It’s Time To Retool!

Adjusting Your Business Plan for Optimal Success

by Russ Miller

I came to the realization a few years ago that to maintain success, I have to constantly adjust, retool, forecast, and create new business plans.
This is true in any business. People in other industries do it all the time. We musicians, however, often hate to change our approach. I’ve seen many friends and colleagues (who are very successful musicians) struggle with this. They kept the same attitude and approach for twenty-five years, and when business started to wane, they got depressed and declared, “This business is dead.” But in reality it’s the business plan they’ve been using that’s dead.
There isn’t just one path to success. Drumming is artistry, not sport, and there is subjectivity to art. Many times the best players aren’t the most successful in music. In fact, it’s quite often the opposite. Now, to be clear, I’m defining “success” in this context as fame and money. But having fame and money doesn’t mean someone is a great musician. For me, fame and money are byproducts of my skillset—they’re not my goal. Fame and money come and go, but your musicianship does not. When I had nothing, I was playing drums and making music. When I had a beautiful home and cars, I was playing drums and making music. When nobody knew me at all, I was playing my drums and making music. When I was signing hundreds of autographs, I was playing drums and making music. But along the way, I made sure to maintain a business plan.
Observe, Assess, and Adapt
Many businesses fail because they continue to implement the same plan for too long. I’ve seen this happen for players, labels, and instrument manufacturers. Many drum companies that haven’t taken steps to change with the marketplace are now gone or much smaller than they used to be. It’s the same with individual drummers. It’s easy to get to a point in your career where things are semi-comfortable and you can just let it ride. But often when you do that, your business ends up heading backwards. You have to continually adjust your plans to stay ahead of the curve.
I’m writing this column from a hotel room in Hong Kong. I’m here with my touring band, Arrival. We’re recording the shows in Asia for a future release. To do this, I had to bring quite a few cases of gear with me. I was talking to a friend about all the gear the day before we left. He said, “Why are you spending all that bread? Records don’t sell enough to do that anymore.” My response was, “I’ve never made records simply to profit.” They’ve all ended up profiting, but that was never my initial goal. My albums create a musical legacy and push me to be better. They give me an outlet to continually develop my production and writing skills. They are great business cards to supply to clients, and they provide material that I can use for promotional videos, clinics, and lessons. The recordings also provide content for social media and marketing purposes, and are still viable to sell at gigs.
My friend is right about one thing, though: the era of having a business plan that involves making records, selling a bunch of them in stores, and then going on tour to sell more is over. But there are new business plans now.
Define Your Own Path
There have been several times in my career when I caught myself thinking, “Unless I get that gig with so-and-so, I’ll never be as successful as that drummer.” But you can’t force other people’s business plans into your life. Of course there are scenarios that I would love to be in, like playing in my favorite band or working as a sideman with an amazing artist. But you have to be in a position to achieve those dreams, and you have to have a business plan designed to allow you to accomplish those goals.
There’s a great quote by the business philosopher Jim Rohn: “Your life doesn’t get better by chance; it gets better by change.” If you want to get gigs with top artists, then you need to have a plan to execute that goal. Do you live in the area by those artists? Do you know anybody in those bands?
I have many goals that I’ve been working on for years. Some of them are lofty, and I’ve been cultivating them for a long time. I’m continually setting new goals, and I regularly adjust my plans for the previous ones. I ask myself questions like: Are these goals still worth working on? Has technology or an unseen circumstance rendered that goal unrealistic? Technology changes industries all the time. I often see artists doing huge shows where the main drum parts are being played back via Pro Tools. The live drummer is barely in the mix. So does that artist need an amazing (and expensive) drummer? Apparently not. Regardless of how successful that artist may be, being the drummer on that gig will never yield the same income and prestige as that sort of position did years ago.
So what will the new plan be? It’s up to you. People create new business plans and succeed at them all the time. Look at Mike Johnston, of His position as a teacher of thousands of students via the Internet didn’t exist ten years ago. He retooled his business plan as a drum teacher and achieved great success. I started doing sessions in Los Angeles in the early ’90s and was blessed to catch the end of the previous business model. I had three drumkits rotating between major studios around town five days a week. But technology changed that business model, and I adapted by building a studio of my own so that I was in position to compete in the new marketplace.
The great clinician/educator Dom Famularo once said something to me that really resonated: “We’re both successful businessmen. Our business is drumming. We need to be constantly investing in our playing, musicianship, relationships, and our overall personal brand.” I also carry a quote by Talking Heads singer David Byrne in a journal that reads, “Why not invest in the future of music instead of building fortresses to preserve its past?”
Keep growing and changing!
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