Thursday, April 11, 2013

Drumming For Profit | Being A Hired Hand In A Band

Hired Drummer
My last band was led by one person.  She named the band after herself.  She did all the promotion, the booking, and the hard work that it takes to get people in the bar. Sure, the other members of the band had to play well enough to keep people from leaving, but she had no problem with replacing you if you couldn’t make a show. As I recall, she went through some 19 bass players over ten years. One of them was nick-named “T3” because he was the third bass player that was named Tom.  Not just the third guy in the band named Tom, but the third bass player named Tom.    

When you joined her band, you were welcome to play the hell out of your instrument, but you weren’t allowed to bring your own songs into the band.  On more than one occasion, I heard her say to other members “That’s a great song you just showed us.  Now go and start your own band if you feel like playing it.  This is my band.” What’s funny is that I heard her say that at least three times over the years.  It was somewhat amusing; because she would let the musician play the entire song first, then give her speech.  She didn’t bother telling new members in advance that they weren’t allowed to write their own material. If you didn’t like what she had put together you were free to leave.  On the other hand, we were free to add whatever we liked to the songs that she wrote.  In fact, she felt that I never over played my drums on her songs. If she had it her way, I would be going ape behind the kit on every number.

Hitting The Road As A Hired Hand

In 1998, a band that hired me for a tour gave me their disks, told me to learn the music, and instructed me on just where I could add my own creative ideas. (See photo above.) There weren’t many spaces for me to break out on my own musically, but I knew what I was getting into.  When those moments in the song came up, I took full advantage of the opportunity. No, it wasn’t very much fun playing those somewhat rudimentary drum parts that someone else had written, night after night, city after city. But I was the hired help.  That was my job. What was my incentive? Getting paid a per diem, part of the net profits, and getting a cut of the merchandise. There had to be a guarantee for me. After all, I was the hired help.  I wasn't going to see any profits from record sales.  I would receive no income from royalties.  The drummer who made the album, the guy sitting back at home was getting paid for my hard work. The more shows we played, the more disks we sold, the more money he made. At the very least, I knew what base rate I was guaranteed, before I got on the plane for Europe. 

By the end of that tour, we were all pretty sick of each other.   It was nothing personal, you just can't look at the same faces day after day without feeling like you need to get away from it all. The combination of being cooped up together for weeks at a time, and playing the same songs every night made for a long tour. It didn’t affect my performances, but it certainly kept me from going “all in” with that group.  Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation, but I lost my mind on that tour. I met up with some friends in Amsterdam just after the tour ended. One of them told me the only way I was truly going to be happy was when I started my own band. I knew that I wasn't "band leader" material, but it was a nice compliment.

What I miss when I join groups like that is the feeling that I was part of something creative.  I came along after these bands had already built up a following.  It didn’t matter if I received a compliment, or praise.  Those bands would go on without me.  I had to understand that.     

I was called back for a second tour, and took the job. They kept me on as a regular member, and that’s when things started to change, albeit slowly. It took another year for the band to start listening to my ideas, and allow me to be part of the creative process. By year number three, we had written an entire album’s worth of material. The record label wasn’t interested in keeping us on, so we had to decide whether to shop our sound around, or go it alone, or break up. The band called it quits, or at least that’s what I did.  I quit, and the rest of the band took a long break.  Two years later they resurfaced with their old drummer, but those songs that I helped to write stayed with the band.  In fact, they went on to record those songs with their original drummer.  It’s very hard for me to listen to that recording.  With all due respect, that drummer was not interested in playing what I had written. I found out later that he couldn’t replicate my style. It was too different. After being in a band for three years, then leaving, it’s an odd experience to then go and watch that band play live. I didn’t feel comfortable with going back stage to say hello.

It’s so different when you aren’t behind the drums.  As an audience member, I was more forgiving of their mistakes.  It made me wonder if I was too uptight when I was in the group. Those little miscues were actually enjoyable. They looked like tiny mistakes when I wasn’t playing, but huge mistakes when I was part of the band. I learned that I should let those little things go. As for now, I don’t know if I would ever go back to being a hired hand in a band, unless the reward was significant.   

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