Some (idiots) think drummers aren't writing music when they create a beat on the drums. For them, crashing and banging aren't notes or melody. They think drumming isn't composing. Perhaps they missed James Brown's proclamation to "give the drummer some" in the song "Cold Sweat." That's drummer Clyde Stubblefield, whose breakbeats went on to pave a path to hiphop and dance music. You've heard them, trust me. Stubblefield must have made millions, right? Oh wait, James Brown and his bandleader are listed as songwriters, so the money went to them.
Sometimes it's not so cut-and-dried for a drummer to establish themself as a songwriter. From my own chair as a drummer, I can attest to the tricky nature of balancing business with hitting the skins.
For instance: What happens when you jam with a guitar player for a couple hours for fun, and the two of you make a song? Then the guitar player goes and records the song, puts it on his album, and doesn't credit you. Later you're invited to the song's video release party, which you have to pay to get into. But it's fine, you're supporting your friend. During his humblebrag speech thanking everyone, he sees you and announces that you "were there in the room when the song was born." (His actual words.) You were "there in the room," like a coffee table.
Yeah, you were there, cocreating the music for the song with him.
Touring can pose another conundrum. Going on the road is an opportunity you have to seize. If it's a band or project with little to no budget, that means you're paying for your own expenses, while taking time off work. Getting out there and playing shows opens doors and is a must, but coming back from a five-week tour you paid to be a part of and being handed $40 puts you in pinch. But the tour ends up getting the band signed to a label, because a record exec saw one of the shows. Great news! Except not for you, because it's the other guy's solo project to which you have no claim, and no contract in place.
Payout after a show in your own hometown is never a given either. A bandleader may be paid with a check, which means no cash for you. Or the bandleader may just up and disappear. Either way, you'll be chasing people around for weeks to get paid. Preshow agreements really help. There are also times you get hired to record drums for someone's album, and then after six full days of work in the studio, the producer flies back to Los Angeles and magically goes missing. Did I say agreements ahead of time are a good idea?
So how do drummers avoid these pitfalls? How can they turn their sweat and toil into a living? How should drummers conduct their business end? How do you become pro? I asked six of Seattle's best for their thoughts on it all.
Pearl Jam, Soundgarden
How can drummers put themselves in a position to make money from their drumming?
Money was never the goal for me, being good was the goal. It's more difficult now than it was when I began. Being able to program with music software is crucial, and it always helps to know how to read a chart. In music, there are good people and some bad ones, like any business. Focus on what you do best and believe in your abilities one thousand percent. No one wants a timid drummer.
What's your advice for new drummers?
What helped me early on was taking every gig I was offered. Playing different styles helped me find my own sense of groove. Practice with a metronome or drum machine. If you can't keep steady time, you won't get gigs. Most people in the audience don't notice good drumming, and that's okay. Your fellow musicians will. If the music is grooving and you feel inspired playing it, that's the ultimate reward. If you get a good reputation as a drummer and bandmate, you'll get gigs. Practicing alone is crucial, but you have to interact with other musicians to improve all aspects of musicianship. If it's recognition you're after, take singing lessons.
How do you go about licensing and publishing deals?
In the early Soundgarden days, we split our publishing equally. After a few albums, it wasn't good for band harmony to stay on this course. If the drummer doesn't contribute to the creative process, then they get no publishing [credits]. Once I started contributing as a songwriter, which took me years to do, not only did I receive a songwriter's share, but my role in the band became more valuable. I'm also fortunate to have worked with and learned from two of the best songwriters of my generation, Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder.
Industrial Revelation, Skerik's Bandalabra, Choklate
How many gigs do you play a week?
I play 13 or 14 gigs a week. Thursday through Sunday, it's two to three gigs a day. If I do one at 2 p.m., I'm ready to keep it going. I'm open to playing anything. Get there on time. Be respectful. You get respect if you put in respect.
How did you become so pro, and so well-rounded?
I envision how other drummers would play a certain part. How would Zigaboo from the Meters play it? I play with lots of people, and spend time studying their music and style. This is all I do. Some shows might be worth playing for less, especially in the beginning. At some point you need more than Tim's Cascade chips and beer. I've talked to other musicians about when to say no to things.
What's your advice for drummers wanting to make a living from it?
Learn all styles. Make a mixtape with different kinds of music, and practice to it. Mr. Brown at Roosevelt High gave me good tips. I played a ton. I took it upon myself to get better. Somebody laid Coltrane on me with Elvin Jones. Then I had to check out Tony Williams, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Art Blakey. Then came Papa Jo Jones with the big band, and then I headed over to Buddy Rich. After that it was like, "Oh, there are all these rock drummers, check out Neil Peart." I really studied people, and started to see how it was all related. Right out of high school I went on a tour. There were per diems and everything. I was like, "What's a per diem?"
What happens when people try not to pay you?
It doesn't happen much anymore. I'd say, "Okay, when can you get it to me?" If they say a day, and that day comes, and they still don't have it, I'll just remember never to work with them again. They needed it more than me, I guess.
The Maldives, Tilson
What do you make of the drummer's role in the business of music?
Music as a collective is a beautiful thing, and I think as a band or project, you're only as good as your drummer. Because drummers hold the space for everything else to be happening around the feel. But I don't think everybody sees it like that. Copyright tends to be about the hook or melody line. So why pay out equally if the drummer didn't come up with that, ya know? The bands that seem to have longevity are the ones that basically operate in an equal way. Every drummer's feel is different, which is what makes us unique. Set the expectations early on that you're valuable, and you're offering a service only you can provide.
