BY JOHN NYMAN
Scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. That’s it in a nutshell — the endorsement game. Of course, the relationship between a pro drummer and his gear companies — and how they even hook up in the first place — is more complex than that, so we surveyed some industry veterans on the subject of product endorsements to get to the bottom of this mysterious subject.
Mike Farriss handles artist relations for Pearl Drums, which has nearly 300 artist endorsers in the U.S. Bobby Boos is the East Coast artist relations man for Sabian, though he says his busy job is better described as “industry relations.” Rodney Howard — an endorser of Pearl, Sabian, and Vic Firth — is a young drummer out of New York City who has played with Avril Lavigne, Gavin DeGraw, and Regina Spektor. And Todd Sucherman, drummer for Styx, has developed solid professional relationships with Pearl, Sabian, Remo, and Pro-Mark.
Which brings us to the most obvious question …
WHEN DO I GET FREE STUFF?
Because frankly, ever since we put that mirror in the practice room, we think we shred pretty rad, and might want to parlay some moves into free gear.
Well, not so fast. Qualifying for an endorsement deal requires more than chops. “I had a long period without endorsements,” says Howard. “It was hard for me to realize that it was not about my ability level but about my visibility level.” Sucherman, who landed his first paying gig at age six, went a long time without worrying much about endorsements. “I was always concerned with working, and being a good musician, playing good music with good musicians,” he says. “Endorsements were kind of secondary to me. I think some young players get it turned around, and they want endorsements as a sort of validation of their playing. But what good is a free drum set when you’re home watching TV?”
Farriss looks at the big picture: “Often a young band gets signed to a label deal and they think they’ve made it. That’s not true. Getting signed is just the beginning. What you do with that opportunity is what matters. Young drummers need to remember that there are lots of guys that are ahead of them. Our hope is that all the guys achieve the success of a Dennis Chambers or a Virgil Donati, but that’s not necessarily the case all the time.”
Which brings us to our next burning question …
EXACTLY WHO ENDORSES WHOM?
It’s not uncommon for drummers to speak of “getting an endorsement” rather than giving one. It’s as if they believe manufacturers of sticks, drums, cymbals, and heads will give them both gear and glory (and anything else they can put their hands on). In fact, every year at the NAMM show, the industry-only convention of musical instrument manufacturers and dealers, scores of players descend upon artist reps trying to get hooked up. Younger players often hope to squeeze their names into ads as a step toward Billboard’s Top Ten.
But Farriss confirms that the artist is the one waving the flag. “It should be the artist endorsing the product, not the other way around. If a guy doesn’t feel good about what he’s playing, he shouldn’t play it just because it’s free.” Boos considers his endorsers to be Sabian’s first line of salespeople: “If Johnny Bagodonuts sees the guy playing Sabian cymbals in some club somewhere and he wants to know more about the cymbals, we hope he asks. But if the endorser doesn’t know much about what he’s playing then he’s actually doing us a disservice. We want artists who actually know and love our products, not just some guy who says, ’Hey, I want some cymbals.’”
ARE THEY REALLY FREE?
Usually not — an irony that isn’t lost on Farriss, who says, “I’m friends with most all of the other companies’ artist relations people, and one of our favorite observations is that when an artist finally has enough success to buy whatever he wants, he gets it for free. That’s not really funny.” And the notion of free gear by the truckload is off the mark, too. “Not everything is free,” Farriss said. “The vast majority of our artists pay for the product. It’s on a per-case basis, and the price depends on the return we get from the exposure the artist can offer us.”
Let’s dispel yet another myth — about the big payouts top endorsers supposedly reap when they ink a deal with a drum company. “Frankly, the percussion industry is a very small part of the music instrument industry, which is not a huge industry,” Boos says. “There are no big-money deals going on. People don’t get paid to be in ads. If Phil Collins takes time from his busy schedule to do something with Sabian, it’s because he really likes us.”
