Here's my humble perspective on this, and personal history as a professional drummer/ percussionist/ arranger/ musical director.
This life is not for everyone, here's my story, thus far. Originally from MA, I graduated from Berklee, and now live in New York. While I'm not a "famous" drummer, I am busy working, both in town and, in the past, on the road. I have done lots of recording sessions at big fancy studios and in my apartment, played major clubs and festival, as well as dive bars and bar mitzvahs, musicals (in-town and touring) and a cruise ship or two.
I have got to play with many of my favorite musicians and opposite many great "famous" drummers. I have worked in every style you can think of; from Balkan brass bands, to latin pop, West Indian gospel, and much more. Of course, I set out to be a jazz musician, and I still play a lot of jazz, but to stay above water, I have done a lot of different stuff, and learned from and enjoyed it all.
Now, 31 and recently married, I find myself in a similar situation to many of my peers and contemporaries, as well as many of my musical heros who I have got to know personally; I am able to stay afloat financially with gigs and teaching, but "getting ahead" is extremely difficult. When you sign up to be a professional musician,9 times out of 10 you sign up for a lifestyle that is a considerable compromise.
I don't own a car or house. I take the subway & bus, or when I need it for a gig, rent a zip car. I just quit one of my teaching gigs, which was two days a week, because the guy never paid me after two months.
In the past, I played big festivals and got paid up to $600 for one nights work, about 20 times a year. This year's New Year's eve gig only paid $250, and that is usually one of the best nights of the year.
My wife and I (she's a musician too) have decided to go back to cruise ships, and save for a down payment on a house, somewhere outside of New York, which will limit my gigging opportunities greatly. But, with the cost of living here always on the rise, there is no way we could do it here.
But I still love it. I still love playing every night, weather on the main stage of the Montreal Jazz Festival, or on the lido deck of a cruise ship, I feel blessed to have this life and this calling. But it is a calling, and it doesn't make sense. I don't know ANYBODY in this music-life who has an easy go of it, nobody. But everybody I know, is excited to be alive and working, and is perpetually renewed with spirit and inspiration to move forward.
Some tips I wish someone had given me:
1) STAY OUT OF DEBT, EVEN STUDENT LOANS, NO MATTER WHAT!!!
More on this. You don't need a degree to be a drummer; I acquired over $60,000 in debt during my studies at Berklee, which is crazy considering my job security. However, you must study, which brings me to my next point.
2) LEARN THE BASIC SKILLS OF A PROFESSIONAL MUSICIAN, NOT JUST DRUMMING
you must learn how to read music, play a lot of styles, learn tunes by ear, have great time/groove and remember arrangements and songs if you want to work. Have strong improvisational skills is also required for many gigs, and only helps to reinforce the other skills. Study not only objective data, but also the master musicians who created the music you are playing, and learn theory and harmony, not just drum stuff. I have had a lot of band leaders tell me to "build it up at the modulation" and I have never had a band leader tell me that I needed to play more double-parradiddles or that my ride pattern wasn't phrased properly. Knowledge of drum vocabulary is only the first step.
3) LEARN FROM EVERYBODY AND EVERY EXPERIENCE, TAKE EVERY GIG YOU CAN
4) ONLY YOU CAN DECIDE WHAT IS RIGHT FOR YOU, THERE IS NO ORICLE WITH ALL THE ANSWERS, TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS.
5)REMEMBER, YOU'RE BEING HIRED TO DO A JOB, BUT YOU ARE ALSO AN ARTIST. TRY TO FIGURE OUT HOW THESE THINGS CAN WORK TOGETHER.
A lot of musicians think that "playing for the gig" is somehow in opposition to artistry or personal expression, especially on comercial gigs (pop gigs, musical theater work, or cruise ship etc.) However, if you can find a way to approach these situations that satisfies you artistically, you will keep working and enjoy it. Others will want to play with you, not only because of your great drumming, but also because of your positive attitude.
6)THERE ARE A LOT OF GREAT DRUMMERS AND MUSICIANS IN THE WORLD, TALK TO THEM AND LEARN FROM THEM.
IF ANYBODY OUT THERE WANTS TO TALK TO ME FURTHER ABOUT ANY OF THIS I WOULD BE MORE THAN HAPPY TO DISCUSS. FIND ME ON FACEBOOK OR EMAIL ME AT firstname.lastname@example.org
David Andrew Moore