Be your own biggest fan — It’s important to realize that being confident in your own product is going to give your client confidence in you. Recognize what distinguishes you from other players doing the same thing.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in the music industry, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Ulman.
Jonathan Ulman is an internationally recognized Session Drummer and Percussionist from Boston, MA. He has been crowned “Session Musician of the Year” an unprecedented Six times (2016–2022) by the Boston Music Awards as well as nominated for “Best New Drummer 2016” by Rhythm Magazine (UK). Jonathan has been recording and touring with artists around the world for more than 20 years and is considered the area’s most in demand drummer. Most recently Jonathan was invited to be the guest drummer on Late NIght with Seth Meyers in the summer of 2022, joining a very small list of drummers who have been given the opportunity.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was raised in Boston, Massachusetts, in an artistic household. My father and brother are sculptors and my mother is a painter and a photographer. I pursued a career in music, but spent a great deal of time with my father and brother in their art studio, observing them and their creative process. I believe this experience was crucial in developing my interest and respect for all forms of art.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was about ten years old and had been playing the piano for a few years at the time. My piano teacher suggested that I look into other musical instrument options to learn for whatever reason, whether it was a lack of focus or motivation. My parents ended up borrowing a snare drum and cymbal from a neighbor. I remember being instantly hooked, just trying different patterns with my left and right hand and feeling a sense of calm and instant enjoyment, and I fell in love with drums from that point forward.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
This goes without saying, but I couldn’t be where I am today without so many people going out of their way to help me create opportunities, and my gratitude for all of them keeps me humble and grounded as I continue on this journey. So, everyone, in my opinion. To the artists who let me play on their records and at their shows, to the producers and engineers who brought me in on projects or recommended me for other work, to the magazines and podcasts that gave me an opportunity to tell my story, to the companies who took a chance on me and signed me to their artist rosters and support me day in and day out, to the teachers who taught me the skills I needed to be self-sufficient in the real world, to my friends and family who catered to my every need and to my childhood neighbor who lent me a snare drum 32 years ago, I wouldn’t be here without every single one of those people.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
One of the most surreal experiences I’ve had in my career occurred in 2018. I was on tour in Europe at the time, and as we were driving from Munich to Nuremberg, I asked if we could stop at Dachau Concentration Camp. I don’t think I fully grasped the significance of the excursion; it was heavy, and I recall leaving and having a difficult time wrapping my head and emotions around the experience, only to have to regroup and play a show soon after.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the most important aspects of learning and playing music is making mistakes. I’ve made plenty of them and continue to do so, but it’s because of them that I now know how to avoid them in most situations. One memorable blunder was being asked to sit in on a headlining set at a summer festival. This was a last-minute fill-in gig, so there were no rehearsals, and I met the band members on stage 5 minutes before the show. I had prepared an extensive array of handwritten notes the night before because it was all original music. Everything was fine until the singer started the first song and a huge gust of wind came and blew 6 pages of notes off the stand and up into the air and away from the stage. Needless to say, for the next hour, there was a LOT of eye contact and verbal communication with the bass player. The lesson from that blunder was to go out and buy an iPad.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Over the last year, I’ve been working on a series of art projects with my brother in which we reimagine and repurpose broken drum equipment and bring them back to life in a new form that is both aesthetically appealing and sonically interesting. We document the process from start to finish, and then I take it into the studio with my producer to record the sounds and put them on various records. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to not only collaborate closely with my brother, but also to combine art and functionality on a whole new level. Some of our projects have received millions of views on social media.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Failure is inherent to the process and fosters development. It is crucial not to establish expectations or time constraints on when or how to attain the goals you set for yourself. It is more beneficial to believe that your progress is bringing you closer to your goals. This is a highly unpredictable industry that is often demoralizing, but accept the ride and take pleasure in each opportunity and experience as it happens.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the music industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Finding balance is important. It’s easy to believe that you can give your all to everything in your life and career, but it’s extremely difficult. My advice is to recognize when it is necessary to
focus your attention on areas that may be suffering. Your mental, emotional, and physical well being are essential to your professional success. Find that happy medium and enjoy the ride.
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in The Music Industry” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
1. Market Yourself Effectively — Finding a balance in terms of marketing yourself and your skillset is necessary, but you cannot focus solely on one area. Use social media to spread your name, but don’t forget that networking in person and at events is just as effective. Marketing is all about standing out. Whether it’s a style, a look, or an idea, bringing something unique to the table not only makes you more memorable to others, but it also sets you apart.
2. Never underestimate the power of word of mouth — Word of mouth is the single most effective way of bringing in and keeping more opportunities. Work with as many people as you can and develop as many relationships as you can. You want their approval and recommendation. For example, if you are hired for a live gig and it goes well, inform the other members of the band that they can put your name forward if they hear of other opportunities. There is always the possibility of earning more work with the assistance of others.
3. Plant seeds everywhere you go — It’s important to understand that opportunities present themselves in a variety of settings, and the more your name is mentioned, the better your chances of landing more gigs. Planting seeds is another way of saying cultivate as many relationships as possible along the way. If you plant a lot of seeds, more of these opportunities will sprout up and provide you with consistent work.
4. Practice makes Perfect — Now that you’ve spent so much time marketing yourself, don’t forget that you still need to be able to show up and perform when those opportunities present themselves. As a session drummer, I have strengths and weaknesses, and I am frequently confronted with situations that force me to step outside of my comfort zone. These are the areas on which I consistently focus, and I make it a point to set aside time each week to practice and improve. I never want to be on a job and be unable to complete the task at hand.
5. Be your own biggest fan — It’s important to realize that being confident in your own product is going to give your client confidence in you. Recognize what distinguishes you from other players doing the same thing.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As technology advances at an unprecedented rate, I have grown increasingly skeptical of the trajectory of the creative industry as a whole. With Ai and other software programs infiltrating our daily lives. it’s becoming clear that we don’t need to learn the skills required to make art or be creative. Why learn, when we can tell the computer what we want and get the results not only immediately but perfectly executed. If I were to start a movement, I would make it a point to ensure that art on all levels remains human, imperfect, and created from the minds of all of us through learned skills and life experiences.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was 25, I was diagnosed with cancer, which had a significant psychological and emotional impact on me. It took some time for me to refocus my attention on getting my career back on track. I wrote down my favorite quote from a Pearl Jam song and kept it in my wallet for 17 years. “I am Mine” is the song, and the lyric is “I know I was born and I know I’ll die, the in between is mine,” and from there I keep my eyes on the goal and keep moving until I get there.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
If I had to choose one, it would be Pharrell. Always hoped our paths would cross someday
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
They can find me on most social media platforms at: @jmudrums
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Jonathan Ulman: 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in The Music Industry was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.