For this month’s column I’ve chosen to discuss the most-asked question I receive at shows, at clinics, and on the Web: “How do you balance finance and drumming?” The quote by the great Irish playwright Oscar Wilde sums up the basics of art versus money: We all need both! Since we’re on the art side of this quote, we need to understand the balance between our playing (and lives) and money. On the other side, someone who is not involved with creativity needs to understand the release and joy that art provides.
Through my career, I’ve met players at every position on the money/art balance beam. Some have embraced the art form to an amazing degree. This type of player is obsessed with learning the art of drumming. Often this approach leads to being very involved in the physical aspects of playing the instrument and working on things like speed and independence. I’ve had countless drummers like this say to me, “I don’t really do many gigs, so how do I get into the music business?” The fact of the matter is that you could be the next Vinnie Colaiuta, but if you’re only practicing in the basement no one will ever know it.
On the flip side, several players have pitched me like a used car salesman, delivering a constant flow of marketing, press, and verbal information about what they could do. These guys represent the other side of the spectrum. When you finally see them at the kit, the impact of their playing often doesn’t match the hype created by the sell.
I recently met a young man during a rehearsal for an awards show that I was playing. He was hanging around backstage. He had a T-shirt with a unique logo on it, plus buttons, a baseball hat, and a bag adorned with this symbol. I had to ask, “What’s with the logo?” He said he was a producer and it was his personal brand. He went on to tell me that when he decided to be a producer he took several marketing courses to get started. I then asked, “What music courses have you taken?” He said that he hadn’t gone to school for music. I dug a bit deeper and asked if he’d taken private lessons on an instrument or had a mentorship of any kind with a musician. He answered no to all of it, while handing me a button. He said he had bought a computer and was making beats. At this point I decided not to push further. I’m not saying he won’t be successful, but producers should have a vast musical understanding. They are usually great players on an instrument and have gained knowledge of composition, sonics, and songwriting. This young man was leaning too far into the commerce side.
The battle of artistry versus commerce needs to end in a draw. The more you can balance the two, the better off you’ll be. Of course, the modern world is designed around trading currency. We need food, travel, shelter, equipment, and so on, but focusing too much on marketing, money, fame, or the politics of the music business can lead you to lose sight of why you decided to play drums in the first place.
Create a Great Product
So how do we find this balance? Let’s look at the scenario from the viewpoint of a more clear-cut industry: shoe manufacturing. First, you need to create a great product—you need to make shoes that fi t well and that someone will enjoy. We musicians need to create our “product” (i.e., drumming) with this attitude; it has to be solid and effective. When someone buys from you (i.e., hires you for a gig), he or she needs to be happy with the “purchase” and therefore want to buy your product again. And make sure that when someone buys your product, it does exactly what it says it will do—and more. Don’t oversell the product to be something it’s not. The customer will always be let down by that experience.
For instance, I had a young drummer come up to me after a concert and hand me his résumé. On it was a list of the artists he’d “worked with.” This included Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Marcus Miller. I said to him, “Wow, you’ve worked with some serious cats. Did you record with them?” He said, “No, I played live with them.” I was impressed, so I replied, “Those are some great tours.” Then he added, “I didn’t tour with them; they were guests with my school band in college.” This young man had mislabeled his packaging, and he had set himself up for failure. When I see legendary names like that on a list, I expect that person to play at a world-class level. Anything less than that will be a negative experience for me.
Create a Product With Demand
The product you’re selling must have demand in order to be successful. We can’t make shoes that already exist in the marketplace, or else our only sales pitch is price. I see this problem running rampant in today’s drumming fi eld. There are way too many players selling the same product—in other words, sounding and acting the same. In the ’70s, Buddy Rich was asked what younger drummers he liked at the time. He named Danny Seraphine and Steve Gadd. He said they had a “sound,” and he liked that. I have the pleasure of being friends with both of these great drummers, and they are true individuals with unique playing and musical opinions. But what happens when you try to sell a product in a saturated market? Someone else will always sell it cheaper! The price goes down and down until everybody loses. When you have something that no one else has, you can charge whatever you want for it. And if people really want it, they will pay for it.
Invest in Marketing
You need to market your product so that people can hear it and purchase it. We could make the best shoes in history, but if no one knows about them, they won’t sell. Every business in the world takes a percentage of its sales income and reinvests it into marketing. Marketing can include business cards, building a website, production costs for demo reels, ads for gigs, and even assistance with social media.
Be the Best
Our “shoes” need to be one of the best pairs our customers have ever owned. You need to create a “way more than I expected” experience. Here are the basic rules of building a clientele for any business: Give them less than they expected and they will never come back; give them what they expected and they might come back; give them more than they expected and they will always come back. This relates directly to us as drummers. If you are better than expected when you do a gig, the bandleader will hire you again. And not only that, but the guys in the band will start to recommend you, and people in the audience will come see you again. If you’re “just good enough,” all or none of that might happen. If you didn’t cut it, none of that will happen, and you’ll probably get a bad reputation, which will make it harder to find work in the future.
In closing, there is no single path to success. If there were, everybody would be successful. This is why we can discuss only the principles and not exact details. The bottom line is that if you want to make money by playing drums full- or part-time, you’re starting a small business. Work on your product, and make it the best it can be. Market your drumming and all of its subsequent products, including recordings, books, videos, and T-shirts. Be sure to enjoy the process of owning your business, and always strive to find balance between your art and your money.
See you next month!
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.