Every now and then, I receive a letter from a frustrated young drummer. Many of the letters say something like: “I have been playing for X amount of years. I’ve taken some lessons, but my reading needs improvement. I play two nights a week in a Top-40 band. I would like to be playing original music with a top rock (or jazz) group. Should I move to L.A. or New York? I feel stuck where I am now. Signed, Frustrated.”
Another version of this is: “I have been playing for X amount of years. I can read, play all the rudiments and virtually all drumming styles. The problem is that I am stuck in a town with no one to play with. I’ve tried forming a group, but I haven’t been able to find people who play well and who are willing to make a serious commitment. Should I move to L.A. in order to make it? Signed, Serious.”
Another type of letter is: “I live in such-and-such town. I play most or many of the good gigs in the area. As a rule, I am working with the best musicians in town. The work is varied and stimulating. I also teach at my home in the suburbs. My question is, am I copping out? Should I move to L.A., San Francisco, or New York? Please write soon. Signed, Undecided.”
In one instance, the person who wrote this type of letter was a friend of mine, so I phoned him. I asked, “Are you unhappy?” He replied, “No, I’m not unhappy. It’s just that maybe I have it too easy. What if I left home and tried to make it as a professional player in a major city?” I said, “Suppose you move to L.A., make it big in the studios, become well known, and make a lot of money. What would you do then?” He thought for a moment and said, “I guess I would get myself a nice house in the suburbs and teach a little.” I couldn’t help laughing as I said, “But you already have a house in the suburbs and you already teach a little. Why tear up your life when you are already in a great position?” Fortunately, he said, “Wow— you’re right!”
Many of us grow up with the childhood dream of going to the big city and “making it.” This dream, coupled with perseverance, has helped many of us launch careers. However, at a certain point, we may outgrow the dream. If you are thinking about packing up your drums and going to the big city, consider the following points.
1. Go while you are young and preferably single. The ordeal is tough enough without subjecting spouses and children to it. Some spouses are very understanding about music careers. Others see it as a hardship, and more than one divorce has happened because of the big move.
2. Save some money before you hit the big town. Work is hard to come by in a new town where people have never heard of you. Unless you are very lucky, it will take time to establish yourself and/or land a good job playing music. (Quick success does happen, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.)
3. Be prepared to work at something else if need be. Have you ever worked in a music store? Can you earn a living on a day job if you have to? Can you teach? Many good young musicians teach to supplement their incomes.
4. Can you read music? Don’t expect to get a lot of studio work if you can’t read; there are a lot of top drummers already established in each big city who read well.
5. Be prepared to play some more Top-40 if you have to. It might keep you going until you land something better.
6. If possible, talk to other musicians who may have information about various music cities. Ask if there is much work available for musicians. Find out if there is an active club scene. Attend clinics given by top professional players, and ask them about the work situation in several of the big music towns such as Nashville, Toronto, L.A., and New York.
7. If you are well situated, think twice before moving. If you are playing a lot, making a living, and enjoying yourself, the big move may simply not be worth the sacrifice involved. This is especially important to consider if you are married and have a family.
Remember that each career has a lifestyle that goes with it. For example, if you hate nightclubs, you will find a career in music difficult, especially early in your career. If you hate to travel or are really afraid of flying, being in a top rock or jazz group is not for you, since any “name”group or band will have to travel extensively. This can be a hardship if you have a family. It can be worked out successfully, but dealing with the traveling will take a serious adjustment and a lot of under standing by both marriage partners.
I received a letter recently from a drummer who asked about a resort area recommended to him by his drum teacher. This drummer wanted to leave his hometown to do more playing, but was very realistic about his experience and abilities. New York or L.A. would be more than he could handle. As luck would have it, I knew of the resort area in question. I advised him to try it, because there is a lot of work there for musicians. His teacher had given him good advice.
This brings me to another point. If you do have a good teacher, discuss your proposed move with him or her, and ask for suggestions. Of course, you will have to make your own decision, but the more information you have, the better your chances are of making a good one.
If, after some careful soul-searching, you have decided to pack up your drums and head for the big city, here are a few suggestions.
1. Be prepared for a long, hard struggle. Unless you are very lucky or have established friends, it will take time for people to hear of you.
2. Contact the musicians’ union. It can be a source of “help-wanted” information.
3. Take some drum lessons from several teachers in a new city. Many teachers are also working drummers and can offer suggestions for auditions, clubs where you can sit in, and places where other musicians hangout.
4. Locate the favorite musicians’ hangouts, and spend some time there. There are often one or two clubs or bars frequented by successful musicians. Such places can be good for making contacts and picking up information on auditions, rehearsals, and jobs.
5. Be careful in a strange city. Don’t go wandering around at night by yourself. Ask a cab driver or the hotel clerk about various parts of the city. If you are going to a club to hear music or make some contacts, get some information on the neighborhood before taking off for the club.
6. Be prepared to return home if things don’t work out. And if that should be the case, don’t be discouraged. At the very least, you will have picked up some valuable experience; you might reap some other benefits as well. For example, a good friend of mine struggled in L.A. for about 18 months. Although he didn’t make a lot of money, he did get some good publicity. A friend of his in his hometown offered him a job running the drum department in a very successful music store. The point is, the exposure and publicity my friend received in L.A. made him more valuable to the store owner, who may also have realized his ability after observing his efforts in L.A. So, even though my friend didn’t stay in L.A., he feels that it was well worth the effort.
One last thought: If you are not sure what to do, visit the city you are considering. Check out the clubs, the drum shops, drum teachers, and so on. A week or two in a big town might help you to decide. If you decide to go for it, good luck!