Roy Burns
Photo by John W. Wright

If you run your own business, at the end of the year you review profits and expenses. If you made a profit it is considered to have been a good year.

The musician has a more complex problem. He also has to show a profit at the end of the year. However, if he hates the music he plays to make a living, he may not consider his year a total success. He will often be very frustrated. On the other hand, he may love the music he plays but have a very difficult time paying the bills. This is an old story with musicians of all styles. Jazz, classical, studio and club musicians all have ups and downs financially.

It seems as though good musicians have two basic needs: making a living and achieving emotional satisfaction from the music they play. The businessman has it easier in that his goals and needs are clearer. He just has to make money. The musician, in order to survive, has to make money, but he is also driven to play something he loves.

Unfortunately, what musicians love and what the public loves is often not the same. Occasionally an artist “breaks through” and connects with the public by doing what he loves best. But more often than not, the public wants to hear what is promoted on AM radio. I am not trying to criticize the buying public, but it would be good for young musicians to realize (and remember) that they are not performing for musicians.

Groups who do not play well, but who cater to public tastes, often make more money than really good players. However, good musicians who decide to be “commercial” often do very well, even though critics are rarely sympathetic. It comes down to art vs. money. The musician wants to pursue art, while the club owner and record executive care more about the cash register and the record sales. This is understandable because they have to pay the salaries and royalties. Both sides can present a good argument for their point of view.

There are several important ideas that can help the young player resolve (at least partially) this age old conflict between art and money.

  1. Decide what your career goals really are. If you want with all your heart to play jazz or classical music, resolve yourself to the idea that you most likely will not make a great deal of money from performing.
  2. If you want to do well financially as a performer there are two major avenues for musicians: Become a member of a popular (commercial) group or become a welltrained studio musician. Both are tall orders and will demand dedication and hard work as well as talent.
  3. No matter which path you choose, avoid criticizing musicians who choose another path. It won’t change anything anyway, so save your energy.
  4. Consider compromise approaches whenever possible. For example, many good drummers teach. This gives them an economic base so that they can pursue the playing situations they are most interested in. In other words, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Have more than one source of income.
  5. Many fine players prefer to work a normal job during the day and play freelance jobs in their area. In this way, they can accept only the jobs they want and turn down situations that are less appealing musically.
  6. Musicians who have developed notoriety often do clinics and seminars to supplement their income. Sharing information with younger players is also very rewarding.
  7. A number of musicians start publishing companies. They publish their own songs or their own instruction books.
  8. I’ve met a number of truly fine players who have degrees and teach at the high school or college level. These same musicians often do quite a lot of playing in their area.

Last of all, don’t waste a lot of time criticizing people who have been successful. You may not like what they do or the way they do it, but success over a period of time must be respected.

All successful drumers play well. The key is to discover exactly what it is that makes them special. In this way you can learn from them and apply the understanding to your own career. The more you understand about music, drumming and the music business, the greater your chances of achieving both musical and monetary success.