What is the life of a pro drummer like?

pt3407

Senior Member
I'm trying to see if I want to do music as a hobby or as a career. I did one year of music school and took a year off cause of corona and everything was online. Now I'm rethinking my career. I have a fear of making enough money to live as a pro drummer. So I'm not sure if I want to pursue this as a career. But maybe I would be willing to suffer for a music career, depending on what the lifestyle would be like.

What is it like to be a pro drummer? please, only people who are doing this professionally and are doing this full time, respond. Do you have to survive off of eating instant ramen and apples? what is all of the bad/unpleasant stuff you've had to deal with? sleeping on the floor, homelessness, etc.
 

toddbishop

Platinum Member
A lot of economic uncertainty, at times. Most people have to supplement, and exploit their other interests, gifts, and available work opportunities somewhat. Or marry someone with a well paying job. Usually you have to make do with less money than most Americans think is necessary to live. It's not a high status occupation-- it takes some time to learn to command any respect for it with the people you deal with.

There is always work, however. If you screw up your life/career completely, you can always go work on a cruise ship. That's when I realized I could do it-- at least there will always be steady work if you're willing to do that.

You do have to be able to play everything, and you have to be serious about music beyond just the drums. You have to play a lot of music that you don't necessarily like, and be able to treat it seriously. The only way you can handle the lifestyle is if you love it. If you're serious about this, you should go back to school and learn to love it, and learn how to exist among other professionals.
 

caddywumpus

Platinum Member
I agree with everything Todd said. Also, just to be clear: it certainly isn’t an easy career path. Unless you get a “break” and work with a famous act, or an act that provides you with plenty of well-paying opportunities, you have to constantly hustle for more work. You need to network so you CAN get more work. You need to build up your credentials as much as possible, and, above all else, you need to have a good reputation so that people WILL want to work with you.

Some times are great, and other times you just might find yourself eating ramen.

You need to diversify, too. Expand your genres, do more work than just playing gigs. Besides playing drums live I also play several other instruments, I teach lessons, have a recording setup and record bands/projects/tracks, and I also have a couple of PA systems and can run sound for my own bands or get hired for events. It’s good to branch out and diversify for the sake of more gig opportunities, as well as keeping things fresh and exciting.

I’ve also had several “side” jobs during my 15 year music career, doing everything from building furniture to teaching in schools. I *could* make a living doing music on my own, but I’ve also got a family to support, so the income has got to keep coming in, even during the dry times.
 

Odd-Arne Oseberg

Platinum Member
I don't know anyone who has the same story, but if going for performance only unless all you do is tour with your own band, it's essential to live in the city and have a network.

For m it should really be easy since I'm very invested in being a great teacher. Some other things happened there, a lot of narcissistic abuse, but it shouldn't be that way for most.

My main tip would be, if you go to school to do that where you want to live and work and do what you can to build a network and a base for work while you're in school. Those same contacts will be useful when you need other work to pay the bills, as well.
 
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Mighty_Joker

Silver Member
For me, it’s path of exploring the best ways to monetise my skill set. As well as playing (live or studio), I can teach, produce educational media, compose, etc. etc.

alongside practising and the occasional gig (thanks Covid), my daily life is working on one of these projects that will be published. Educational media, a new composition, that sort of thing.

Not as glamorous as it used to be, but a better balance with a young child.
 

Chris Whitten

Well-known member
It's such a huge subject to get into. Where to start?
How old are you? Personally I question why you took year off 'because of Covid 19'?
If you are already worried about lack of money and bad food you may not be ready to be a professional musician.
I am only scratching the surface here....
With very little money in recording and competition for gigs huge, there are two routes to a sustainable living as a drummer.
1) Somewhat institutional - combining a regular gig like musical theatre with a steady job as a teacher.
2) Getting a gig with a touring band or artist.
The downside of 1 is usually playing the same music over and over 8-10 times a week and likely music you don't particularly like.
The downside of 2 is being away from home, family, friends, relationships, for 10 months of the year. having to stay completely healthy despite long hours, lack of sleep, bad food, bad accommodation.
The worst of everything happens as you try to establish yourself. Which is why young pros are 18-30 years old. I never thought about the hardship when I was 25, you just do it because you are passionate about doing it.
Once you are 30+, maybe with a partner, maybe starting a family, you need to have some basic establishment in music - a bit of a steady career, more or less steady income, better gigs, better hotels etc....
 

bermuda

Drummerworld Pro Drummer - Administrator
Staff member
^^ Wise words from Chris. ^^

Best advice I can give - and this applies to pretty much any career pursuit - is to manage the money. As a gigging musician you can't always control the income, but you can still manage your expenses, and that's crucial with the inevitable ups & downs of the business. A good rule of thumb is to live below your means, so that you have a cash cushion for the typical gaps in work.

