The road to success as professional musician can take some unexpected turns.
Finding your way into the right gigs and developing the skills that put you in demand isn’t easy.
If you’ve ever dreamed of a life as a full-time instrumentalist, you might be wondering what it takes.
One person who knows about the road to becoming a professional is Andrew Marshall, drummer for Billie Eilish.
We sat down with him to talk touring, technology, how he got there and what it means to be a modern drummer for hire.
Careers in music start small
Sometimes it seems like there are more talented players out there than ever before.
Music programs around the world are churning out highly skilled instrumentalists and online marketplaces are giving artists access to the cream of the crop.
So how does it all start? How does a promising young player go from the academy to the road?
Andrew Marshall didn’t wake up one day to find himself playing stadiums and touring the world. His path to success as a pro drummer was a winding journey that started in college.
During his final year at Northwestern University Marshall got his first opportunity to tour in a local funk and R&B band.
For Marshall this would be his first chance at making a living solely from playing drums.
“For me, I decided I wanted to do music, and me being a bit of a punk I just wanted to get out and play and tour.”
But a single tour—even a great one—doesn’t always translate into repeatable jobs. Just like in so many other fields, you have to go where the opportunities are to keep getting hired.
In Marshall’s case, touring was useful for growing his skills but when the tour concluded he felt it was time to move to one of the three major music cities in the US–LA, New York, or Nashville.
“After the year [of touring] was up, I needed to get to one of the three major markets in the US. I was from New York and I knew a lot of people there already who were playing in town. It was the logical move but I knew I was going to end up in LA eventually.”
Make a decision and commit to it
Committing to the job and taking every gig seriously is the kind of attitude that makes you a real professional.
For Andrew, that meant making good on connections and developing his versatility in one of the main music markets in the country.
Over the next three years Andrew would move to New York and take every opportunity he could find–everything from wedding gigs to musical theatre.
“Playing with different people, learning to live with people on the road, dealing with tour managers and front-of-house engineers… it was awesome.”
That combination of dedication and opportunity lead Marshall to begin working with established New York indie rock acts on bigger, more serious tours.
Getting the big gig
Touring is a gateway to a successful career for many musicians. Meeting people at shows and sharing the stage with different acts night after night is still one of the best ways to grow your contacts.
Touring with mid-level indie rock acts helped Marshall make connections in LA and after three years it was time to justify a move in the summer of 2017.
After finishing his last tour with a New York based act called Vérité, Marshall returned to LA and got a call to audition for Billie Eilish.
“That audition came from some friends who were connected with Billie’s team. It was a video audition, I got an answer pretty quickly, and they were like ‘okay we need your passport’.”
Think carefully about music education
Networking and experience are clearly important, but many aspiring musicians wonder if traditional music education plays a role in success.
With lots of lucrative opportunities firmly in the pop sphere, it’s certainly not right for everyone.
Reflecting on his time as a hired gun for pop acts, Marshall has second thoughts about post-secondary music education.
Like many musicians that find success in the pop and rock spheres, Marshall didn’t feel that music school was really preparing him for a career. The academic setting was expensive and felt out of touch.
“I think there’s a minority of people for whom music schools are a good thing–they network, they learn–obviously if you want to be a classical musician or a teacher you need that. But, in my lane [as a pop drummer] just move to LA or Nashville and find a good teacher or go to Musicians Institute and just play.”
“I didn’t touch Ableton before I graduated.”
Take advantage of new ways to learn
Despite the disconnect in traditional education, a new generation of young musicians is embracing modern tools to help them learn and grow.
Andrew says he’s seen the impact first hand.
“You just have to craft your own curriculum, and if you’re a dedicated musician you will!”
Stay up to date with modern tools and techniques
The role of an instrumentalist is always changing to fit the needs of modern music. For today’s drummers that includes electronics. Marshall started working with digital gear because he saw it being used by other drummers in pretty much every genre of music.
By the time Marshall got to sit in the rehearsal room with Billie and Finneas, it wasn’t the first time he’d used electronic elements in his drum setup.
Expanding your skills to complement your sound with electronic tools is important to stay relevant as a professional.
“Level one is using an SPD or comparable sample pad and putting sounds in it. Level two is running tracks from an SPD, linking pads to play two things at once, or adding pads and foot pedals. Level three is using MIDI to run sounds and automation in Ableton with different drum racks, or running MIDI to the SPD.”
“What I find really exciting right now is automating effects or mapping effects to knobs or velocity and getting stuff like reverb to open up as you hit harder or softer. That whole Ableton setup makes it easy to do in the live environment.”
Work seamlessly with new collaborators
In-demand players need to know how to to find their feet quickly with new collaborators.
Andrew doesn’t work with just Billie Eilish. He’s constantly working with different artists as a session drummer.
Building a supportive environment where these fresh creative partnerships can thrive is a key part of success as a hired gun.
For Marshall, research is a huge part of working in a session context.
He’ll spend time looking at his client’s past work and where they’re at with their project to get a better idea of what they need.
“I generally try to get inside their head as much as I possibly can, that means knowing who they’re into, what their influences are, knowing what they want to be like, where they’re at in terms of songwriting and production. Also where they’re coming from in life–it’s sort of like a casual form of research.”
Even so, session work is about more than writing good parts that suit the music. Pros treat session work as a business, ensuring that deliverables are sent in a timely manner.
“There’s a lot of practical things too… like turning things around quickly and being clear about timelines. Like saying ‘I’ll get this done for you over the weekend’ and actually doing it.”
Develop a distinctive sound
One thing all seasoned players have in common is a unique style.
When it comes to drumming, genre and technique have a lot of crossover.
“My wheelhouse is generally the two and four based music. Yes, pop. Yes, rock. Yes, country, funk, R&B. I’ve always tried to be that musical chameleon-like [Steve] Gadd, that’s a big inspiration of someone who’s played on James Taylor records, but he was also on Chick Corea records. Like talk about divergent genres!”
But in challenging situations, the best pros can set aside their personal style and adopt the right sound for the song.
“Marshall describes his sound as mainly focussed on modern pop drumming—but he’s willing and able to apply his skills to all genres.”
New talent and seasoned pros
For a session musician, exposure to new talent is what keeps work feeling fresh.
But for up and coming artists, it’s a huge opportunity.
Andrew’s quick to acknowledge the extra polish that a seasoned pro player can bring to a new artist’s work
“I think it’s an amazing opportunity, the internet is levelling the playing field and it’s awesome to access all kinds of people. Both for session players and for artists. These people bring experience, and I would like to think that experienced musicians have gotten to where they’re at for a reason, and are willing to work with all kinds of artists generally.”
Pro musicians are always looking for new opportunities and thanks to platforms like LANDR Network, sought after players are no longer out of reach. As Marshall admits, touring as a hired gun is pure freelance—no matter how big the tour, you’re back to square one as soon as it ends.
The flip side is that many musicians with impressive credits are available for hire.