Student Podcast Contest: Drum Publications and Players They Shape

podcastlogoJournalism History conducted a national student podcast competition during the fall of 2020.

In the winning episode, Louisiana State University student Nick Ashton and his guests discuss the history and current events surrounding publications and literature related to drumming. 

Transcript

Lucas Aldridge

The late 1800s, I’m sure it goes back further than that. I’m sure that as soon as there are drums, there are magazines, publications that are widely available.

Teri Finneman            

Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.

I’m Teri Finneman and I research media coverage of women in politics.

Nick Hirshon              

And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.

Ken Ward                  

And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

Teri Finneman            

And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by ship historian Tim Yoder. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast.

This week, the Journalism History podcast is featuring the winners of our national student podcast competition. Throughout the week, you’ll be hearing from students across the nation as they share their stories of journalism history.

Nick Ashton

You step out of the green room and hear the roar of the crowd. Stepping up to the drum riser, you see the sparkle of your brand new drum set. Waiting for the curtain to pull back, your pulse starts to fly. Then you close the magazine. You’ve just been in a daydream thanks to your favorite drum company’s catalog. Those catalogs are just one facet of drum companies and the publications that they put out. They create a world where you can spend hours being inspired, giving even adults a sense of childlike wonder. It’s a world that’s thrived for decades, but it’s also a world that’s in danger.

I’m Nick Ashton with Louisiana State University. In this podcast, we’re going to look at the media history of the drum industry. It’s a story told through centuries; a story that reflects who we are as a culture and how technology has evolved with it. We’ll hear from artists, dealers, builders, marketers, historians, and more, and they all share a common thread. They strengthen the drum community through their actions. And they all wear each other’s hats in one way or another. So what’s the pulse of the drum publication world. Is it dying? Is it dead? Is it stronger than it’s ever been? Let’s go to Vancouver, BC.

Ronn Dunnett

Back in my day, it was drooling over the catalogs, and I’ve actually made a point of going back and getting (some). I’m not a collector, but… this Pearl (drum company) catalog, you know, the beautiful thing about that is I can open that up and I can remember all the places that I was, like sitting at my uncle’s house, just fawning over that picture of the concert tom kit sitting on the railroad tracks. And I am that kid again. And sadly, I think the guys who were looking at PDFs and online stuff and the YouTubes, you know, it’s sad, and they’re never going to get that experience. And it’s also sad, too, because I think, because there’s not as much print being generated in my industry anymore. It’s going away, and that’s kinda sad.

Nick Ashton

That’s Ron Dunnett. He’s worked with drums since 1978, and his work with the Dunnett Classic brand has made him a household name in the industry. On his website, he describes his work as a labor of lust. His marketing stands as some of the most prolific and recognizable in the drumming world. And he’ll never tell you that print doesn’t matter.

Ronn Dunnett

As far as marketing goes, there’s that old saying, you’re not selling the steak, you’re selling the sizzle. Well, it’s real, it’s actually true. I take stock of what I’ve done in my career, looking back and I go, it wasn’t, and I don’t want this to make it sound like that I didn’t come by what I did honestly… like I (said), “Okay, well, I’ve got to market this stuff.” And it was honest, and it was genuine. And I was excited about it, and I still am. And I was full of piss and vinegar. And as I look back on that stuff, I realized I wasn’t marketing for the sake of marketing. I was being honest. And the marketing was just another art form.

Nick Ashton

There’s another side to Ronn’s marketing, though. He runs the George Way brand, a classic company, which experienced a revival under his leadership. You can feel the tone shift when he starts to talk about this brand. The reason?

Ronn Dunnett

George Way was a classy guy, and I’m not. That’s pretty much where it goes, man. It’s like this: I’ve always, especially when I look at, you know, so my industry contemporaries, I go, I’m lucky. You know, I hate that, “Oh, you know, he’s, he doesn’t have any filter.” It’s like, it’s me. It’s not about, you know, well, who do I got to filter anything for? This is just me. Consider yourself lucky to be getting that instead of the filtered and shaped and righteously milked version, you know? But when it comes to George, I am in that position. I do want that to come across as a kinder, gentler brand because I love him. And he’s like an uncle or a grandfather to me, even though I never met him. It’s just over the years that I’ve had the brand, he’s become like that. And when you’re handling someone’s legacy like that, especially when it wasn’t one that you came by directly from him, I really like to be respectful and, and conscious of that. Not that anything that I do is disrespectful, but there is a delineation there. And I think you can see that.

