The history of drummers as workers

Matt Brennan
University of Glasgow

[This blog post is excerpted from the author’s book, Kick It: A Social History of the Drum Kit (Oxford University Press, 2020).]

Q: What’s the difference between a drummer and a savings bond?
A: One will mature and make money.

All my life I’ve been wondering about my money.

There is a longstanding history of drummers being marginalized as workers, so it is not surprising they are stereotypically broke. More than any other instrument, the invention of the drum kit was linked to issues of musical labour, and in particular, reducing the cost of that labour. One way of explaining the creation of the drum kit is a simple economic incentive: why hire three separate percussionists to play bass drum, snare drum, and cymbals individually, when you could pay one drummer to play all those instruments at once? In this way the development of the drum kit neatly mirrors the development of industrial capitalism. Years before the first mass-produced drum kits were sold, it was already typical for the drummer in the theatre orchestra pit to play multiple percussion instruments – not just bass drum, snare, drum, and cymbals, but also the huge number of percussive accessories (i.e. “traps”) needed to create the sound effects accompanying vaudeville, theatre, and later silent film. The challenge of this type of work is captured in a 1913 cartoon from the British Musicians’ Report and Journal:

The octopus represents the physical demands of the job, while the price tags attached to each instrument allude to the considerable financial investment a drummer would have made on equipment.  The poor octopus is stressed from the cost for all the gear it is expected to own to gain employment. In the bottom right hand corner lies a pile of paper reading ‘unpaid bills’ to underline this point.

The appropriate remuneration of drummers was routinely contested. One of the first significant mentions of drummers in the archives of the British Musicians’ Union dates from 1907 in relation to a document called the Askwith Award. In the city of London in 1906, newly unionized actors, musicians, and theatre workers in music halls went on strike to demand better wages, conditions, and regularity of work, and successfully boycotted 22 theatres in London. As a result, the President of the Board of Trade appointed the barrister George Askwith to negotiate an agreement. What became known as the Askwith Award was a landmark agreement which guaranteed musicians their jobs back and a minimum wage. According to the agreement, “there shall henceforth be paid a wage of thirty shillings a week to all musicians, except drummers; drummers, twenty-eight shillings.”2 The pay anomaly between drummers and all other musicians speaks volumes about the low status accorded to drummers as skilled workers. In an account of the meeting where this decision was made, theatre managers apparently raised concerns about rivalry in the orchestra if everyone received equal pay, arguing that “the first violin would be jealous because the drummer was getting as much as he was,” since the training required to play the drums was viewed as unskilled relative to that training for required for instruments of fixed pitch. The report went on to note that

“a drummer could learn to play the drums sufficiently well for a music-hall in six months, also that he was of no importance, and practically not a musician at all … [To] anyone not au fait with the inner workings of music-halls, it would appear from the lists of salaries that drummers were, and ought to be, dealt with as apart from the other musicians.”3

The prejudice underpinning this argument did a great disservice to early twentieth century drummers of course. John Pearl Spears’ memoir of his career as a gigging drummer and teacher in New England during this period provides an alternative – and invaluable – insight into the everyday working life and conditions of a professional theatre drummer:

“Playing in the theatre is not all fun although most people think so. … People have spoken to me so many times about what a fine job I had with nothing to worry about, did not have to punch a clock, never had to get your face and hands dirty, could see all the shows for nothing, were able to sleep mornings, receive good money and in general, just one continuous round of pleasure. That all sounds great, but there is far more to [it] … In the first place [the drummer] has to have several years experience in playing dance work before he ever undertakes a theatre position. … He is working at high tension for the greater part of the time, with his eyes and ears open at all times for his spoken or action cues on the stage, and if he does not get these satisfactory, the drummer soon finds he is replaced by a drummer who can. Putting over a show in the best way possible rests largely with the poor drummer … That is the reason so many productions bring their own drummer as he is playing the same show month after month and naturally knows it and does not even have a score in front of him.”4

It should be noted that when Spears refers to productions bringing their own drummer, he clarifies elsewhere that the drummer was frequently the only musician hired to accompany a touring musical show or opera: “on many of the musical shows and operas, the troupe brought their own orchestra … At other times they just brought a leader and drummer … From the last sentence you may well see how important a drummer is in one of those productions. Most of the burden is carried on his shoulders and he is indispensable to a good performance.”5 It is clear that from the inception of the instrument, then, the drummer’s status as a skilled labourer was fraught with contradictions – seemingly poorly paid for highly demanding work.

