Part 1: Let’s Get Real

by Russ Miller

Endorsement contracts with instrument companies is a hot topic. Covering the subject has been requested so much, and I’ve been asked about it so often, that I decided to do a two-part column. To get the truth out, I enlisted three of the top artist-relations directors in the drum world to help this month. They were very candid! Their input will help shed some light on the top questions regarding endorsements.

How Endorsement Deals Work

The job of the companies is to sell drums—not to give them away. The only reason for a company to offer something at no cost, or for less money, is marketing. If an artist of prominence is seen or heard playing a particular company’s instruments, the public may be sparked to purchase the same or similar gear. This plays to the consumer’s hopes of sounding or looking like that artist. That’s why you often see athletes endorsing shoes, clothes, golf clubs, and so on—these are great marketing deals for the company. Top players in any field help validate the product. The company wants the customer to think: If she digs it, then it must be good. Instrument manufacturers are no different.

The first level of confusion is in regard to how some people feel that having an endorsement with a company somehow validates them or makes them a “famous” artist. The truth is the exact opposite. If you’re not already visible or influential, there’s no reason to give you an endorsement deal in the first place. If an artist does have influence on a great number of people, it can be cheaper and more effective for a company to give that person an instrument than to invest money into other forms of marketing. In that scenario, both the artist and the company win.

I asked the veteran player and artist-relations manager Bob Terry (Line 6, Yamaha DTX, and now NFuzed Electronics) about the usefulness of artist programs these days. “They are still very effective if used properly,” he says. “It has to add to the bottom line for the company. Both sides need to profit. Too many artists only think about what they are getting out of it. How many people are going to buy this equipment just because you’re using it?”

Joe Testa (Warner Bros., Yamaha Drums, and now director of artist relations for Vic Firth) answers similarly when posed this question. “The economy has changed the game in endorsements,” he explains. “Artists want to save money by getting a deal, but the company needs to make money by giving the deal. We are dealing with the same economy.”

How Endorsements Have Changed

I recently said in an interview: “The term endorsement has totally flipped meaning in the past ten years or so. When I was a kid, Buddy Rich endorsed Slingerland drums. This meant if Buddy says they’re great, then they’re great! It surely didn’t mean, ‘Slingerland says Buddy Rich is great.’” Buddy validated the product—not vice versa.

Somewhere in the past ten to fifteen years, though, the meaning of endorsements has flipped in the eyes of the artists. There is a running theme of, “I’m endorsed by so-and-so company, so I must be good.” That change in perspective from artists has led to the downward slide of this arm of company marketing. Industry veteran Joe Hibbs (Promark, Tama, Premier, and now Mapex and Sonor) says, “There’s almost an expectation from younger players that they need an endorsement as a part of their résumé. You are not going to get hired for a session, tour, or band because of what kind of drums you use. Your playing level, sound, and professionalism are the key.”

Earning an endorsement deal should not be about becoming famous or getting things for free. To be honest, when I worked my way up to a position where I was getting free gear from the companies I endorsed, I could have afforded to buy it. I was already making a good living playing. When I was a kid, I couldn’t afford an 8″ splash cymbal. I sold toys at yard sales to buy cymbals and drums. But even though I didn’t have any money for equipment, I would never have dreamed of contacting Yamaha to try to get an endorsement. Steve Gadd and Vinnie Colaiuta were Yamaha endorsers, and they represented the best of the best in the drum industry. I never looked at it like Yamaha would validate me. I knew I would need to be in an influential place as a player for something like that to happen.

Companies should want you to endorse their products because it will affect their sales and their perception by the buying public. They’re not in business to affect the public’s perception of you.

Types of Deals

Yes, there are different levels of endorsement deals. A smart company will not hand out gear to a player right out of the gate. There are commonly four levels of endorsements. I’ve had deals on each rung through the years. This is how it usually works, from high to low.

The marquee artist: This is the top of the list and represents the company’s image and direction globally.

The international artist: You are recognized internationally in the business and are a crucial part of the company’s roster.

The national/domestic artist: These are the top players in their country. They are not well known internationally but have a big influence on their country of origin. They can also be players in highly visible, national-level bands.

The regional or developing artist: These players are influential in a regional market. They can be college percussion-department heads, top teachers, or great players in an emerging band or local scene. The companies will look for some of these types of players to invest in for long-term development.

An effective artist roster for a company should include players at each of those levels. If the roster starts to bloat with too much of one category, there will be problems. Too many marquee names will kill the budget. Too many international players will put a lot of pressure on global branches, regional budgets, and resources. A large number of national-level artists will be very difficult for the country’s staff to maintain. National deals aren’t handled by the company’s main international office, so they can load down a smaller country’s staff. And having too many developing artists makes a company seem desperate. It also dramatically affects sales to the dealers, because it’s essentially turning the dealer’s customers into “artists” who are now buying direct from the company.

“Some of the companies out there take too many regional players out of the retail cycle,” Hibbs says. “Having too many regional or non-national-level players on a roster hurts the dealer base. We should all know when it’s time to take the artist out of the retail purchase circle. A local retailer can’t support a national or international artist’s needs. That’s when we take over. Doing that too soon hurts everybody.”

Most regional endorsement deals allow the artist to buy equipment at the same cost as a dealer (aka “dealer cost”). National deals usually include one free set of hardware and maybe a free snare, and then the artist buys drumsets at dealer cost. Only when you get an international-level deal will you be offered higher-price equipment, like drumsets.

There are also two types of endorsements that are seldom talked about publicly. They’re what’s known as “branding” and “influencing” deals. Branding artists are ones that might not be at a high level of playing but are extremely visible. They put the company logo on television frequently, play large tours and award shows, and so on. They aren’t going to get drummers to run to the store to buy drums, but they give awareness to the brand name. These types of artists, usually in famous bands, will sometimes get national- or international-level deals because of the band’s fan base and visibility, and not necessarily because of their playing ability.

Influencing artists are great players who have a national or international name. They validate the product and will make consumers pay attention to the company’s products just by playing them. Some of these artists might not have near the global visibility of a branding artist, but they are the best in the field and will have a much bigger effect on the bottom line for the company. The best-case scenario for a company is to sign an artist with both facets: a terrific player who knows the equipment, gets great sounds, works a lot, has a long-term career, and is very visible. These are the marquee candidates.

Join me next month for part two of our discussion on endorsements. We’ll talk about how to know when you’re ready for an endorsement, the qualifications for getting deals, and why some drummers have more than others. See you then!

Russ Miller has played on recordings with combined sales of more than 26 million copies. For more info, visit