Nick Ashton

There’s room for more than just branding in the drum publication world, though. Ronn’s also a photographer, and he takes photos of drummers that he’s come to love. He’s compiling them in a book that he calls Roll Models: The Book of Drum.

Ronn Dunnett

Everything I do, it comes from an honest and sincere place. And I lead with my heart, and I’ve been shooting musicians started with a 110 Vivitar snap camera and got tossed from a Rush soundcheck at 15 or 16. It was never my intention. I just enjoyed capturing musicians, but more specifically drummers. And as my career in drums progressed, once in a while, I’d get a call from a magazine: “Hey, do you have any good shots of this guy or that?” And I’d be like, “Yeah, absolutely, sure. Here you go.” But at one point, I took a step back, and looked at this body of work, and there were some real standout images. And I thought, having seen the images, black and whites of guys like Elvin Jones and all these other guys that I realized there’s a real important historic element to this as well.

It’s sort of along the same vein as George Way. And I thought, well, wouldn’t it be a shame if nobody ever saw all of these, and then I had this great idea that I was going to do this book. It took on a life of its own, and it was humming along right up until COVID hit. And, actually, with the passing of Neil [Peart], that really put up a bit of a damper on the project and also put the brakes on it for awhile. Obviously, now’s not the time to be going out to people’s houses like I did with Jack (?) and whole bunch of others, go and see Mr. Hayes play in New York. I was working on this based on the concept that I’ll never get them all. So that’s why I’ll call it a volume one.

And there might not be a volume two. So as far as volume one goes, I’ll try and put in as much as I can into this. And there was some big names that I wanted to get. And, unfortunately, there’s been some guys who, you know, Joe Porcaro passed. I won’t be able to have him in there. And there’s been a few, you know, famous drummers that I really wanted to include. And some that I do have images of me just standing with them. And I’m going, “for the purposes of the book, I want to include them.” In fact, you’ll like this idea, but I was actually going to call this Roll Models: The Book of Drum Volume Two, and then in the foreword, I was going to say, “You’re wondering where Volume One is. Well, Volume One is actually all the ones that got away that I didn’t have an opportunity to include because they’re gone.”

Ronn Dunnett

And then just list some of the guys as an acknowledgement to say, “I didn’t get,” actually, I did get Buddy Rich with a 110 snappy camera, and I’m going to include that one anyway. So, the idea of this book is, it’s about the drummers that I’ve captured. So early on, as I started, you know, the crappy pictures and the good pictures, and that’s what the concept of the book is. But with Neil passing and having had the, the good, good fortune to have been able to photograph him, especially in some environments where he was outside of Rush, he was going to be a big part of the book. And he’s gone. And so, last thing I wanted to do would be one of the guys who was capitalizing or cashing in, or even just the appearance of that on his passing. So I decided, okay, you know, and then COVID hit. And I went, “Good enough reason for me to take a step back from this and focus on something else.” You know, as we start to see this thing sort of wear itself out and we can get back to what we were doing before, I’ll pick it up again.

Nick Ashton

Whether or not they’re marketing or showcasing drum companies, the publications have adapted as times have changed. Uli Salazar is a marketing and artist relations manager at the Ludwig Drum Company, and he says there may be a niche for all formats as society becomes increasingly digital.

Uli Salazar

Well, the market’s certainly evolved substantially in this digital era and certainly over the last 20 years that the value of print necessarily isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still tremendously valuable. And I think it forces a lot of people that, if you’re going to invest in a print initiative, to be very compelling and really put together an experience with print in order for it to land and for even somebody to be excited enough to take possession of it, digest the information and spend that time flipping through this piece of paper, which can sometimes get in the way in your pocket next to your phone, right? It’s like, well, what can I not do on this piece of paper that I can’t get from my phone? So, certainly, it’s very much an experience and there’s a lot, there’s, you know, being an old company, we obviously have a vast audience and a vast demographic of people.

