
Political activist Abbie Hoffman once said that the evening news was the greatest cause of free-floating anxiety in this country. Don’t believe all the doom and gloom that you read or see in popular media. However, food is expensive and gas prices are unpredictable from month to month. If you can be mindful of how much money you’re shelling out for those two things as you travel to and from rehearsals and gigs, odds are you’ll still be out there gigging, following your bliss, and sending out your beats to the world for years to come.
Illustration at top by Jeff Harrity.