Recently, I was asked – for the first time in a long time – why I decided to become a musician. I didn’t have an immediate answer. Was it because I “loved” making music? Actually, no: “love” alone doesn’t explain it. I love making music, but I also love Italian food. So what distinguishes one type from the other?
The difference between is that I wouldn’t be happy eating Italian food every day for the rest of my life. In a similar vein, to build a career as a drummer, it’s not enough to merely “have fun”. You need a huge amount of passion, perseverance and staying power to get a foothold in the music industry and succeed in the long term.
Fame, notoriety, success: what drives you as a musician?
If you’ve watched the Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt, you might be picturing a musician’s life as wild parties, expensive hotels, groupies and sold-out stadium tours. For life as a drummer in a successful band, this can sometimes be (part of) the picture. More often, however, the reality of life as a drummer is 16 hours’ work a day, holding down a side job, being economical with the food shop and sometimes, in the worst cases, struggling to pay rent. Nevertheless, many musicians tolerate these hurdles in order to play the sold-out stages of small or medium-sized clubs.
There’s a piece of wisdom that says that those who get into music for fame are doomed to fail from the outset. Throughout my career, everything I’ve seen and experienced has confirmed that this is true. The pursuit of fame alone does not afford a person the passion and drive they need to succeed. When it comes to your music career, it’s better to view fame as the “icing on the cake” – an added bonus that will (hopefully) be granted after a lot of hard work and a little luck on the side.
When friends and family have doubts about your music career
If you attempt to establish yourself in the music industry, you may find – to your surprise – that support from friends and family is less than forthcoming. Non-musicians will often fail to understand your ambitions. “You really think you’ll make it as a drummer?” they might ask. Of course, these sentiments can be highly discouraging. The truth of the matter is: if you wait for approval from your nearest and dearest, your music career will be over before it’s even begun.
Quite early on, I realised that my family and friends really did just want to help. More importantly, they wanted to protect me from harm. Even after my ten years in the music business, they still can’t understand why I chose to work in this field: one that’s often mentally challenging and, at the same time, offers no reliable route to professional success. In my experience, these conversations with loved ones are the hurdle at which many aspiring musicians fall – not just drummers, but other creative talents too.
What does it mean to be successful as a musician?
In addition to the questions above, I’ve often been confronted with a particular recurring argument: “Michael didn’t manage it either – and you know how talented he is!” These moments cause me to question the ways in which people measure success. Michael hasn’t played a sold-out European stadium tour or earned a Gold record, and thus has not – in his friends’ eyes – achieved what they expected of him. For many outside the music business, “success” is equated with megastar status. In reality, this would mean not only obtaining the financial backing of a label or investor, but also – most likely – becoming a singer or songwriter in addition to a drummer. But even this isn’t really the issue. Isn’t it impressive enough for someone to carve out a years-long career in music, be able to earn a living from it and to even afford the odd holiday to boot?
In the town where I run my studio and produce my music, there’s a little winegrowers’ cooperative. They make fantastic wine, the employees have fun at work, the shop is attractive and the company culture is great. The management seem to have done everything right – yet they’re not as famous as Sogrape Vinhos, Portugal’s biggest wine dealer. Does this mean they’re “not successful”? Personally, I wouldn’t say so. What about the established bookstore two streets across – the one that only has five employees, but enjoys almost mythical status among its customers? Should we deny the owner the accolade of success, just because Amazon sells a few more books? Most would say not. Why, then, is it different for the music industry? Music remains one of the few fields in which “making it” is inextricably linked with worldwide success and huge media attention – and the definition of success is always in the eye of the beholder.
Your goals as a drummer
With all this in mind, your foremost goal should not be the pursuit of fame, but the achievement of your individual goals as a drummer. If you’re holding on for explosive success, the likelihood is it that will never arrive. Discovery is near-impossible in today’s unwieldy music market – and while there are exceptions, they’re rarer than a full set of lottery numbers. Rather than focusing on fame and glory, you should concentrate on building a professional reputation. Generally, bands and artists prefer to work with drummers they’ve already know, and whom they know they can rely on. A well-maintained network is the most important prerequisite for success in the field.
Despite this, I know many musicians who seem content to sit back and wait for success to arrive of its own accord. Many of them, from what I’ve seen, aren’t even sure what they want to achieve. “Becoming a rockstar” is not a legitimate goal: it’s much too ambiguous. What does it mean? Sold-out stadiums? A long list of radio hits? Earning lots of money? All of this at once?
Planning a career in the music business
When I was younger, my goals also used to be overly simplistic. That was before I rethought my strategy. Some time ago, a friend told me he’d been thinking hard about where he saw himself in one, five, ten and 25 years’ time. Prompted by this, I also began to reflect – and I can only recommend doing so yourself. Since then, I’ve been 100% conscious of what I’m working towards each day. Imagine, for example, that you’ve spent the last ten years on tour and aren’t keen to keep travelling all the time. Because of this, you plan to spend more time in the studio. How might your action plan look?
After one year: You’ve worked on album recordings with five different clients, with three or more songs ending up on popular Spotify playlists.
After five years: The songs you’ve worked on have racked up a total of more than one million streams. You have a stable income and can feed your family.
After ten years: You’re the owner of your own studio, with a monthly income of seven and a half thousand euros, and have racked up more than ten million streams on Spotify.
After 25 years: You own a globally recognised residential recording studio, where you work with a wide range of artists and producers. The waiting list is famously long!
Succeeding in the music industry has nothing to do with age
Once you’ve outlined a rough plan, you can begin developing your goals with further details. Which artists do you want to work with? What are your preferred genres? What equipment do you want to use? What will your daily schedule look like? The more detail you can provide, the better. Print out your plan and hang it on your bedroom wall – this will make sure that your goals are always in mind. Put a cross next to each milestone you achieve, and try to cross off your first-year goals within the first twelve months.
Up until now, I’ve only told a small number of people about this regimen. A few of them reacted with surprise: “Aren’t you too old to plan like this for long-term success in the music industry?” My answer? No. As always, it’s your goals that are important. Moreover, a person’s age has absolutely nothing to with their success or talent. Take Butch Vig, for example, who produced Nirvana’s Nevermind at the age of 35 and only broke through with his own band, Garbage, at the age of 40. Neil Young was 44 when Rockin’ in the Free World came out; Leonard Cohen was 50 when he released the incredible Hallelujah. If you work hard enough, you’ll make it, regardless of how many years you’ve got behind you.
What is “making it”; how do we define success?
To conclude, I want to talk about what it “making it” means to me. As I view it, success in the music business means being able to pay your bills with your creative talent and have a bit left over for you. When you’re financially comfortable enough that decisions are no longer driven by what you can afford, you’ve achieved a degree of freedom that many can only ever dream of.
What do you think? What does “making it” mean for you? What is success – and have you already achieved it? Let me know in the comments!