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Carving Out an Entrepreneurial Niche in the
Competitive Music Business and World of Drummers

By Bruce Shutan
© 2001 Bruce Shutan. All rights reserved

Jack Mayer couldn't believe his eyes (and ears) when he first saw Alex Van Halen perform on monster drum kits in the early '80s. "I'd be fascinated by this enormous array of drums that he had set up," he says.

Mayer thinks about approaching him nearly every day - not simply as an admirer from afar but to hand his favorite drummer a unique, handcrafted snare drum. Although the lesser-known Van Halen brother has been associated with Ludwig throughout his career, he might be interested to know that the gift Mayer has in mind is equipped with Puresound snare wires and nickel piston strainers.

Mayer is no ordinary fan. He's also the owner of Mayer Bros. Drums in Los Angeles ( And while he may not be rich and famous, Jack Mayer is a helluva lot like Alex Van Halen in two respects: He plays the drums and is in business with his brother.

But he's not alone. There are plenty of others like Jack Mayer who've been inspired by heroes and heroines to pursue their dreams not only as musicians but also as music business entrepreneurs. And in the current economic climate, inspiration is needed more than ever to spark the kind of ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit to sustain a career in the increasingly competitive music industry.

For Mayer, it isn't easy staring down the likes of Drum Workshop, Yamaha, Pearl and Ludwig, his favorite drummer's favorite name brand. "The competition is pretty strong right now," he reports. "Not only do you have a lot of major manufacturers who are putting out a lot of great gear, there are smaller high-end companies doing the same."

The Mayer brothers try to distinguish themselves in this crowded marketplace by personalizing customer service. "When people call up they're actually dealing with the folks who will be designing their drums," he notes. "Half the time, people in customer service [at the large drum-makers] aren't even drummers."

The undivided attention doesn't end with a sale. Mayer often shows up at his customers' gigs. "We take an active interest in every one of the drummers we deal with," he says.

It's also important not to bad-mouth the competition. "What sets us apart from every other drum company is our attitude," according to the Mayer Bros. Drums Web site. "Most companies tell you why the other drum companies are inferior, but the truth is that there are many top quality drums being made out there."

When he was about 13 years old, Mayer begged his parents for drum lessons on a daily basis. He started with a pair of sticks and practice pad, which led to a beginner drum kit and eventually his first rock band whose rehearsals were held in his house.

Early on, Mayer would tinker with the look and sound of his drums - always refinishing and modifying them until he was satisfied. He'd match sounds to the thickness of each drum shell and study the differences between metal and wood toms and snares. "The more gear I collected," he explains, "the more I understood the instrument and sound and got deeper into it."

About two years ago Mayer approached his brother, who is a wood craftsman but not a drummer, about pooling their brainpower and woodworking abilities for a project that would allow them to hang out in their workshop and have fun. At the time, Mayer was earning a living in construction, woodworking, furniture repair and antique restoration. After spending tons of money on tools and materials, the idea for Mayer Bros. Drums finally took shape in January 2000.

Mayer describes his customer base as serious drummers who've reached a sophisticated playing level. "They're looking for an affordable kit they can be proud of that sounds and looks a certain way."

Mayer Bros. has sold and rented drums to a wide range of professionals, including Matt Laug, who played on Alanis Morissette's groundbreaking "Jagged Little Pill" and has pounded out rhythms for everyone from Christina Aguilera to Slash's Snakepit, as well as Ronnie Crawford, who has drummed for Lisa Loeb and Jeffrey Gains.

Jon Poli, whose versatile drum style has led to gigs with artists in the genres of female power-pop, R&B and hip-hop, Delta blues, adult contemporary, country, eclectic rock and cover bands, approached Mayer Bros. "in search of a specific sound from a snare, not really knowing what size, type of wood, or thickness would yield that effect. After explaining what I wanted, they knew exactly what to build. This drum is precisely what I asked for, with a grade A finish and sharp-looking tube lugs."

Of course, it helps to be headquartered in the Music Capital of the Universe. "L.A. is the best place for being in a band and having a small drum company because there are so many musicians and high-end drummers who are playing gigs here," Mayer says. He recalls checking out former Journey drummer Steve Smith with his latest contemporary jazz band at a small club in Hollywood. "There were 20 people in the club and I sat with him between sets," he recalls.

Mayer has been playing in bands for about 14 years and for the past year has been drumming for Pillow of Wrongness. "The most exciting part to me when it comes to music making is recording," according to Mayer. "I have more fun recording than playing live. I like to try and duplicate the sounds I hear in my head."

As a semi-professional drummer, Mayer may be part of a disappearing breed. A recent front-page article appearing in The Wall Street Journal warned of a drummer shortage taking hold in the music industry - alluding to the careers of high-profile drummers Phil Collins and Tommy Lee, both of whom moved from behind the kit to front their respective bands. Also cited were statistics from Music Trades, an industry magazine in Englewood, N.J., showing that drum sales doubled between 1996 and 2000 to 172,970 kits.

Trouble is, many drum teachers report that most new students are adults who play around the house for their own amusement rather than join bands because of the low pay and low profile (i.e., few drummers seem to capture the limelight).

"The fact that drum sales have gone through the roof the past four years means there obviously have got to be some new drummers out there," Mayer observes. "I can think of handfuls of drummers who always are searching for a full-time gig. There might be some folks who are reluctant to gig because the money isn't good, but it's not a serious issue."

Mayer believes the bassist - not the drummer - is the true Rodney Dangerfield on the musical food chain. "They don't get the same glory as the front man," he says, "and remember that a drummer can't make major mistakes and cover them up. When the drummer stops, everyone stops. Their importance is probably beyond what they realize."

Bruce ShutanAbout the Author: Bruce Shutan, an L.A.-based freelance writer, has been playing the drums since 1970. He has performed and recorded in numerous bands.

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