You know, you have your millennial and younger type of audience that maybe doesn’t prefer print, but you still have a good amount of millennial demographic and older that very much appreciate print. And it was part of their coming up as a player and things like that to where they see the value of that information that you put out in print. And that’s why it’s especially important, not only to put together something very compelling, but something very detail oriented, something that very much lays out the facts (and) lays out a very good sequence of the facts. So that, basically, a customer can look at this and walk away feeling like they’ve become informed on the product. They feel like they’ve almost played the product by not physically playing the product kind of thing. So that’s the type of impression you need to leave with print.

And that’s really difficult when you’re competing with a digital landscape that can offer a lot more in terms of audio and visual experiences that are augmented beyond what print could do. So that’s kind of where your mindset and the priorities need to exist when you’re thinking about print. So it certainly forces you into a corner where you have to be way more creative and way more critical on your work. And so for us, I send stuff out to get multiple opinions, even if it’s digital. I very much value outside input. So for us, it’s not really working in a silo and carving out something that only a handful of people on the inside have seen. We talk to artists, we talk to dealers, and even sometimes to consumers that I’m good friends with that appreciate, you know, what drum companies are doing. You kind of reach out, ask for an opinion, and you kind of feed off that and you start to develop because you’re learning what your audience responds to when you do something like that, as opposed to, you know, just kind of a shot in the dark and holding yourself as an authority or an expert. And I think it’s really important to have that mindset, especially when you’re crafting something that needs to be very detailed, like print.

Nick Ashton

Finding those key marketable publics usually is not as big of an issue as cutting through the clutter is for many companies. That clutter starts early in a player’s life. What impact, then, does the education field having companies’ publications?

Uli Salazar

It’s massively important. I mean, that’s one of the fundamental reasons why I think this company has lasted as long as it (has) is because of its commitment to the percussive arts. And the one thing that always made Ludwig really unique compared to other American drum companies, especially other American drum companies that aren’t around today, was a big portion of its product assortment existing to cater to educational groups. Back in the day, even in the 70s and 80s, there was a really massive commitment with the company on having a ton of educational resources and being very serving in that sense. And Ludwig today has benefited from that component. And that factor in being part of Conn Selmer (Ludwig’s parent company), because Conn Selmer (has) band and orchestra instruments with woodwind and brass. So, you know, you’re putting yourself at the forefront of these publications of different initiatives and things like that.

Uli Salazar

And your brand is very much part of the subject matter; even if it’s in the background, it’s there, and by existing there, and even being in classrooms or an educational materials, you’re sort of, in a way, not to be used or taken in a bad way, but subliminally placing your product there. But it’s necessary. It’s not like we’re throwing out objects that hold no relevance to the material. You kind of need these instruments to play. So, they kind of go hand-in-hand, and that’s always worked. And I think that’s what I’ve always liked about our industry is how authentic branding and marketing is in that sense where we’re not trying to sell you the story; more so focusing on the experience and letting your presence within that experience and that feeling sort of sell the person on the product and build that confidence in the product, (and) build that excitement for the product at the same time.

Nick Ashton

As much as things change, they tend to stay the same. These points are just as relevant to the ways drum companies marketed over a century ago. Lucas Aldridge is an expert on all things vintage drums, and he’s found out how companies marketed through years of research.

Lucas Aldridge

I really don’t think it’s changed just for the subject matter, because music, even though it’s gotten a lot more complicated now, and there are a lot more players in the game, I think it’s still a matter of playing a live show to people, to have them dance and enjoy themselves. And drums being something that you can pursue to be a part of that and be a structural element in creating music. I don’t think that that’s changed in a big enough way to really severely alter the tone of the way that we talk about the instrument. We hit things in certain patterns, and it makes us feel good.

Nick Ashton

In particular, he found one instance of vintage marketing while looking for images to use on his business card.

Lucas Aldridge

I was trying to find a graphic, something that would kind of set me apart and represent what I do with percussion that I think is unique. And I found this image on a 1928, I believe it was Ludwig, catalog. It was a cover image, and it was this guy with slicked back blonde hair playing this enormous orchestral kit with tympani and chimes and a vibraphone off to the left. And there were all these well-dressed people clearly at a fancy gathering with a stained-glass window in the background. And I think that looking at that one image, which is the cover of a fairly specialist catalog, you get a pretty decent sense for the culture at the time of what people were into, what they aspired to in terms of class symbols, and that sort of event.

