It’s oft been said that 90% of success is showing up. So what’s the other 10% made up of? I’ve always said that my personal keys to success as a musician were: show up, wear the right clothes, and play in an appropriate style. That simple formula made me a successful, albeit mostly unheard of, musician. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I made my living exclusively from the art/craft I loved. I even managed to buy a current model up-market car at one point.
OK, enough bragging. There’s got to be more to it. And so there is.
You really do have to show up. It may seem like a no-brainer, but there are people who don’t show up, and for all sorts of reasons: forgot, got a better offer, decided not to, couldn’t make bail. And not showing up is one of those things that gets around. People talk, and they’re quick to say, “Great player, but unreliable.” And if not showing up is inevitable -- broken leg, heart attack, beri-beri -- give the band leader lots of notice and suggest possible replacements along with a phone number. (Email and facebook are no way to deal with something quickly.) Better still, line up a suitable replacement yourself. Just be sure to clear it with the band leader.
Visual presentation is a part of the business. If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t care what colour drums you played, right? Wearing the right clothes is a sign of respect -- for the band, the band leader, the audience, and the profession. And if you’re not prepared to dress the part, perhaps it isn’t the right gig for you.
Playing the right style can be a tall order. There are an awful lot of music styles out there, and if you present yourself as a freelance ‘generalist’, you’d better have some inkling of how to do just about everything, On the plus side, the mechanics don’t vary that much from style to style. A Polish polka is only slightly different from a Hungarian polka, which is amply covered by a Dixieland or country two-beat. But if you don’t know even one style, it could be a challenge. Fortunately, band leaders and members will help you if they know you’re new to the genre. So study all musical styles and don’t hesitate to ask for advice.
I’ve studied just about every musical style, and although I may not impress anyone with my merengue, I can at least play a merengue when required. Name a style and I probably can do at least a presentable job of it, and that’s a skill that you can build a career on.
I originally set out with a modest goal: to be better (i.e. more desirable) on a bad day than the next guy on a good day. It turned out not to be all that difficult – some drummers have ‘musical myopia’ -- although it did take a lot of work. It meant that I had to woodshed to the point that I could make it through the night … any night … no matter what.
I’ve met a lot of drummers who were frequently out of work because they would not ‘compromise’ their musical standards. That’s their choice. But if your goal is to survive and even prosper without having to take a day job (now where are those precious standards?) then it’s time to adopt a new standard: Don’t compromise on the quality of your playing, regardless of style. If you land a gig playing behind a C-list exotic dancer, do you have what it takes to make it the best C-list gig in town?
Of course, this is just my point of view.