Sabian operates on a tier system that reflects the market visibility of the artist. “There are about 700 Sabian endorsers in the U.S., of varying levels,” he says. “There might be a C level endorser whom we offer a discounted price and some help in selection, but then it’s up to them to come back with that million-selling record and the MTV and the big tours, and then we move to the next level.” And in case you were wondering, the C-Level folks do not get to handpick cymbals at the Sabian factory.
“B-level would include a limited number of cymbals at no charge and the rest at a discount, and, of course, service. You have to be clear on these things, or assumption will cause confusion at the end of the day. We try to be really clear on what we expect and what we offer.”
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU EXPECT?
Sucherman says, “Life is short. I like surrounding myself with cool people, and I’m very particular about who I have in my inner circle. I want people I can pick up the phone and talk to as friends, as well as when I need something.” And Sucherman, who is on the road some 190 days a year, needs help to get his music made. “You call your people and tell them, ’I need a kit in Europe, in Japan for a TV show, a concert,’ whatever. Essentially what you’re trying to do is accomplish your gig. I only want what I need to do my gig.”
And the companies respond with some impressive logistics. Farriss says, “It’s not really about free gear. It’s about service. Let’s say a drummer gets a European tour, and he gets a free drum set from some drum company, and the kit is here in the States. He would have to ship his kit over to Europe and back. Suddenly free isn’t free anymore. With a company like Pearl, we can provide a kit in Europe for our endorsers. We often have artists from the U.K. come here to play in New York, and we provide them with a kit in road cases that we ship to them from Nashville. When the tour is over, they ship it back to us in Nashville. No charge to the band except shipping. It’s a lot cheaper to ship from Nashville than from the U.K.”
Many professional rehearsal halls also run a roadie-and-rental business, called “cartage” in industry lingo. Farriss explains, “Sometimes we provide gear to cartage companies in exchange for providing that gear to visiting artists. A visiting Pearl artist can get a rental-free Pearl kit from many cartage companies.” Does that constitute a freebie for the artist? Not exactly, says Farriss. “The cartage company has overhead, too, so the artist has to pay for the delivery service, but the kit is rental free.”
Howard relies on his endorsements to help him adapt to each new musical assignment. “The most notable gigs I’ve done are Gavin DeGraw, Regina Spektor, and now Avril Lavigne. And those three gigs have been very different. What’s right for Gavin’s gig is different than what’s right for Regina’s gig, and very different from Avril’s gig. My whole drum kit has had to change for these gigs, and my cymbals, too. At one point I went from a 24″ kick to a 20″ kick, 5B sticks to 5A, thick cymbals to light, jazzy cymbals.”
The size of the endorsement companies, and their reach, can also impact the artist’s professional relationships. Howard often rehearses at a studio that rents Pearl drums. He tries different things there and files the results away in his mind. He can ask Pearl for these drums when the need arises. “On Avril’s gig, in particular,” he said, “I’ve needed lots of weird drums. She’s been quite adamant that every note that comes off that stage is played by human hands, so I’ve done quite a bit of experimenting to get the drum machine sounds live that are on the records, without using electronics. I’ve got three hats on that gig, a 13″ tom as a kick in addition to my regular kick. Pearl has been very helpful with that.”
HOW ABOUT CLINICS?
Clinic tours can be another potent profit-center that originates from the artist/company relationship. Sucherman, who managed to squeeze in about ten clinics last year, offers an example of how it works. “The store requests a particular drummer, usually through the drum or cymbal company. The company checks the date availability with the drummer. Let’s say Pearl has set up a clinic date for me. The Pearl rep for that area contacts [in Suchermann’s case] Sabian, Pro-Mark, and Remo. All the companies chip in with support for literature, swag sent to the event, and also the artist’s fee and lodging.”
There is no standard rate for clinics. “Fees are up to the artist, really,” Sucherman explains. “I recently did a college clinic for a reduced fee, because the educational forum appealed to me, and it was only two hours. It was fun to do!” It’s not about the cash anyway, Boos concurs … well, not directly, at least. “About 1987 we really got into the clinic thing as a way to grow Sabian. We have meetings every year where we get together and work with our artists on their presentation, the ideas, the good and the bad. It’s about educating people and giving something to them, inspire them, make them want to play music. Music is fun. We don’t want to have any clinicians who think, ’Hey, I’ll go hang out in a music store for an hour or two and make a bunch of money.”
