Last time, I answered some of the more common questions I get asked by other drummers. At the top of the list was whether to learn to read music. Another frequent question is about playing drums for a living and whether it’s important to develop a secondary skill to fall back on if drumming doesn’t yield enough income. There’s a lot to discuss on this subject, so we’re going to break it into two parts. This month I’ll address the first part of the question.

Should I Do This For a Living?

When I do a clinic or speak at a college, I often talk about my love for golf and how I own nice clubs and take lessons, but how I know that I’m never going to be on the PGA tour. For a lot of folks, drums serve a similar purpose. You can play drums your entire life, get better, study, buy nice instruments, and play in bands, but never try to make it a full-time career. It’s okay to just have fun playing your kit. Drumming is a great way to express the artistic side of your personality, especially if your primary occupation doesn’t involve much creativity.

Not every musician has to be a professional. Playing occasional gigs can be a good way to supplement your income. But committing to making your drumming a full-time career requires serious determination and honesty about your skill level and desires. You have to ask yourself, “Do I want to do this, or do I have to do this?” There’s a big difference between those two questions. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else, even though I have experience in architectural engineering and technical drawing that could have led to solid career options. I turned down jobs in those fields because I had a strong desire to play the drums. Looking back, that decision seems a little crazy in many ways. But I’m glad I followed my convictions. If you don’t feel strongly that you can’t see yourself doing anything other than drumming, then you might want to pursue an alternative career and keep music as a hobby or secondary source of income.

What If Things Aren’t Working Out?

Unless you’re blessed with a large inheritance, you’ve likely had times where you measured your level of success by the amount of money you’ve earned from your chosen profession. Some people choose their job solely on the possibility of financial gain. But what drives someone to be an artist?

Society usually correlates success with financial gain. But you will likely never make good money in any career unless you can do something that other people can’t. I also believe that no successful artist, athlete, or individual in any performance-oriented field ever focused more on money than on achieving an extremely high level of skill. Without tremendous focus, fortitude, and a strong work ethic, it’s impossible to attain a high level of success in any field.

If you don’t feel that you’re getting any better as a musician, then spend some time being honest with yourself. Are you actively studying, developing, and practicing new ideas? If you’re not improving, then all you need to do is start practicing. You will get better as long as you put in the effort.

What if you aren’t getting called for many gigs? Have you invested anything into your business? Did you build a website? Are you active on social media? Do you have nice photos and recordings of yourself playing drums? Do you go out to clubs to network with other musicians? If you’re lax on any of those things, start focusing on them more.

The key to transitioning into a full-time music career is to define yourself as an artist first. In other words, if you work as a valet to pay rent while you build up your playing career, make sure you think of yourself as drummer who parks cars to pay bills rather than as a valet who wants to be a drummer. There’s a big difference. We’ll continue this discussion next time. See you then.


Russ Miller has recorded and/or performed with Ray Charles, Cher, Nelly Furtado, and the Psychedelic Furs and has played on soundtracks for The Boondock Saints, Rugrats Go Wild, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others. For more information, visit russmiller.com.