Apr 3rd, 2009 by Chris Morrow

Drumming in the Real World, Part 2

The Case For Specialization

In my previous blog, I spoke about the way that I make a living playing drums: lots of gigs with different groups that play a wide range of music styles. In my travels I encounter a lot of resistance to the idea of being so diverse (or even being a professional musician at all, but that’s for another blog). ‘Why do some musicians believe this?’ is a question I’ve often pondered. I’ve come to a few conclusions

that I’d like to share. I believe that they’re a few legitimate reasons to take this stance and a few bogus reasons. Let’s examine the case for specialization.

1. Famous Musicians are not diverse themselves. 😯

Many people believe that “since so in so doesn’t play such-in-such, than why should I go there”. I don’t think Ozzy Osbourne ever sang a jazz standard, nor did Metallica ever cover a Johnny Cash song. I could be wrong, maybe they did. But if they did it isn’t on any popular culture radar that I know of. I call this reason the “Be true to yourself” reason. I consider this a good reason but not if you’re making a living as a musician. If you’re an amateur musician with a regular 9-5 job to support yourself with, then this reason makes perfect sense. If your next mortgage payment isn’t riding on your next gig, then you can play whatever music you want and sleep soundly. I would also say that anyone who uses this reason shouldn’t try this logic on a professional musician, it’s just condescending.

2. You have a better chance at making the biggest splash by specializing in what you’re great at!

metallica-pictureMetallica may never play “Fly Me to the Moon”, but their influence is wider and deeper than any musician playing that song in a local wine bar. However, this reason is really more about vanity than reality. All musicians that are writing and performing original material want that material to be heard and hit the lottery doing it. I call this the “Rock Star” reason, although this reason applies to musicians playing any style. I’m sure any Jazz musician would want to be the next Miles Davis or John Coltrane, any Country singer the next Shania Twain.   Again it makes sense in a logical way, but I find most musicians that use this logic don’t understand the realities about becoming a rock star. The amount of luck, hard work, networking, money needed as well as other intangible factors would blow most peoples minds. I think this is why a lot of people stay at the amateur level, never playing music full time.

3. Your Music Scene Won’t Allow You to Specialize.

There are great reasons to specialize but I believe that reason depends on your circumstances and that they do not apply universally.   I live in Chicago-area, which has a huge music scene and market. I can name many local musicians, great players that specialize in one style. They can do this because of the size of the Chicago-area market. There are enough Jazz bars to support a lot of Jazz musicians and Rock and Blues clubs and so on. These players may not make the kind of mark that Metallica may make, but they make a living playing in styles they love. I see this same principle in other large markets like New York, L.A. and so on. But if you’re living in a smaller market, then your options decline rapidly. I don’t think you could make a living playing Jazz in a town that has only 4 four Country/Western bars in it.

If You Have the Guts and an Unlimited Cash Flow Then Go for it!

kenny-eronoff-pictureIt seems to me that making a living as a specialist is a longer shot, but the rewards are great if you “make it”. But a generalist can also “make it” and probably has an easier time in the music industry while trying to “make it” because the generalist has the advantage of more gigs, networking opportunities and more outlets to “make it” in. The downside to being a generalist is the time you spend playing wedding and cover band gigs is time that could be spent making your big break happen. In that sense, I guess it’s a risk assessment. But I also know that no musician thinks that way. Most musicians tend to use their guts when trying to decide which way to go. I know I did.    One musician that comes to mind that is diverse is Kenny Ernoff He plays with John Mellencamp but has filled in for all sorts of famous musicians in his travels.  I suppose that specialization and generalization will always exist and there will always be a conflict of ideas between both groups that support their cause.  There will always be musicians that hit the lottery playing their exclusive niche,  and there will always be musicians that play in every style.   My opinion is that everybody will decide for himself or herself which path they take and no one should be judged for that decision.   I take the path of generalization because that’s the path that makes the most sense to me and I enjoy it thoroughly. I simply find it harder to make a living playing only one style. I would also probably get bored playing only one style. I understand when others don’t take that path. It is easier and it eliminates a lot of questions and time spent learning and practicing a new style or two. But I don’t understand when others frown down on others decisions to pursue different courses. When it comes to important decisions like whether to pursue a career in music and how to go about it, I believe in a ‘follow your heart’ philosophy. Really only you can answer that question for you.

Until next time just follow your heart and it will lead you to the right place for you.

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2 Responses to “Drumming in the Real World, Part 2”

  1. Susan Kishner Says:

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  2. Dave Piersall Says:

    Thanks Susan. Are you a songwriter or musician? If so what do you play? Either way thanks I appreciate the support

    Dave Piersall
    Euphony Productions

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