WHY DO DRUMMERS SWITCH BRANDS?
Sucherman has endorsed other companies and says, “I don’t wish to speak ill of anyone. But sometimes people change at a company, and service may diminish. I don’t think I ask for much. I like to think I’m pretty easygoing, but I’ve been left in the lurch before. And sometimes, when you can’t get what you need, it’s time to move on.”
Boos says that politics can come into play. “Some people play the endorsement game as a leverage move. They change companies to get more, to follow the better offer, and sometimes go back to the company they started with, but likely at a better deal. We don’t like to play that way, so we keep all relationships on a one-on-one basis, everything aboveboard. If the relationship is not working, then fine, we’ll part ways. To us, it’s about quality, not quantity.”
Changes in the roster come from both sides of the fence. “Some companies do a housecleaning every year,” Boos elaborates, “and then the dropped folks show up at the NAMM show, looking for a new deal.” But Sabian thinks that’s shortsighted. “Musicians’ careers have ups and downs, just like life. If you’re having a down period, Sabian’s not going to say, ’We don’t want to talk to you anymore.’ Maybe we’ll call you ’inactive’ or something, but who knows? In five years you could call back and say, ’Hey, remember me? I just got the gig with Led Zeppelin.’”
And he bemoans the revolving door that characterizes today’s music industry. “Nowadays people can come and go before you even get to know them. Faster than a flash in the pan, it’s at the speed of the Internet now. One hit now, and next month they virtually disappear. That’s more normal than anything, nowadays. It’s heartbreaking, because these people have put lots of time and effort into their craft.”
IS A HANDSHAKE GOOD ENOUGH?
Perhaps back in the days of Buddy and Gene, but those days are gone. “Unfortunately in this day and age it has to be a contract,” Farriss says. “We know what we have to offer the artist: product and worldwide service, and sometimes advertisements. To safeguard ourselves, and to make sure everybody has a clear understanding, we use a contract that says we can use the artist’s name and likeness in advertisements or other promotion of our products.”
But it’s love, not the lawyers, that makes it all work. If the artist doesn’t like the drums, or doesn’t like how he’s being treated, the deal will fail. Farriss adds this important point: “Is it a binding contract? No, because we wouldn’t want to hold onto a guy that isn’t happy with the product. He’s not going to be a good representative. They are our representatives in the field. No one knows who Mike Farriss is, but most all know who Chad Smith is, or Morgan Rose, or Joey Jordison.”
HOW DO I GET STARTED?
Boos puts it simply. “Basically, a person sending a package is applying for a job as a Sabian ambassador. There’s no point in sending a package to the Endorsement Department. Please! At least learn my name! Send it to a real person at a real address. Send a letter, send a package. Make it clear and concise. ’This is so-and-so, trained in such-and-such, his goal is to teach, perform,’ whatever. Include a demo, three songs, not too much, keep it good. I don’t have time to read a giant pile of papers.”
Farriss agrees, “We’re looking for professional packages, which normally include a band photo, band bio, and a personal bio and personal photo so we know what the drummer looks like and a bit about his history. We look for the latest recorded material, too. There are some great drummers that are not with a band, but they are exceptions to the rule. Usually we look for the drummers in bands, and for the organizations behind the band: the record company, management company — professional backing that indicates the band is ready to take off.”
So in other words, they will check your references. Farriss adds, “If there’s someone [in the industry] who likes your band and can be a reference, include them. There are probably only a dozen of us in the U.S. doing this job [of artist relations], and we talk to each other. It’s a small world, this musical instrument industry. Then it’s just a phone call for us, and we can ask, ’Hey, what’s going on with this person?’ We also get a lot of recommendations from other artists. Keith Harris of Black Eyed Peas is one of the finest players I’ve ever seen, and he recommended someone to us. Well, that’s a pretty big deal, coming from Keith. So I just asked, ’What do you need?’”
That’s what we’ve been hoping they’d ask from the beginning.