Controlling expenses is key, and largely depends on managing debt. Obviously there are living expenses, and a house payment is building equity that you will recover (hopefully more!) some day. I'm talking about credit card debt in particular. A needlessly high car payment. Looking for the best plan for your smartphone, and not upgrading every time there's a new model (unless you can keep the same low rate... good luck.) Even finding the best price on gas will add up fast. It it worth joining Sam's Club or Costco to get a discount on their gas? If you fill up just twice a month, it more than pays for itself!

$5 here, $25 there, getting rid of that $300/mo car payment... it all adds up. Is this really big news? No. But in the typical feast-or-famine life of most full-time musicians, a lot of poorly-thought-through purchasing decisions are made while times are good, without thinking ahead 6 months when there may be less or even no income.

I know that makes sense and shouldn't have to be said, but people still don't get it. I see it all the time with my friends in the business, and made even more difficult with the 16+ months of the pandemic. Lots of musicians and associated techs are scrounging right now. I'm privileged, lucky, blessed, thankful to have a long-term main gig... and I haven't had a paycheck since September, 2019. Yet my wife and I haven't had a change in lifestyle (no, she doesn't work) and we can sit for a lot longer if necessary. That's not because I've made a ton of money, it's because both of us manage our expenditures wisely, which means there's money in the bank for times like these.

Long story short, if you aren't prepared to manage money, don't try to be a full-time musician. Keep a day job and play on weekends to satisfy your soul and bring in a few extra (untaxed!) dollars for fun. It's not a bad life, and there's nothing like a regular paycheck.
 

bermuda

Drummerworld Pro Drummer - Administrator
Staff member
A good rule of thumb is to live below your means, so that you have a cash cushion for the typical gaps in work.

Let me elaborate on this... I don't mean to live like a pauper, eat ramen (hey, I like ramen!) and not have nice things. I mean that where you can easily cut expenses, do so. Just because you can afford to spend the money doesn't mean you should. This is where most people get into debt problems. With musicians, it's part of the rock star syndrome. It's okay to be a rock star for a few hours a night. The rest of the time - in real life - you've got to be sensible. Normal. Smart. Your solvency may depend on it.

And I will say again, it's not about how much you make... it's about how much you spend. The music business is littered with musicians who made millions, and ended up losing it all after the gigs/popularity ran out, due to a debt structure they couldn't manage when the income slowed down.
 

MG1127

Well-known member
As long as you love what you're doing all the ups and downs are quite easy to deal with... especially when there are guys out there like Ross Garfield who have dedicated their lives to making ours easier.

It's about sacrifice, uncertainty and never thinking you are too good for any given situation.

I prefer the last 15 years of my career where I have been a hired gun as opposed to the previous 14 where I was in "all for one" band situations.

I was never a fan of being part of business decisions, percentages of this and that, and being seen as part of a unit.

I prefer being hired, doing my job, being paid and being on my way with no strings attached.
 

Cmdr. Ross

Silver Member
The documentary Hired Gun goes into this quite a bit. Jason Hook talks about how his job & income came and went with just an email. Other musicians interviews for this sing the same song Bermuda & Chris talked of: Know how to budget and live within (or below) your means.

Doing music for a living is a fun job, but it’s still a job. Take it seriously and be the best you can be. If not, there’s someone right behind you wanting that drum throne.
 

Xstr8edgtnrdrmrX

Well-known member
I remember in my days of "searching for the record contract", there was little to no "consistent" money at times, but everything else that was happening made up for it. It was the adventure, and drive that was addicting. The constant gigging, and shaking hands, and meeting people; practicing to get better...crazy logistics...planning tours, designing shirts and merch. Learning how to manage the money correctly

That made living in my van not so bad; made not owning a lot of stuff ok <-- in fact, it taught me that materialism is overrated and unnecessary, and that has helped me live a more peaceful life in my current profession as a drummer, which is being a band director/drum instructor. I actually went back to music school/college after the rock star thing didn't pan out, and all of the life skills I learned on that journey really made me a more sane, secure, happy and successful person. My second stint in college was a better time because I was ready for the part of college that most "fresh out of high school" kids don't have

so my best advice is that you have to agree to shift your definition of comfort, fun, work etc. You can't be unflexible and unprepared...you have to be proactive, smart, stubborn in some ways, but maleable in others

also, don't compromise your end goal...but in the same way, don't be afraid to let it evolve, and take on new facets...I never remember saying that I wanted to learn graphic design, but I had to to help with merch, and it added another marketable ability to my toolbox.

