Five Key Components for the Working Drummer
by Russ Miller
This month’s column is about creating opportunity for yourself. Our quotation by the American author H. Jackson Brown Jr. describes the idea beautifully. Many drummers ask me about opportunity. Sometimes the question is “How do you get gigs?” Or it’s “How do I break in?” As we discussed in earlier columns, there’s not one path to success. We can, however, work on the building blocks of developing a career in playing music.
I follow the adage that luck is preparation meeting opportunity. It’s our job to prepare (check out my column in the November 2014 issue for more on preparation). It’s also our job to create opportunity for ourselves. We can’t sit around waiting for things to fall into our lap, because they rarely do. Opportunity needs certain elements to come into existence. There are some things that we have no control over, but we can create many aspects of opportunity for ourselves. And we can set opportunity in motion by recognizing its elements. Let’s talk briefly about five of them.
Something has to pull you out of the crowd of players. I got gigs with several visible artists when I was living in Miami in the early ’90s. People started to say, “He’s the guy who plays with so-and-so.” Then Yamaha approached me, when I was twenty-one years old, to become a regional endorser. Then I became “the kid who plays with so-and-so and has a deal with Yamaha.” This helped me gain notoriety in the local scene. As I reached other achievements, it would be, “He’s the guy who played on that record,” or “I saw him with so-and-so on tour,” or “I have his book.” Getting on a big gig definitely helps. (My friend Zoro wrote an entire book about this, fittingly called The Big Gig.) An international-level job will get you more visibility than anything else. Major recordings do this as well, even if you’re not physically on the tour. (More on that later.) In a nutshell: More visibility creates more possibilities for opportunity.
Show What You Can Do
People need to have an experience with your playing; they need to be moved. Maybe this happens by playing great songs with your band at gigs, or maybe it’s from an incredible solo you played on a record. You could also move people with your feel or your unique approach when they see you perform. This is where the constant development of your drumming comes into play. There has to be an experience that makes people think, Wow, that was awesome!
Several players have said to me, “I’ve done a bunch of gigs, but I don’t seem to be moving forward in my career.” These are the folks that, when I see them play, it’s rather uneventful. They could play an entire show, and you’d never think, That drummer is killing it tonight! It’s not about tricks or gimmicks, although those can garner attention and buzz in the short term. It’s more about getting people to experience something that touches them. We need them to come back for more than tricks.
Create Interest for Your Fans
This is where discussions of being a great musician enter the equation. You may be able to gain some visibility from a gimmick or trick. But in the long term there has to be something that keeps people interested in coming back. Creating great musical moments during gigs is one way to get them to return so they can see what happens next. If you only have tricks, you’ll just have to come up with new and more amazing versions of them. And once people have seen your gimmick a few times, they’ll be over it. How many times would you go see a magician if he or she did the same tricks at every show? Look at Criss Angel. He constantly has to top himself by creating bigger and more amazing illusions. But when I go to see my favorite bands, it’s to hear awesome songs or to check out how they might have changed the arrangements from the last time I saw them. I don’t go to see if they have the same lights as the last tour.
Getting fans to return is very important. You can’t build a base if you’re constantly losing old fans. I’ve been to many shows and left thinking, I wouldn’t pay to see that again. That can be a disaster to an artist’s career. But then there are the dedicated fans for bands like Rush, which can fill arenas without a new album to promote, or James Taylor, who tours endlessly but hasn’t done a record of new songs in years.
Keeping your fans’ interest is the key to having them come back again and again. Do this in your drumming, but don’t rely on tricks and gimmicks. Most drumming trickery is amazing only to other drummers. But drummers aren’t usually the ones who will be hiring you—other instrumentalists are. Focus on playing the best music possible.
Allow People to Experience Your Playing
In the December 2014 issue of MD, I wrote about the importance of documentation. The history of everything we know lives on in its documentation. If something is never documented, its lessons, influence, and inspiration are gone forever. We can log snapshots of time in our memory, but to be publicly remembered or recognized, we must be documented.
What does this mean for your drumming career? You need to have some type of pitch kit out there doing work for you when you can’t be there in person. A pitch kit is a clear example of your product. People need to hear you, see you, and understand what kind of player you are. I’m not talking about making a formal press kit, although you should have one of those as well. I’m talking about creating a catalog of material that documents your playing and that works for you 24/7, all over the world.
You don’t want just the people who attend your gigs to know what you can do. That total number is very small in the grand scheme of things. Plus, anyone who regularly attends your gigs already knows what you can do. You’ve closed that deal; you just have to keep those people coming back to your shows. What we are looking to achieve with documentation of your playing, be it videos or audio recordings found online, is to obtain new fans from around the globe.
Represent Yourself in the Best Way Possible
Before you dive headfirst into documentation, it’s important to make sure your playing is up to the proper level. This is one thing that seems out of whack in today’s drumming scene. YouTube has created a global outlet for documentation, and it’s an incredible asset for all of us. But I see a lot of drummers posting things to YouTube, like practice sessions or playing along with someone else’s record, that may be doing more harm than good. Remember that the whole world can see these clips. If the videos look bad, sound bad, or aren’t your best work, they’re still part of your pitch kit. I encourage you to always put your best out there. You want your current and potential fans to see the best of what you can do.
Hold your documentation in high regard. Get some basic audio gear, like a decent stereo mic, to ensure that your videos sound good. And make sure you’re always playing at your highest level on your recordings. A lot of artists don’t like being filmed at shows because they can’t control the product and it ends up being visible to many people. Documentation that looks or sounds horrible can affect your professional status, so take it seriously. It requires more effort to create high-quality documentation, but you never know what opportunities could result from them. As the advice columnist Ann Landers wrote in one of her articles, “Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don’t recognize them.”
Russ Miller has played on recordings with combined sales of more than 26 million copies. His versatility has led him to work with a wide range of artists, including Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Nelly Furtado, and Andrea Bocelli. For more info, visit russmiller.com.