The Responsibility Is Ours
Calls to Action to Combat the Current State of Affairs
by Russ Miller
This month I want to discuss one of the biggest concerns facing the drum world: the fact that fewer and fewer people are playing drums and supporting drumming. More important, I want to discuss our role in helping with this issue.
The biggest hurdle the drumming industry is facing is the diminishing number of people who play. I hear statements like, “The market isn’t getting bigger, so all we can do is take each other’s market share.” I believe this is due to a few things. First, our attention span is shortening dramatically. This is surely due to the fact that we can acquire things more quickly and easily than ever before. The Internet is a perfect example. If a website doesn’t load in fifteen seconds, the viewer gets frustrated and moves on.
Another example of the “I want it now” philosophy is the Guitar Hero video game. Young people have happily invested money and hundreds of hours in playing (and becoming amazing at) the game. They could have spent the same amount of money and time on an actual guitar and lessons…and then become real guitarists! But Guitar Hero lets people experience being a part of music instantly. This feeds directly to our ever-shrinking attention span.
These days people have a hard time investing in any long-term endeavor, like playing an instrument. When you decide to learn an instrument, you can’t squeak through without investing a lot of time. Similar to sports, just having the information isn’t going to get it done.
Also, people have begun to think they don’t have to invest in something for it to become successful. Social media have helped to create a lot of false celebrities. Before Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, you needed to do something exceptional to gain recognition on a global level. Now you can record your little brother picking his nose and have 20 million people watch it. This instant recognition with no investment has started to create a culture of mediocrity and a lack of ambition to work on something in order to excel at it.
As amazing as the exposure outlet of YouTube is, it has confused the issue of music presentation, removing value from performance. YouTube also gives mediocrity the same visibility as greatness. We hope that greatness rises to the top, but having the ability to work the social media outlets can be an asset with which performance greatness cannot compete. This confuses new players’ ideas of what great is, thus affecting their long-term inspiration. And we have an issue with suffering arts programs in schools, which leads to fewer students being exposed to playing an instrument at an early age.
Manufacturers and Retailers: Inspire!
Instrument dealers are often the first connection that people have to the inner workings of the music industry. A retailer gets someone to invest in the dream of playing an instrument. Rather than focusing on advancing players’ abilities and interests, some instrument retailers have adopted a “sell them the highest- yielding drums we can and get them out of here” mentality. This is a very damaging approach for a retailer. A new player needs to be constantly fed information, inspired, and pushed to further the investment in playing an instrument. This is why it’s so important to support great drum shops that create an atmosphere of development with lessons, clinics, and expertise.
The companies that make the instruments often lose sight of what they’re selling and to whom they’re selling it. I’ve had conversations with marketing departments about a five-piece drumset in an ad campaign where the drums are sitting in a room by themselves. This loses the human connection to playing the instrument.
It reminds me of something my friend Abe Laboriel Sr. once said. We were on a gig together and someone commented to him on a break, “Abe, your bass sounds great.” Abe looked back at the guitar, which was sitting on the stand, and said, “How does it sound now?” A great player’s touch and musicality are 75 percent of the sound coming from the instrument. I want to be influenced by great players, and I’m interested in how the instrument relates to their presentation and prowess. It makes me think of what might be possible for me if I had that same instrument. In my opinion, retailers and manufacturers need to stay focused on inspiring the players in addition to selling them gear.
Players: Support and Be Supported
Players need to inspire other players, not just with great drumming but with support as well. One of the most popular live music clubs in L.A. recently closed after thirty years in business. It was an upscale restaurant that had bands five nights a week. I played there once or twice a month for years. It was a small venue, and there was never a cover charge. Usually local musicians were on the bill, because the gig didn’t pay very much. But because it was in Los Angeles, you would also catch world-class musicians there between tours and sessions. You could go see many of the greatest players for no cover charge.
In the weeks preceding the venue’s final shows, many of my friends were saying, “It’s a drag this place is closing. I could always go see somebody play for free.” My immediately thought was: Are you sad the venue is closing, or that you might have to pay a few dollars somewhere else? This attitude from fellow musicians, where they don’t want to invest in other players or their music, is disturbing. Yet these same players want everybody to pay them top dollar for what they do.
I’ve also talked to several younger musicians about Spotify. They tell me how awesome it is and that they haven’t had to buy a CD or download for years. These same people are striving to work in the music business. If those of us who are educated in music, involved in its creation, and focused on it daily don’t support our industry, how can we expect anybody else to? We need to buy music, DVDs, CDs, and downloads, and we should pay to see our peers and students play, to help create commerce surrounding music and its creation. Don’t foster the “music has no value” mindset. Support and be supported!
There’s No Substitute for the Real Thing
Nothing can compare to seeing a great musician play the drums, right in front of you. YouTube videos and Facebook posts don’t get it done. Even going to a big concert and seeing a band doesn’t always do it. Although you will get something from seeing a fantastic show, you really need to experience the power of a great player firsthand. Only smaller environments such as clubs and clinics will get you face to face with great drumming. Depending on your location, going to a clinic at your local drum shop might be your only chance of experiencing high-level playing up close. Remember to support the companies that sponsor those clinic programs. These are the manufacturers investing in your inspiration, and they should be acknowledged for it.
Get the Right Info—From the Right People
YouTube has created an awesome outlet for exposure to performance and education. The issue, as with everything on the Internet, is that there’s no filter for accurate, well-advised information. Anybody can start an online lesson series, talk about concepts, and demonstrate a form of playing. But where does this information come from? What gigs, tours, records, movies, or sessions have they done? Do they have any more information and experience than you do, or just the money and/or brashness to film themselves for the world to consume? There’s great information splattered about on YouTube, but don’t forget that the order in which we learn things is crucial. There needs to be guidance and direction in our studies. We can get frustrated just as easily as we can get inspired.
The point of this whole discussion is summed up in the quote from Sir Ken Robinson. Our industry needs to foster inspiration for new people to become drummers and to keep playing. In this current state of affairs, we all need to step back and reflect on the big picture. The key is to educate players of all levels, pushing the envelope of instruments to foster artistry, and staying focused on the reasons we became drummers in the first place—for the love of it!
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.