When the editors of Modern Drummer invited me to write a few Concepts pieces, my first reaction was, “Me? That’s Roy Burns and Billy Ward’s column, right?” I always loved reading Roy’s articles. He was the first drum clinician I ever saw and was a great inspiration to me when I was a young student. He wrote Concepts stories from 1980 to around 1992. Billy Ward took over the column for several years after that, and his insightful discussions were compiled into a great book titled Inside Out: Exploring the Mental Aspects of Drumming. After reading through a considerable number of these experts’ articles, I realized that many of the ideas they discussed are still relevant today. There have been so many changes to the music business and drumming in the past several years, however, that many of the details of what it takes to be a successful drummer have changed dramatically. This is why I quote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus for the title of my first installment: “Nothing endures but change.”
Everything in life changes, and shifts usually come at a quicker pace than is comfortable. What is wanted from us as drummers is different too. We are now expected to have machine-level timekeeping. And what we’re required to look like as a musician has changed, largely due to the fact that video has become a vital component of all genres of music. What we need to do in order to make a living in this business is different as well. It’s very difficult to simply play an instrument; we must diversify into marketing, even if it’s something as simple as promoting events via social media and the Web.
The music business has been altered dramatically, which often requires adjusting or creating new business models. Case in point: 2014 is the first year in which full-album downloads have surpassed CD sales. The delivery method of our product— music—has changed. Yet we’ve seen record labels try to hold on to their old business models and fail, and we’ve seen CD retailers try to maintain prices of up to $18.99 when the online price is half that. Even instrument manufacturers have tried to keep using outdated methods. These companies are now in dramatically different positions.
All of this change relates directly to us as drummers. I know several players who have struggled in this new scene. Some refuse to progress, adjust, modify, or advance. Change is understandably more difficult for drummers who have had previous successes.
Some of the most legendary drummers I’ve gained friendships with over the years were required to do one thing: play drums. Maybe later in their career they became the employer (aka bandleader) and not just the employee, but this usually centered on playing drums. They were never required to be a videographer or programmer or own tons of electronic instruments and an inventory of state-of-the-art studio equipment. To research this a bit, I thought I would look up descriptions of a few legendary drummers. These are the titles that were given to them on Wikipedia.
Buddy Rich: American Jazz Drummer and Bandleader
Roy Burns: American Drummer, Educator, and Percussion Manufacturer
Neil Peart: Canadian Drummer, Producer, Songwriter, Lyricist, Author, and Educator
As you can see, more and more descriptions were added as these musicians’ careers progressed. After looking through those bios, I decided to write my various job titles as of today: drummer, employer, bandleader, sideman, composer, studio owner, programmer, inventor, author, teacher, clinician, product-design consultant…. My point is that as time has passed, more and more is required of us as professionals to compete in the marketplace. At the beginning of my career, like most drummers, I was primarily a player. As time has gone by, I’ve been required to do more and more.
The business has changed, so we must adjust our own business models. I will be writing about many of these new responsibilities in future columns. I want to address finding the balance between artistry and commerce, which is crucial in order to have a successful professional career. You need to be the drummer who sees change as a necessity and an exciting challenge.
If you can’t read music, get with a teacher and learn. There are drummers I met fifteen years ago who were struggling to get gigs, mainly because they couldn’t read music. I see them now, and they still can’t! They saw a hole in their professional attributes years ago and still haven’t made an attempt to fill it. Along the same lines, if you can’t swing, buy some jazz records and get a pair of brushes and a good jazz method book (one option is MD founder Ron Spagnardi’s Progressive Independence: Jazz). Get with a teacher, and work toward swinging. It’s an essential skill if you want to be a professional drummer who can take any gig that comes your way.
Work a little each day on training yourself to develop skills that will provide you with a more fruitful career. Take lessons, research, refine, and work toward your goals bit by bit. When you go to bed at night, you need to ask yourself, “What did I do today to make a step toward my goals? Am I better today than I was yesterday?” There are drummers all around the world who did work on getting those gigs, teaching positions, auditions, or recording sessions. Make sure you’re one of them!
My goal with these articles is to address many of the questions I’m often asked about being a professional musician. I want to encourage and inspire you to look forward. Change your playing, change your attitude, change your approach, change your circumstances, and even change your setup if it will inspire you. Work to improve a little bit each day, and, most of all, embrace change!
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.