overhead view of snare drum

How to Make a Living as a Drummer (It’s Possible)

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I often ask myself how I can make a living as a drummer simply because playing music has always been a passionate necessity for me to feel fulfilled in life. There are ways I can make drumming a career if I’m willing to pay the price in certain areas and remain flexible.

Make a Living as a Drummer By:

Playing Live Drums:

Becoming a gigging drummer can take many forms.  

First, you will need to be regarded as one of the better drummers in your area. The more skilled you are at your craft, the more people want to play with you, so you create your own demand.

Saying that, you must also have a congenial personality because playing with many other musicians in a town requires personal skills. You want to develop a reputation as someone who shows up on time and is pleasant to play with. Word gets around quickly in a music community, so reputation can mean everything for a gigging drummer. You can read about the 3 Ps(Proximity, Punctuality, Personality) here.

Weddings and Corporate Gigs:
Some drummers find a consistent gig with a band that plays weddings or corporate shows. These gigs pay well, but of course, it’s tough to find these recurring gigs in some geographic areas. You must be willing to travel some for this kind of consistent gig.

Making a living solely as a live, gigging drummer is more difficult compared to past years because live venues are declining. There are many reasons for this, including astronomical real estate rents. Besides, other forms of music consumption like the internet, are more readily available.

It’s a shame because I believe nothing can replace the energy of live music, and playing is what many of us live for as drummers.

Become a Session Drummer:

Here are four tips to remember when trying to become a session drummer:

Become a Techno Geek:

To become a session drummer, you’re going to have to get familiar with different recording software packages, such as Pro Tools. It takes some time and experience to learn software like this, but it can really be fun if you’re already inclined to enjoy working on computers.

You can always get started by using something a little less sophisticated like Garage Band, which comes as standard software on a MAC computer.

I’ve been able to make decent recordings with Garage Band using drum tracks and plugging my vocal mic into my MAC while using this software.

Make the Simple Remarkable:

Have you ever noticed that great drummers can make the most straightforward beat groove so perfectly? Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones comes to mind when I think of this quality. Session drummers need to make simple beats groove hard. 90% of what you play will be basic beats, but how well can you play them? Can you play a simple 4/4 rock beat and make it sound as good as the drummer in Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”?

Diverse Repertoire:

In addition, session drummers can benefit by knowing many different styles and former drummers. Why? Because someone may email you a recording and say, “I need you to do a Neil Peart feel on this tune.” At that point, hopefully, you’ve listened to some Rush, and you know exactly what the artist needs for the tune.

The more styles you’ve tried always helps too. Can you play a basic samba or Latin beat? That may be needed during a portion of a song or it could be a whole song on an album.

Play for the Song:

I’ve discussed this in another post previously, and it requires mentioning again for this subject. Many drummers with incredible chops still don’t know how to play what is needed for the song at hand.  

You need to be a great listener to be a session drummer so you can feel what is needed for a particular song and moment. You may be able to do a blazing fast nine stroke roll, but is it required in this section of a specific song, or is it overkill?

Are You a Flashy Drummer?
You don’t use flamboyant chops if it’s not required in the musical moment. It took me a long time to learn this, and it’s why I now love listening to someone like Jimmy Cobb play a simple quarter note on the ride and make it swing. Trust me; most drummers can’t do it like this:

If you’re looking for more perspective from a session drummer, Ash Soan is one of my favorite ones:

Find Your Drumming Niche

Have other musicians complimented you on particular types of music that you play? This can give you a strong indication of what direction you should possibly pursue as a drummer.  

I’ve been told more than once that I play a good, steady bossa nova beat, but I’m not even crazy about Brazilian music (yet)! Therefore, I could study bossa nova deeply and become known as a great drummer in that niche. Of course, I would need to develop a love for that musical style and study it in-depth, possibly with a great teacher who is well versed in Brazilian music.

Have Other Musicians Noted Your Strengths?
My background is rock music, but it’s always been a struggle to become a top-notch rock drummer. Sometimes, we may have strengths in specific areas that weren’t cognizable until a fellow musician makes it apparent.

Word gets around. If someone needs a drummer for a particular style, your name could become synonymous with that style of music in your city or town.

I knew a great conga drummer in the S.F. Bay Area, and that was his baby. He practiced for hours in his house and was passionate about conga playing. He always got the best Latin gigs and was a regular at the Cigar Bar & Grill in San Francisco. Everyone knew he was the guy if you needed a conga player.

My current jazz ensemble leader told me he started getting gigs after he got noticed as a guitarist who played tasteful, complementary, chord melodies during jazz arrangements. After that, his music career took off.

Start a Drumming Website

As we know, many drummers are starting Youtube channels or websites these days, but many don’t know the basics of marketing or business. There is a lot of competition online, and you should have some kind of strategy to differentiate from the crowd.

Business Planning:

If you decide to start a website, planning is essential. Plan the focus of your site and have a strategy to publish content consistently either by you or someone else that you hire.

I know from experience, if you don’t educate yourself on essential marketing, business, and SEO, then you can become frustrated in a short period and give up on creating any kind of online presence.

Website Maintenance:

Also, you may have to ascertain some web development skills, which are necessary to maintain a site. Do you know how to crop or enhance photos? Have you modified or created CSS styles for a website? Do you know which plugins to use on a WordPress site for your particular needs?

These skills are learnable, but it takes time to become an efficient web developer, and you may not have the energy or desire to learn these skills.