I think too many people just give up when "fame and fortune" don't fall into their lap right away....at the same time, there does have to come a time for the Reality Check - where you have to say "am I getting any returns on my investment of time?"
 

DrumEatDrum

Platinum Member
When I was 20-something, I would have to you I was doing everything I could to make it as a professional drummer. I would have said I was giving 110% and sacrificing everything.

In retrospect, I was giving maybe 70-80%.

Being friends with and having spent a lot of time around actual professional drummers I can see now:

I was never into staying up all night (or was getting up early?) to transcribe and chart out songs for a band you might only do one gig with. I wanted to know there was a chance of many gigs if I was going to do that work. But real pros have no trouble doing that. So what if you're just subbing for one show one time, you put the work in.

I didn't buy into continuing to practice 8 hours a day long after graduating PIT (where I did, in fact, practice 8-10 hours a day). Sure, I still practiced often, took lessons, etc, but not nearly enough.

I was worried about money, so I always had some sort of side job, mostly because I liked sleeping in my own bed in my own room. I didn't embrace sleeping in the rehearsal hall or pilling a bunch of people into a small space just to keep costs down. (See stories of many bands who all slept in their rehearsal room or in one band house, or in the van). Sure, I didn't always have a nice apartment, but I could have sacrificed more. (

As much as I did network, I didn't network enough. As Bermuda will say "it's not who you know, it's who knows you". I was good at getting to know people, but I was terrible at letting people know me. Hence, they didn't think to call me. (mind you, this was all pre-social media).

I very quickly really grew to dislike playing music I didn't 100% enjoy, which meant I didn't pursue gigs that might have lead to better gigs. Nor did I chase gigs that might have gone somewhere. By age 25, I was sick and tired of playing Mustang Sallly 3-4 times a week, every week, and didn't want to do anything like that again. I should have kept a more open mind.

I spent too much time looking for the perfect bands to be in, and not realizing that just playing in bands is the best exposure to being in better bands.
 

Chris Whitten

Well-known member
Yes. I always drove the car I could afford to buy outright. I never had crushing monthly bills from mortgages etc.
I probably rarely had holidays in my 20's and 30's.
75% of my work was probably music I would never listen to myself. I took enjoyment from hanging with other great musicians. I took satisfaction from doing a good job and the artist or record producer thanking me for my input.
You learn so much from playing music outside your comfort zone or outside your preferred genre.
A modern drummer does not just drum. Many are musical directors, many are using electronics.
I question again 'taking a year off' because of Covid. A year can be well spent learning computing, learning how to use Pro Tools, or Ableton Live. Learning how to use samples and sample pads. Buying sample packs or learning how to make your own.
I have one of the cheapest V-drum sets Roland makes. You can spend a year playing v-drums along to records on headphones, hearing how other drummers approach playing etc...
 

Chris Whitten

Well-known member
I think too many people just give up when "fame and fortune" don't fall into their lap right away....
Just because this comes up a lot.
I was never interested in 'fame and fortune'. I just wanted to earn enough to be making music every day.
The absolute highest ambition I had was to play music I loved and be recognised by peers for doing a good job. I have probably rarely if ever achieved that.
I have worked with people who are famous and I wouldn't want that at all. Being on the road for 9 months and never being able to leave the hotel? Doing a couple of hours of interviews every single day, and being asked the same dumb questions by journalists who couldn't be bothered to do their research? No thanks.
 

Caz

Senior Member
What is it like to be a pro drummer? please, only people who are doing this professionally and are doing this full time, respond. Do you have to survive off of eating instant ramen and apples? what is all of the bad/unpleasant stuff you've had to deal with? sleeping on the floor, homelessness, etc.

The last year and a half have been a bit of an anomaly, other than that I've been at it full time for around 6 years with no backup and usually it's great. I'd recommend doing what you need to do to get set up with the basics - good equipment with good cases, a car (this will be your number one instrument so don't go for a banger!), and somewhere to live that's within your means. So if that means working full time to get this stuff together, or part time whilst you're building up gigs, there's no shame in that.. you want to be set up well for the long run. Moving to a big city with some cash and renting somewhere expensive, not working as you wanna feel like a real pro musician, you'd have to get pretty lucky with work in my opinion... building things up sensibly, living within your means, and always studying to diversify the gigs you're able to do are my bits of advice. And if you're not a 'people person' - learn to be! Be professional and dignified, you'll get treated like it.
 
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