Nick Ashton

Just like art mirrors life, does marketing. Lucas points out that there’s a connection to be made between how we perceive drummers’ roles and their bands and their culture.

Lucas Aldridge

There’s a lot of insight into how we view ourselves, for one, in the way that the publications… romanticize the role of drumming. There’s an advertisement that comes to mind, either of the Black Beauty or Gold Triumphal (snare drum), something engraved, that said, “The drummers playing with gold snare drums get paid more,” or something to the effect of that. You know, “You make more money when you show up looking fancy.” The copy that went with that was so clearly putting the drums in this background support role that they definitely do inhabit. But, I mean, now when you look at advertising about drums… there’s a Sweetwater ad that comes up on my phone all the time. I don’t know if you have this one, too, where it’s like, “Do you want more drums?” And it’s a guy playing a solo on the roof of this building completely by himself.

Lucas Aldridge

And I think that, you know, post guitar-centric rock music in the West, everybody wants to be the star of the band, but I don’t think it used to be angled that way. And I think that, looking at the marketing and looking at the write-ups of well-known drummers, which I think that used to be more of a thing than it is now too, and the big band era, the general public was more informed about who the drummer was, who the saxophonist was. And they would notice if they went to see a band and it was a sub guy for that gig. But I don’t know if it’s even fair to say that it did disappear, but I think that that attitude is reflected in the shift in tone that you see in the marketing.

Nick Ashton

It goes beyond drummers, though. Looking through the lens of vintage drumming literature, you can see just how much the world has evolved in that time.

Lucas Aldridge

One period, I’m talking about the first things that I’m aware of, the late 1800s. I’m sure it goes back further than that. I’m sure that as soon as there are drums, there are magazines, publications that are widely available, or at least catalogs. If nothing else, they had a devotion to a retail structure that we don’t necessarily have right now. Discount stores were not really a thing. And you would go to a retail place, and you would buy a drum from Ludwig, say, at list price. Ludwig would sell the drums to a wholesaler who would sell them to a retailer who would have the end job of actually making the sale happen.

I think that with that in mind, when you look at the marketing for it, when you look at the advertisements, it’s glorifying the product and the image that it can represent about you as a person. If you’ve read any of the late 1800s advertising, you’ll see how kind of disturbingly exaggerated it all is. Like, “Your life will be better. Your back won’t hurt anymore. Everything will be grand.” I mean, the same seeps its way through, into the drum articles, well into the ‘20s and ‘30s about that, because I don’t think they were that concerned with making sure they could hook you and sell you from the description right there. That was somebody else’s further down the supply chain.

Nick Ashton

That spot on the supply chain is now manned by the dealer. Most drum companies sell through dealers. Since you can’t buy direct, they become a key home for appealing publications. One of these dealers, industry veteran Randy Lanier, says good literature is key to a hectic retail routine.

Randy Lanier

Well, having a full line store… If somebody comes in and ask you some intricate detail on a Ludwig such-and-such, and then 20 minutes later, somebody has asked me some specific thing on a Peavey PA system, then somebody else… And so for the dealer, you just can’t keep up, because there is so much intricate information and people walking through the doors. But yeah, that, what’s the number of plies of the Gretsch Renown? Let me check, dude.

Nick Ashton

Randy’s experiences with drum literature go back to publications like the Ludwig Drummer, an innovative magazine which fused marketing with resources that drummers couldn’t get anywhere else.

Randy Lanier

Well, you know, it was Ludwig’s drum magazine. I think it was quarterly. I believe the cool thing about it was it had all kinds of stuff on tuning drums and there’d be drums, songs, and thing. Different products, you know, it was just their promo thing. You got some from the early 60s, you know, that’s what started it. I say the Ludwig Modern Drummer, because Modern Drummer magazine came in around 1980. And I think Buddy Rich was on the first ever cover. You always differentiate too, because one of them was a monthly magazine. That was all things drums. And it never happened before. You had guitar magazines, but never a drum. And so the Ludwig (Drummer) was obviously its promo, which was fantastic. But it wouldn’t say anything about any other drum company. (In) Modern Drummer, here was every artist, every brand, new stuff, “Ask a Pro,” just good, positive information to keep a positive attitude.

