When I decided to spend five years studying at a conservatory, it had nothing to do with getting a nice certificate. Of course, the institution’s international reputation and exclusive academic team were things that appealed to me, but they weren’t the main reason. Really, I wanted to get to know other musicians and expand my network. It was a good plan.
After playing at a jam session in Karlsruhe at the semester opening party, I spent the following months getting to know a number of other musicians. Some I worked with some only once, some regularly, and some never. That’s the music business. Some, who are now good friends, introduced me to other friends and colleagues. If you’re wondering why they did this, I think it happened for two reasons: first, because they thought I was a good drummer, and second, because they liked me.
Getting your network off the ground
By and large, building a network in the music industry works in the same way as in other professions. Ideally, it should be a dynamic process: you work for someone who passes on your contact details, or you meet someone who introduces you to new people. These people, in turn, introduce or recommend you to people in their own networks. The bigger the network you can build, the better it will assist you in finding work.
But before we go any further, let’s take a step back and think about how things look at the very beginning of your music career. There’s a good chance you don’t live in one of the big music cities, like Berlin, London or Los Angeles. If this applies to you, I recommend that you take the following challenge: first, try to become the best musician in your city. Once you’ve achieved that, pack your things and move to the next-biggest city. Try the same there. Here, you’ll meet other musicians who are (usually) better networked than you. This opens up new possibilities for you to win jobs as a drummer.
It’s not uncommon for young musicians to move several times before they feel ready to try their luck in one of the big music capitals. This strategy has been tried and tested by a great number of talented drummers, who’ll usually advise you to work on your personal development and musical craft in parallel. However, if there’s one thing I’d implore you to hear loud and clear, it’s that this tactic works best when you’re young and free. Such a strategy is not without risks and – naturally – is much harder to carry out with a family. As long as you’re independent, you can take your chances and see what happens. If things don’t work out, you can always look for alternatives and plot a course for a successful future in a different direction.
Be a professional player and a pleasant colleague
On my way to becoming a professional drummer, I always made an effort to be part of a young, up-and-coming groups of musicians. For me, this strategy seemed much more promising than trying to “work my way” into long-established networks. After all, there will always be a new, promising generation of musicians who want to be as successful as you – and who form the ideal basis for your new network. If you can build a positive connection with these peers while working your way up the ladder, you have a good chance of winning jobs through recommendations (once they’ve established themself as a sideman in a major act, for example).
As you’ll come to realise, most jobs come from well-maintained personal contacts with other musicians, artists and record companies. But even if you believe you’ve reached your personal goal, I’d encourage you not to rest on your laurels. Every genre and sub-section of the music industry is served by a different circle of musicians, which is why I’d advise you to meet as many people as possible. This is how you win consideration for a wide variety of different jobs. An important rule is never to break bridges – because the people you meet on your way up are the same ones you’ll meet on your way down.
Nobody knows what will happen in the future, or what opportunities will come your way. But take it from me when I say that more than once, people have opened doors for me when I least expected it. Conversely, others have dropped me, even though I counted them among my friends. The lesson here is to treat each of your contacts as if they were the most important person in your life – because anyone you neglect today could be someone who would eventually have brought you forward. There are many examples of musicians who were massively underestimated at the beginning of their careers and went on to prove people wrong. Never blow up bridges you might someday need to cross!
Use gigs and gatherings to network
Over time, as you build your network, you’ll be invited to more and more events, showcases and release parties. In my experience, those who understand how to make good use of these events are the ones who build their networks the fastest – which is why I always have my business card, pen and tablet to hand. In terms of what such an event can do for you, there are two possibilities. The first is that you don’t speak to anyone new, in which case you may as well not have turned up at all. The second is that you leave the event with the feeling of having done your best and made a lasting impression on new contacts. This, of course, is far preferable – but it doesn’t happen of its volition. You’ll need not only to be genuinely interested in the careers and gigs of your colleagues, but to incorporate your own interests and experiences into an intelligent small talk.
I know many colleagues who, instead of heading home after these events, get straight in the taxi and head to the trendy clubs in the city to celebrate and mingle with other musicians. It’s a natural thing for musicians to be interested in other musicians. Personally, I’m particularly intrigued by colleagues who manage both to play well and to enrich a piece of music with their own personal style. If you’re well prepared and have a good command of your instrument, you may well be discovered in a small club by an already-established session musician.
Nourish your contacts – old and new
Nourish your contacts whenever you get chance. Once you’ve met someone and exchanged details, try to arrange a second meeting and to send a follow-up email after two to three months so that they don’t forget you. Whenever I do this, I usually ask them what’s new and talk about the projects I’m currently working on. If you think that networking sounds time-consuming, sometimes even laborious, you’re right. Sometimes, I have weeks or even months where I simply don’t have time to follow up all contacts on a regular basis. In the worst case scenario, it might take me almost a full year to get back in touch with a fellow musician, only to learn that one desirable job or another has already been filled.
Luckily, the timing is often right – that is, I touch base with contacts at exactly the right time to be recommended for a current job. The only reason they hadn’t already done so was because they didn’t have me “on their radar” at the time, or thought I was otherwise occupied. This shows how important it is to maintain your network regularly.
3 practical tips for networking with musicians
1. Always get back to people
Over the past few years, I’ve experienced situations in which repeated calls or emails went unanswered. This, of course, is an absolute no-go. Even if you can’t or don’t want to play a job, you should notify the colleague who recommended you and thank them for their support.
2. Be reachable
Sometimes, it will be you recommending others. To help you be a good contact to others, it’s a good idea to make sure they have your telephone number. It can always happen that they lose your contact information or are not able to access it quickly and easily. Make it easy for them to contact you. They’ll thank you for it!
3. Keep your contacts organised
As your network grows, you’ll soon realise that it’s impossible to remember all the information you need. Because of this, I keep a simple Excel spreadsheet in which I enter the name, email address and telephone number of the contact, as well as additional information such as the position of the contact at a record company or within a band. If you organise your contacts in this way, you can search them quickly using a variety of criteria, such as displaying all the bassists you know with a single click. Clever, right?! In order not to forget important details, I enter this information as soon as possible after meeting someone new.
In the end, it’s all about who you know and how you can easily reach them at the right time. Nobody can tell in advance which of their networking efforts will ultimately lead to success or, at the very minimum, to the next gig. But one thing I can tell you for sure is that – at least for drummers – networking is an indispensable part of working in the music industry.
Now, I want to hear from you. How did you build your industry network? Let me know in the comments!