People often ask me about the keys to succeeding in the music business. While there’s no single answer to that question, there are certain measurable and quantifiable elements to discuss. I’m going to try as best as I can to lay out a generic playbook on how to achieve what you want from your music career. It’s worth mentioning that many drummers can achieve success and happiness without landing what we think of as a “big gig.” But this article speaks to those who can’t shake the desire to play music on the world’s largest stages.

The first thing you must realize is that success is not a destination—it’s an ongoing journey. This is important to understand if you want to sustain a career in music before, during, and after you land the big gig.

Before the Gig

A successful music career is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t get too anxious or set unreasonable expectations for yourself. Just make sure you do something every day to advance your career. This can be as simple as having lunch with a fellow professional musician. However, it’s important to make a list of things you need to get better at on the drums and attack them. Here are some items I believe every drummer trying to get to the next level needs to practice.

Learn to play for the song. You must be willing to set aside your own personal desires and ask yourself, “What does this song need from me?” Most players lack the self-discipline to do this. What you don’t play can be as impactful as what you do.

Develop a sound. You must be able to produce a great sound that transcends the actual instrument that you’re playing. While it’s somewhat important to have professional-quality gear, it’s far more important to have the ability to make mediocre gear sound great simply by the way you play it.

Refine the fundamentals. Learn to play all of the forty standard drum rudiments. The more you can do on a single surface, like a practice pad or snare drum, the easier it is to move ideas around the drumkit.

Play all styles. You must be able to play many styles of music, otherwise you’re limiting your possibilities for professional gigs. There’s no room for musical snobbery. When you say, “I hate country” or “I’m a jazz drummer,” what you’re actually doing is limiting the amount of work that could be coming to you. If your goal is to be a working drummer, then you have to be willing and able to play any type of music.

Learn how to chart songs. There are several ways to write out drum charts, from simple shorthand to traditional notation and the Nashville number system. I choose which type of notation method works best for each situation.

Get comfortable playing with a click. Many top gigs require you to play to a click track. If you’re not comfortable doing that, then it’s time to get to work. You should also learn how to program drums and percussion in recording software like Logic or Abelton Live.

Go where the work is. If you want to play for a Broadway show, then you should move to New York City or New Jersey. If your dream is playing on movie soundtracks, then you need to be in L.A. If you want to record and/or tour with big country acts, move to Nashville. In order to land a big gig, you need to be swimming in a big pond.

If you decide to move to a new city, make a point to check out and learn from the ones who are already doing what you want to be doing. Be patient and humble. Don’t talk trash. Bad reputations spread like wildfire, but good reputations spread slow and steady. Make it your job to go out and meet other musicians and singers. Meet other drummers, and definitely make it a point to meet bass players. Those are the folks who are going to recommend you for gigs.

If you land an audition, be on time. Don’t overdress, but do over-prepare. Know the music backwards and forwards. During the audition, look up at the people you’re playing with and have a great time. When you’re finished, shake everyone’s hands, tell them you had a great time, and then leave. Don’t call them; they will call you if you got the gig.

During the Gig

When the phone call comes that you’ve been selected, you’re going to feel like you’ve finally made it. But you haven’t yet. You’ve simply been given an invitation to the big dance. Understand that this is an opportunity most people don’t ever get to experience, so treat it like a privilege. Playing music is your job, so consider it as such. Keep the partying to a minimum, otherwise your trip to the big time will be a short one. Here are some thoughts on what you should (and shouldn’t) do during the gig.

Don’t start calling drum companies to ask for endorsement deals immediately after you get a gig. Concentrate on getting settled into your new job, and worry about the other stuff later.

Be considerate of your fellow musicians. Traveling on a tour bus can be super-cool, but lack of respect for personal space or even a lack of personal hygiene can be the difference between keeping and losing a gig. The show is just two hours of your day. How you act during the other twenty-two is just as important.

Keep some distance. If you’re a side musician, be friendly but keep some professional space between you and the artist you’re supporting. It’s just better that way.

Save money. When you get a big gig, you will likely be making more money than you have before. But understand that this gig could end at any time, so put the money aside. A chunk could go towards a retirement fund, and I also recommend putting away enough money to cover living expenses for six months in case of an emergency. If you buy a house, try to pay it off as quickly as you can. Assume, from a financial standpoint, that this gig won’t last forever. Too many people spend money like it will always be there, but it won’t.

Keep growing as a player. As the demands of the big gigs grow, you must continue to develop as a player or risk being left behind. Put your ego aside, and take some lessons.

Diversify your portfolio. Even if you’re a full member of a successful band, you must diversify your income in order to minimize the impact of losing any particular stream. If you only have one source of revenue and you lose it, what will you do? Consider teaching, writing, producing, or pursuing other endeavors that will keep your income going once the big gig ends.

Keep your eyes and ears open. Pay attention to what the non-musicians involved in the gig are doing (stage managers, tour managers, etc.). You might find a second career in one of these administrative areas of the music industry.

Be nice to everyone. Remember that you will often see the same people on the way down from a big gig as you did on the way up.

When the Big Gig Ends

All good things come to an end eventually, so here are some things to consider when your days on the big stage are over.

Don’t live in the past. If the gig came to an ugly end, take the high road and try not to become bitter, because nothing good will come of that. Be proud of what you were able to accomplish, and move forward with your life. If another big gig comes your way, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, take comfort in the fact that you were given a special opportunity and you made the most of it.

Keep playing. It’s important that you continue to play your drums and make music. Some drummers quit because they don’t see the point in playing on a smaller level after being at the top. Remember why you started making music in the first place, and don’t be too proud to take some smaller gigs.

Be a mentor. I think it’s very important to share what you’ve learned from your experiences. If you made mistakes, share those with the next generation so they can be better prepared for whatever opportunities come their way.


Jim Riley is the drummer and bandleader for Rascal Flatts. He’s also the author of Survival Guide for the Modern Drummer and Song Charting Made Easy. You can contact him at www.jimrileymusic.com.