Another consequence of having one player responsible for such a large number of instruments was the offstage labour – in other words having to haul more gear than everyone else, as the cartoon below from the Musicians’ Journal in 1925 beautifully illustrates: 

As a rule, drummers had to move their own equipment from one work engagement to another.6 Once again, John Pearl Spears helpfully elaborates on the arduous work often involved before the first note was played:

“In those days a drummer had to lug his outfit wherever he played as the automobile was rather a rare thing, and this was harder than playing the job. I made it a little easier for myself if playing in the city, to leave my drums in the hall overnight and the next day would take them to the hall where I was to play that night. By doing it that way I saved a lot of extra lugging. If I thought the distance was too far, I jumped on an electric car (tram) and placed my stuff behind the motorman, oftentimes to his disgust. These men made so many complaints about it that finally all drummers had to have a permit to board any car, and then there was nothing they could say.”7

Spears recalled one particular dance orchestra job in rural Connecticut in the dead of winter. After taking a train to the nearest station, he and the other musicians were met by the promoter who directed them to follow him on foot to the venue: “He said that the hall was only a short distance and we would arrive there shortly. He kept on going and the orchestra followed and soon we were leaving the village and getting out into the country … I was getting all tired out from lugging my heavy outfit. At the time I had the bass drum on my side and with the other hand was carrying a large drum case full of traps, including the snare drum, while on my back I had my 35 pounds of bells.” When some local boys happened to come along with their sleds, Spears paid them to carry his drum kit for an additional three miles: “the rest of the orchestra arrived long before I did as the boys and I had more or less trouble in keeping the drums on the sleds. … The life of a drummer is a pleasant one, but there are times while going on a job that he wishes he played the piano.”8

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the cost of acquiring, maintaining, and transporting drum kits did not cease with the modernization of the instrument in the mid-1930s. Compared to their fellow musicians (bearing in mind that in the 1930s the accessories required for performing on electronic and electrically amplified instruments were not yet common), drummers still had an unequal outlay for gear. Such arguments were being taken seriously in labour unions: minutes from a meeting of the Musicians’ Union branch in Glasgow from 1939, for example, note a resolution that “owing to the important work required from drummers in music halls, and the extensive and expensive kit they are obliged to provide … the salaries of drummers [should where possible] be increased to equal the salaries of … the leader of the orchestra, as the onus placed on a drummer in the modern variety shows is equal to the principal violin.”9 There is no evidence, however, whether the resolution above actually yielded better pay for drummers in the union branch.

Some of the debate surrounding the value of drumming as skilled work hinged on the debate between “reading” and “faking” (discussed in detail in Chapter 3). A commentator writing for the British weekly musicians’ paper Melody Makerin 1930 made this assessment:

“Although many drummers will doubtless jump on me for so saying, I affirm that the drums are the easiest instruments in the world on which to fake. By that, I mean that after even a few hours’ practice or tuition, an individual, if he is quick on the uptake, and has a sense of rhythm, could take his place in a dance band, no matter how badly. Can this be said of any other instrument? It cannot.”10

Even if this was true, however, it did not follow that it was easy to play the drum kit well. As another critic argued, good drummers were hard to find precisely because the drums were relatively easy to fake but so difficult to master:

“it takes years of concentration and conscientious effort to become an individualistic artist drummer, and I might add that real ones are scarce as the proverbial hen’s teeth. … The sooner young would-be drummers realize that plenty of effort and study is required in order to become proficient, the sooner all leaders and musicians will look up to the percussionist and will recognize that he is the greatest asset in the entire ensemble.”11

While it is true that drummers may not always have been properly remunerated for such work, there were also exceptions to the rule. John Pearl Spears recalled that his own teacher, the Boston drummer – and later drum manufacturer – Frank E. Dodge, for example, was so highly valued as a featured musician that while playing with one band he “received more money than anyone in the outfit with the exception of [the bandleader].”12 Although documentary evidence sadly no longer exists, one can imagine similar contracts being negotiated for high profile featured drummers of the swing era. The drummer as an early twentieth century musical labourer was therefore an important forerunner in establishing the kinds of professional skills that we now take for granted as being core to a modern musician’s profession.

  1. Ben Sisario, “Living Legend Tries to Make a Living,” New York Times, 29 March 2011. Accessed via Google Books []
  2. George Askwith, “Music Hall Strike: The Award,” (London: The Era Offices, 1907), 17. []
  3. “Special Meeting of the O.A. And the A.M.U.,” Musicians Report and Journal, no. 150 (1907): 7. []
  4. John Pearl Spears, “Background of Fifty One Years as a Drummer, Forty Years a Teacher of Percussion,” in Centre for Research Collections, ed. University of Edinburgh (Worcester, Massachussetts, Unpublished 1943), 117-18. []
  5. Ibid., 97. []
  6. Ibid., 143. []
  7. Ibid., 180-81. []
  8. Ibid., 169-82. []
  9. “Executive Committee Meeting Minutes,” Musicians’ Union, Glasgow branch, 20-21 November 1939. []
  10. Stickory Hicks, “Drummers Who Don’t,” Melody Maker, 1 April 1930, 318. []
  11. Serge S. Fockler, “The “Din Pile”: A Discourse on Today’s Drumming,” Tune Times, May 1934, 433. []
  12. Spears,  44. []

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