Looking back, would you do anything differently?
No way, man! I'm a believer that everything happens for a reason. I would never tour like I did in my early 20s. Or play on records for free without even having a conversation about it with the artist. But I also wouldn't take back those experiences, because they helped me respect what I do, and myself. And they've shaped how I fake playing music in "the industry." My dad said, "If you don't feel it, don't play it."
Klozd Sirkut, Marmalade
What's your advice for new drummers?
Practice, practice, practice. It's important to know your instrument and all its possibilities. Be on time and have a positive mental attitude, because no matter how good you are, nobody wants to work with an asshole. It's hard for a lot of us to get paid recording gigs and even harder to get your points on your royalties. This happens because in a recording project, drummers are looked at as a small piece of the process, especially if you're not involved with songwriting, which most drummers aren't.
How can drummers improve their business end?
Get into writing. Get into beatmaking and showcasing them on your biggest tool in the toolbox—the internet. Who's better suited to make beats than a drummer? Ask questions about how you can be more involved, and start writing songs yourself. Dave Grohl became very involved in Nirvana's songwriting, and obviously Foo Fighters'. Neil Peart of Rush writes most of their lyrics. Jeff Porcaro helped write "Human Nature" on Michael Jackson's Thriller, arguably the biggest-selling record of all time. But don't worry about the money so much that it takes over your art. Play great, take care of your business, and the money will come.
What happened that made you start to treat your drumming more seriously?
I was in a band called IMIJ, and we opened for Fishbone on a tour. After our set, I'd watch their drummer, Fish, just kill it every single night. I came back home from that with "Post Traumatic Drum Syndrome," and I practiced like I never had before. It felt born-again the way he went through different styles, and his intensity always stuck with me.
Mary Lambert, Darci Carlson
Tell me about playing in Europe with Mary Lambert.
Initially, Mary wasn't going to take me. The tour was going to be a stripped down thing. But I said, "If you really want to do it right, you have to have your full band." I didn't want to miss out on the chance to go over there with them. I didn’t make any money, but it was definitely worth it for the experience. I truly love working with Mary and the band. It’s a great group of people. For Mary’s next album, she's planning on giving the band writing credits, which is exciting for me. Mary values her band, and I feel fortunate to be a part of it.
How do you know when it's not worth it?
Some shows are worth playing for less because they're good opportunities, and you're playing with great people. Obviously, it's important to make money. I try to make at least $100 from each gig, and don't usually take studio sessions for under $250 a day. One side of drumming is that you're limited to only making money as a performer. In the studio, you get a day rate, but most of the time you don't make a cut of the album. You also aren't assuming any of the risk if there's a loss. On tour, I'll get my per diem and my rate per gig, but I don't make a bigger cut if we're playing a huge show.
Do you play any other instruments?
It's funny, yesterday I did a solo gig playing my ukulele, and made more money from that one show than an entire tour supporting someone else's band as their drummer. But I don't feel like I'm at a disadvantage because I play the drums. I feel lucky because I get to play with all sorts of bands traveling around.
What's your advice for new drummers?
If you're good, and prepared, and you're easy to work with, there will eventually be too many gigs. Value yourself. Become a songwriter. If you feel like you're a cowriter on a song, make that clear before it gets too far along in the process. Maybe get it in writing. People will treat you a certain way if you allow them to. I want drummers to know they’re valuable members of the team, and it’s a huge advantage to see yourself as an equal musician and songwriter.
What do you do when people try to get out of paying you?
Sometimes bands will be paid at the end of the night with a check, and the bandleader won't have that much cash on them. It can be a problem if you were expecting to get paid. What if your rent is due? I provide ways to make getting paid easy. Venmo is great. It's an app that makes a direct electronic transfer of funds into your Venmo account or your bank account, and it doesn't take a percentage. That way you're not chasing someone around for the money.
If you have a feeling you're not going to get paid for a gig, you can't sit around and hope you're going to get paid. You have to go get it. You have to take care of yourself. Of course, be tactful. Money is tough, especially when your bandmates are your friends. You hate having to hound someone for money. Be as up front as possible.
Nyves, Crypts, 18 Eyes, Trash Fire, Joe Gregory
How do you look at the business of drumming?
There are two worlds of drumming: bands I'm in and part of where the creative process is collective, and then there's getting hired to do a record or play a show. For those, you have to stick to your guns and your rate. Communicating beforehand is the biggest part. I don't ever want to surprise anyone with an amount of money they owe me. I've learned you have to be very clear. There can be weird, hurt feelings and awkwardness if things aren't communicated.
Give an example of not getting paid correctly.
I was hired for a tour one time, and when we got back, the band's warehouse had flooded. So I got like a quarter of what I thought I was going to get paid. Sometimes things happen. Getting contracts in writing helps. There's not a lot of money in music anymore, unless you're getting publishing [rights]. Being a part of something for licensing or TV is good. I did some sessions recently for a reality-TV-show soundtrack.
Why do drummers get screwed?
Some people don't see drumming as an art form. They think we're just animals in the back banging on stuff. But if you're committed to your craft, it's way artistic. Listen to a good drummer's note spacing. Listen to them make a beat breathe and then turn it inside out. It all takes years to develop. People may think drummers are replaceable. Those people are mistaken.
This article has been updated since its original publication.