Nick Ashton

In addition to being a dealer, Randy’s also an avid drum collector. His desk at work is a vintage Rogers double bass drum set with glass on top of the rack toms, and the office it sits in is filled with priceless drums spanning an entire century, floor to ceiling. Even though he’s had decades to amass a collection of gear, Randy says publications from drum companies have an irreplaceable factor through the years.

Randy Lanier

That guy might not be able to afford a 1972 engraved Black Beauty or whatever. But, “that catalog is $10 of the $4,000 snare drum? I’ll get that catalog.” Which is the way it was back then in 1972, 1965, 19 whatever. There’s some people who couldn’t afford the Ludwigs or something. But they would get the catalogs. I used to have a bunch of Ludwig catalogs. Now I’ve got a bunch of Ludwig sets, and it’s just kind of neat. I still have some old Ludwig catalogs and it’s just neat to look at it and go, “Oh man.” It’s the same thing of when you see an old book you used to have as a child. You open that book, and you’re three years old again. Those pictures, you can look at those pictures on the internet, you can find them and you can see it. It’s hold a physical book print. That’s the thing.

Nick Ashton

At the end of the day, though, these publications have to appeal to drummers in a unique way. For New York drummer Jordan Rose, whose experience ranges from indie pop and even Broadway musicals, the small things make a big difference.

Jordan Rose

I’m just naturally looking for the things that resonate with me. Sometimes I’ll pick up something, and just immediately, I’m turned off by it. Not to name names, but certain drum companies, I see a photo of their drum set, and in my head, I hear a sound that I don’t really care to incorporate into my world at this point. Maybe, you know, we’re always changing. We hear with our eyes. Certain instruments speak to us in different ways.

Nick Ashton

Just like Randy, Jordan raved about one certain publication’s impact on his early experience with drumming.

Jordan Rose

Modern Drummer magazine was a big one for me. I think it was a Christmas gift. (My) parents got me the subscription, (it) was super exciting. And just seeing these drummers who are making a life of playing drums and just reading about them and seeing their gear, that was just really helpful, because as humans, one of the ways we learn is through observation. And if you live in a suburb of a city, like I did growing up, it’s not like I’m surrounded by drummers, you know? So, the magazine brought that to my home.

This was pre-YouTube. And then, once I started getting more serious and had some instructors, in band and got a private teacher and stuff, then they started turning me on to some different videos or DVDs like the Modern Drummer Festival, for example. It helped me start forming opinions about what stood out to me. And I started noticing that there’s not just one way to play drums. You can sound like Vinnie Colaiuta or Steve Gadd or whoever.

Nick Ashton

As someone who’s played for Theo Katzman, SZA, and Charlie Puth, among others, certain things stick out to Jordan. Some companies, like Zildjian, bring the drumming community together, making them stand out as assets to drummers all over.

Jordan Rose

Zildjian, maybe over the past year or two, they’ve been doing a lot of events where they’re having their artists play a show and they’ll just make a sick video and they’ll release like one a month. And I think they’ve done a good job at getting a diverse crew of artists like Aaron Spears one night, Stanton Moore another night. They’re getting a variety of their artists and different genres and sounds, which I think is smart. That’s just been cool to watch and just be like, “Oh, this is the modern version of the Modern Drummer Festival DVDs.” Me, as a 33 year old professional drummer, and like a 12-year-old drummer just getting started can go to this YouTube page and find inspiration from these videos. I just think that’s cool. They’re putting out this really inspiring content. And I feel like they’ve done a good job at focusing on community, especially this year. I think community… it feels good.

Nick Ashton

Nobody knows what the drummers of tomorrow will turn into if they’re stuck with PDFs. Maybe they’ll be able to be inspired in the same ways as the drummers of today are. Maybe they won’t. But it’s undeniable that the world of drum publications holds a power over the community that gives us hope; for our rock star aspirations, for our love of nostalgia, and especially in 2020, for our sense of belonging, that there’s someone out there that loves the instrument just as much as we do. Thank you so much for listening.

Teri Finneman                           

Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @jhistoryjournal. If you like our podcast, leave us a rating and a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Until next time, I’m your host Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. “Good night and good luck.

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