Outsourcing Website Maintenance:

Of course, you could always hire someone like me 🙂 to maintain your site regularly and provide technical support. I have a background in web development, which is my primary source of income, so combining my web development skills with my drumming passion provided the impetus for this site. If you choose to outsource regular site maintenance, it doesn’t have to be expensive for standard maintenance of a website.

The point is you want to do it “right” the first time because crappy websites without some kind of plan become more trouble for the owner eventually, or they just don’t serve the initial purpose of promotion.

Teach Beginner Drummers

I’ve had some great drum teachers over the years who give private lessons. Many of them making a living by primarily teaching beginner or intermediate students.  

I think teaching often comes down to logistics. Do you have space in your house where you can teach or a studio that is placed in a convenient area for students?

Do You Have a Good Space to Teach?
My primary teacher in Boston, Bob Gullotti, had a space in his basement where students flocked for years. He didn’t even have to leave his home and had a steady income from an influx of students. At night, he got to play gigs in the area.

Of course, teaching anything requires individual skills and a desire to help others. Some people simply don’t enjoy teaching and have little patience. Teaching is a skill that can be improved like many other skills through practice, study, and experience.

The great thing about teaching privately is that you design your own schedule, set your rates, and decide your workload. There is an individual freedom that comes with that kind of control.

Your Reputation:
Just like any other type of business, you develop a reputation over time, and most of your students will come from referrals. I know drum teachers in the Boston area that are highly respected and revered for the guidance provided to them by specific teachers during the upward journey as a working drummer.

As a teacher, you can leave a particular legacy in the world, which is priceless in the end.

Teach Music in School

I have a friend in the Boston area who teaches music to elementary school students in the public school system. He is a fantastic saxophone player but seems to like teaching more than playing live.

Similarly, this kind of career as a drummer provides more consistent income, healthcare benefits, and some financial stability.  

Depending on your health and energy levels, you could still teach music in public schools and play live at night or on the weekends if you like performing.

Academic Credentials to Teach in School:
Many music teaching positions in schools may require a Master’s Degree in a music-related field to qualify for the job.

A concern for some drummers who teach music in public schools is that drumming may not be the focus of their day. If you’re teaching basic chart reading and composition to young kids in a school setting, you may not even touch your drums that day.  

You would need to have a general love and passion for music to be a successful music instructor in a school setting, in my opinion.

Create a Drumming Course

With the advent of the internet and its ever-evolving implications on the music world, making a drumming course is always a possibility.

Just remember, half the battle to making online sales is marketing. You may create the greatest course in the world, but if you don’t know how to distribute it, you won’t make many sales.

You Own a Course:
The advantage of creating a course is that you own the intellectual property, and it can provide passive income if it sells consistently over the years.

Since you own the material, you can also enhance, tweak, and change the material over time to provide updates. If one course succeeds, you can create additional related courses with the added benefit of “authority” since you already have one successful course.

Build Authority:
Often, you need to build up an audience and authority online through a website before you should attempt making an online course. You need some kind of consistent traffic source or email list of drummers, which naturally become your customers.

Write a Drumming Book

Writing a book is another option, similar to creating a website or course. The advantage of writing a book is that very minimal updates may be needed in the future, which means your income could become passive over time.

Amazon Kindle is a way that many independent authors get started in the publishing world because there is very little overhead. It’s very inexpensive monetarily to create an e-book, but of course, you have to decide if you want to spend the time and energy required to create a quality book.

What Book Hasn’t Been Written?
Just like any form of business, it’s beneficial to find a point of differentiation. What aspect of drumming is not covered yet in many books? Can you fill a specific demand in drumming that hasn’t been covered yet in books? Brainstorm and have a strategy before diving into the process of writing a book.

Considering that we have online videos easily viewed on the internet, books may become less popular over time in the drumming community.

Saying that, a particular niche of people will always prefer the written word over video. People just have different tastes regarding the consumption of information.

Classic Books Stick Around:
My favorite drum book of all time is Syncopation, which I still use today. The book is utilitarian because you can play the notation in many different ways focusing on different limb independence during the provided lessons. For example, I’ve recently been playing the written notes with my right foot on the bass drum while filling in the empty spaces on the chart with snare beats on the left hand.

Create Your Own Drumming Product

Regarding the creation of products. I read in a book once about a business that became successful solely by creating software that helped “themselves” with everyday issues.

In other words, can you think of a drumming related product you can create, which would solve a problem for your drumming practice? If you can, I’ll guarantee you there thousands of other drummers who have the same exact problem or hindrance that you experienced.

This is how many products are successfully created. They are just solutions to everyday problems you encounter. It requires opening up your eyes and viewing routine activities from a different angle. Ask questions. Why do we drummers do it this way? Is there a better way to practice this? Is there a better piece of equipment that would solve this problem?

In Summary

In summary, drummers need to be a little creative at times to make a decent living. We all know some fantastic drummers are poor and struggle to make a living, but sometimes it’s just a matter of gaining a new skill or being creative to forge a better economic reality as a drummer.

Combine Your Passions:
To further elucidate on this point about creativity, what other passions do you have besides drumming? Is it possible to combine another related passion with your drumming practice to make a living?

If you can find a unique combination of interests and tie them together, you will often leapfrog saturated competition within the drumming scene and provide something exciting for people. Your imagination is your only limit. Don’t be afraid to take small, calculated risks to launch a drumming related business.

What other ways do you know drummers can make a living?