From finding gigs and knowing what to charge, to the importance of understanding electronics, here are the basics that you need if you want to become a professional drummer.
Every drummer has their heroes, and it’s likely that session luminaries Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro feature somewhere on your list. At the music industry’s peak, producers and artists sought out the best musicians upon which to spend their enormous budgets – it was a serious living, even for hired guns like Porcaro and co. Now, in these leaner times, artists are resorting to programmed drums in the studio and backing tracks on stage to stay within budget.
Regardless of how good a player you might be, there’s less demand for real musicians than ever before. But don’t hang up your sticks just yet – if you develop the following key skills and learn how the industry works today, you’ll have a better chance of making a living as a professional drummer.
Know your drumming styles and genres
Playing live has become so technology driven that knowledge of electronics is paramount
If your sights are set on the session world, you need to be adaptable to any style the work demands. Modern pop alone encompasses everything from R’n’B and rock, to grime, dubstep and even Latin. Study popular tracks in these styles, learning the characteristic rhythms and feels, and you’ll be equipped to deliver whatever’s asked of you. You may also be required to perform alternative arrangements or remixes at the drop of a hat, so be ready to re-interpret the music, quickly – remember, the studio clock is always ticking. Knowing how to read music isn’t so essential these days, but learn to write simple cheat sheets and you’ll have quick and easy references for song structures.
You’ll also be expected to deliver whatever sound the artist is after, so invest in a cache of workhorse gear, particularly snare drums and cymbals, and spend time learning how to tune properly. If budget restricts what you can buy, use a portion of your fee to hire what’s needed.
Get switched on to electronic percussion
Playing live has become so technology-driven that knowledge of electronics is paramount – whether it’s understanding how to trigger samples or backing tracks from a sampling pad like Roland’s SPD-SX, or using triggers to enhance or layer your acoustic drums with additional sounds. This combination of electronic and acoustic drums will make your kit sound fuller and more consistent, meaning you can deliver a greater range of sounds.
Artists and musical directors will expect you to have a working knowledge of electronic gear [don’t know where to start? Sign up to receive Roland’s Hybrid Drums guide]. In fact, it’s become such a critical skill for modern drummers, particularly if you’re playing electronic genres, that session drummer and electronics ace Andy Gangadeen – who plays with Chase And Status and Sigma – now consults with drummers on their hybrid set-ups and electronics systems. The bottom line is, if you plan on going pro, you need to get your head in the electronics game. Right. Now.
Lead from the back
Quite rightly, drummers are seen as the backbone of the band. This makes them a natural fit for the role of musical director. So what does that involve? Being MD covers everything from assembling musicians and managing rehearsals for a tour, to working closely with the artist to bring their creative vision to life. You’ll need impeccable organisation, strong communication skills and exceptional musicality to pull everything together, but the added responsibility means a decent income boost, too.
And what if you want to pursue a career as a recording drummer? As the number of professional studios dwindles and labels become increasingly tight with their budgets, seasoned drummers like Kenny Aronoff and John ‘JR’ Robinson have set up spaces at home. Remote sessions mean producers and artists anywhere in the world can cost-effectively hire studio musicians to play on their music, with audio files shared via email or the cloud. This trend will only get bigger, so start exploring your home recording setup today.
On the money
Bringing additional skills to a gig is a surefire way to negotiate a higher rate
Ok, let’s talk turkey. It can be tempting to undercut the competition or agree to work for a reduced rate to get your foot in the door with a new artist or producer, particularly if your diary is empty. However, undercutting like this devalues the hard work you’ve put into sharpening your skills. And it ultimately means the base rate will get lower and impact the future earning potential for yourself and other drummers.
Study the latest Musician’s Union rates, calculate your worth and stick to your guns when discussing money with an employer – unless it’s an unmissable opportunity. As long as you’re not charging the earth, and you’re the right fit for the gig, the outcome should be positive. If not, move on, or you’ll resent doing the work.
Bringing additional skills to a gig is a surefire way to negotiate a higher rate. Got a decent voice? Great! You can sing backing vocals from behind the kit. Play percussion? You’ve just landed that acoustic artist’s radio promo tour. What else can you bring to the table?
Passing the Professional Drummer Personality test
Since the launch of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the way drummers market themselves has changed massively. Social media is a fantastic networking tool, and posting playing videos on your YouTube channel (with decent sound, natch) is like a digital business card. Rather than audition countless drummers, MDs can instantly experience the breadth of your skills, your feel, time and your look (so make sure you’ve at least brushed your hair). Legendary guitarist Jeff Beck discovered his new drummer, Veronica Bellino, through YouTube, so it definitely works. Unless you aspire to be a YouTube star, though, don’t get too bogged down with your online profile, as that time could be better spent meeting musicians or getting to grips with electronics.
Aside from obvious musical talent, a guaranteed way to get work is through being a decent person who’s easy to work with. Whether in a pressurised studio environment or the confines of a tour bus, you must be respectful, hard-working and a positive influence on everyone around you, or you’ll be on the first flight home. Take Ellie Goulding drummer Joe Clegg, for example. Joe contacted Ellie when she was posting early demos on MySpace, made a positive first impression and helped her out. This year he’s headlined Lollapalooza and Madison Square Garden as her musical director.
Regardless of the challenges a job in the music industry presents, the only person that can build the career you want is you. So, what are you waiting for? Go for it!