What Is My Worth As Professional Drummer?

Besides my regular gig, I’m currently freelancing with a blues/rock group while they audition drummers. One of the November gigs I accepted as a fill-in will pay only $45 per man, at a very small highway roadhouse bar in suburban New Jersey that happens to be the hippest place I’ve ever played.

The Great Notch Inn in West Paterson is just big enough for a band to set up and perhaps fifty people to squeeze in. It’s the kind of joint where leather-clad bikers belly up to the bar next to lawyers and businessmen in suits. There are always Harleys in the parking lot next to the BMW’s, and everybody gets along just fine.

The patrons come for the music, and it’s always a great gig. Granted, the money’s pretty bad, but the owner, also a drummer, is a delight to work for, and the gig is so much fun, who cares? The way I see it, it’s okay to play a low rent gig under these circumstances. But only once in a blue moon.

Normally, however, I wouldn’t pack my drums in the car for $45. I have set a dollar limit for what I must make on a gig, especially as a hired gun, and I won’t go below that figure. I have turned down low-paying gigs repeatedly, because I’m worth more and deserve to earn a decent salary for my services. It’s not snobbery or a bad attitude. It’s reality. As a professional drummer, my time is of value, plus I have financial responsibilities to face on a daily basis, and don’t have the luxury of working just any gig.

How do you go about establishing a realistic, fair price for your services? It may have something to do with where you live, and the going rate for bands and musicians. In 1994, I was in St. Louis on business, and went out one evening club hopping.

Four bars later, I met and sat in with a very good blues/rock band called Jimmy & The Jumpers. Their drummer told me he hardly ever earned more than $50 on any gig, while I was pulling down double that and oftentimes more. He was astounded. Then again, at that point in time, you could rent a studio apartment in St. Louis for $125 a month!

Look at it this way; you’ve studied, practiced your buns off, learned your craft with drumming lessons, paid a few dues, and have worked hard. It has taken years of your life to accomplish these goals. Don’t you deserve to be treated like a professional and therefore paid like one? Of course you do. That’s a no-brainer.

I always use this analogy with reluctant club owners who try to low-ball me or our band, for whatever reason; “If your pipes were leaking and you called a master plumber to fix them, doesn’t he deserve to be paid what he’s worth? Don’t you have to pay your beer distributor? Don’t you have to pay that big goon at the front door, the one with the sixteen body piercings and thirty eight tattoos? Well, we’re professional musicians and you have to pay us too for supplying quality entertainment in your club. This is our price.”

And if someone refuses to pay you what you need to earn, just say no.

You’re probably thinking, “That’s an easy thing for him to say.” Maybe you’re young and relatively new to the music world and anxious to play gigs, even if the money isn’t there. If that’s your priority, then go for it. If you feel the playing opportunity will help you in any way, will enhance your career and be a positive musical experience, then, by all means, do the gigs and accept the situation with grace.

If however, you’re a little older and find yourself in a situation similar to mine, you need to establish your dollar limit, and do it now.

Here’s another way to help you figure. Let’s say you have a $60 club gig that starts at 9:30 p.m. You pack the car and leave at 7:30, drive to the club, haul your gear in, set up, warm up for a few minutes, do a sound check, play the gig until 1:30 a.m, break down, haul your drums out, drive home, unpack the car, and finally hit the sack at 3:30 a.m. That’s a grand total of nine hours work. Break it down hourly, and one needn’t be Albert Einstein to figure out you’d probably make as much money per hour working in Burger King assembling Whoppers.

Of course, it’s more fun playing drums than it is working fast food. Again, a no-brainer.

Keep this next thought in mind too; if you consistently work for very little money, club owners, agents and bandleaders may take advantage of you repeatedly, marking you as a musical prostitute. This not only hurts you, but musicians who follow in your path as well.

Those who control the purse strings often get the idea that musicians can be had cheap, and sometimes force them to work under unfair circumstances. Some unscrupulous individuals literally prey upon hungry, young, inexperienced bands, most of whom are not protected by the Musician’s Union. Are all club owners assholes? No way, but they’re businessmen first and music fans last. Don’t forget that. It’s the bottom line that counts.

A former student of mine was working in a metal band several years ago and got burned badly by a club owner who convinced them to sell tickets for an upcoming gig. The band had three hundred tickets to sell at one dollar apiece, and managed to sell about one hundred fifty. They foolishly played the gig, then the owner made the band pay him the $150 or so out of their pockets for the unsold tickets. Those guys learned their lesson fast. It cost them a lot of money to play the job! Suffice to say, that scum of a club owner went out of business. What goes around, comes around.

Don’t “pay to play,” unless you’re absolutely certain every important record executive, agent, music publisher, or management company in the United States will be in attendance.

You’re a professional. Act like one, and you should be compensated like a professional. If you show up late, dress inappropriately, act like a jerk, insult the patrons, drink excessively or do drugs, and mess up your parts onstage, you don’t deserve anything but a swift kick in the ass.

Be the best you can be, and demand to be paid fairly for your services. It’s a matter of good business and pride in your profession.