This morning, I received an email from a friend. He found it extremely amusing that when he Googled my name in order to read my latest blog post, the first thing that came up was the following string of words;
‘Michael Beinhorn Fires Drummers”.
That sentiment seems to have been going around of late- in some quarters, it may wind up being my legacy. Apparently, a bunch of people have become obsessed with this idea that I fire drummers- some of whom get extremely animated when discussing it. I’ll address this allegation by first answering the question; is the above statement fact or is it fiction?
To this question, I answer thusly- yes.
Yes- I fire drummers. I’ve fired them off their own projects, with the complicity of their own bands. I’ve fired a few over the years and I daresay, I may well fire a few more before I’m done.
I figure those of my fellow record producer brethren who know me and have followed this drummer-firing debacle have gotten a good laugh from it. But if they’re enjoying the fallout I’ve had to weather (as my friend who emailed me clearly did), they’re also breathing a collective sigh of relief and thinking to themselves, “Better him than me”.
This is because my drummer-firing debacle has collaterally exposed a dirty little secret of record production. That truth is; record producers fire drummers from projects. One of the responsibilities a record producer has is to fire people at any level when they are not performing well enough.
People get fired from projects all the time- generally because they are incompetent. Here’s an example; once, I had to fire a technician because he would take at least 45 minutes to restring, intonate and tune a single electric guitar- a process which should take no more than five- ten minutes max. On top of this, his intonations were always off and he’d have to re intonate a guitar 2-3 times before it played in tune. This meant that we could be waiting as much as an hour and a half before we had the guitar back.
The tech did this consistently and was quite literally costing the artist- whose employee he was- thousands of dollars. In addition, he was liberally using her expense account to buy thousands of dollars worth of equipment for himself- without her knowledge.
When I give it some thought, I realize that I don’t know a single record producer who hasn’t, at some point in his career, fired a drummer off a project. Stating that a record producer has fired a drummer is like stating that a mechanic is changing a tire on a car, or a butcher has sliced a piece of fat off an otherwise lean piece of meat. These are simply different aspects of a specific job. In any system, if something isn’t working right and it can’t be fixed, you have to get rid of it, right?
Performing this function is a form of quality control and a record producer is hired, in part, for her ability to exert the highest level of quality control. She would, therefore, be negligent in her responsibilities if she didn’t exercise this obligation to bring quality into every level of the recording process, in a manner that she sees fit.
As previously mentioned, I’ve actually encountered a bit of righteous indignation over the topic of drummer-firing- much of it coming from people who have no understanding of how records are made and wouldn’t know me if they passed me in the street.
In spite of this, these people who got the idea that I indiscriminately fired drummers off their own recordings without so much as a by your leave, have revered it as gospel, never thinking to ask if the information was true and if it was, why I did so. One would think that if people cared so very much about someone else’ depiction of an event or situation that had immense significance to them (and they implicated other people in this situation as having wronged them in some way), it would be at very least, interesting to know more about what actually happened.
Nonetheless, out of all the people who got so wound up about how Michael Beinhorn fires drummers, only two people- both of them journalists from the UK- have actually asked me the question; why?
Out of all the musicians who play an instrument on a recording, the one person who receives the most scrutiny- sometimes more than the vocalist- is the drummer. This is because in an ensemble of players, the drummer is the first musician to be recorded and she is, therefore, ultimately responsible for the foundation on which the record is built.
The drummer is the backbone of any record and there is a great deal of pressure on him to perform. He must not only be as good as possible, he must be functioning at the peak of his ability when it comes time for her to record.
I’ve known of record producers who fire musicians out of nepotism, so they can throw the vacancy to one of their friends. I’ve also known of record producers who replace musicians because they don’t like them personally- they don’t like way they look or what they say- or perhaps they were just in a foul mood one day and felt like firing someone. Some record producers insulate themselves against the stigma of firing musicians by bringing their own band with them on every record and proceed with the understanding that the only band musician who will be performing on the recording will be the singer. They basically fire everyone on the project- they just establish this understanding before the project begins.
Apart from all this, there is one primary reason a drummer- or any musician- gets fired off a recording project, and it’s the very same reason anyone else gets fired from any job. The main reason a person gets fired is because they can’t do their job.
I’ve fired drummers on roughly 20-40 percent of the recordings I’ve produced. I’ve done this in a variety of situations and permutations. Most of the drummers I’ve had to fire were members of the band I was producing. This is always difficult for everyone else in the band, especially since it’s a decision they must be complicit in. I don’t feel that a producer has the authority to take someone off their own recording and I have never done so without first making sure the rest of the band are first in agreement.
Naturally, there are some criteria I apply in order to ascertain that a drummer must be fired. Firing someone (especially off their own project) should not be entered into lightly, therefore it is important to be absolutely certain that it is the best course of action, prior to doing so.
There is generally a benchmark or optimal level of performance which a producer comes to expect from a drummer. This benchmark develops from having worked with the drummer for awhile and becoming familiar with his playing. If that level of performance ever becomes compromised in any way, the drummer instantly falls under scrutiny.
Some musicians can be terrific in rehearsal, but when they enter a recording studio, they start exhibiting signs of an ailment called “red light fever”. A performer who is thus afflcited will literally psyche himself out of being able to play music he previously executed perfectly.
There are still other elements which can affect a drummer’s ability to perform well, such as- not getting enough sleep, eating poorly and generally not taking care of herself, personal problems which she brings into the workspace and of course, recreational drug usage. These elements often manifest themselves when a drummer forgets or changes her pre-arranged drum parts, stops dead in the middle of being recorded, seems generally confused or flustered and plays her instrument with no excitement.
I dread these things happening, because they are bad omens. They often portend that the drummer will have to be fired and I, as the individual involved in maintaining the highest standard of quality on the recording will have to do the firing. It is always necessary to gently, but firmly let the performer know that things aren’t going as well as they should, but by then, the performer’s morale has been completely rent asunder by the mere thought that he’s not performing up to par. I’ve only worked with two drummers who were able to pull themselves together after being confronted with this reality check and come back playing better than anyone could have expected.
After the first warning shot is fired, the drummer is usually ready for what’s coming next. There are few things more demoralizing than that conversation- both for the person who has to hear it and the person who has to say it. It actually physically hurts.
I’ve gotten good at having these conversations- but only out of necessity.
Have you ever had to fire someone? I personally don’t recommend it, however, if you occupy any type of authority position, you will almost certainly have to. In many cases, the person you are firing is a co-worker and often, someone you’ve had to work with for awhile. Sometimes, they don’t see it coming and you already know how badly the news is going to hurt them before you even open your mouth to tell them. In other cases, they’ve been feeling it and knew it was inevitable. Still, having foresight never seems to sweeten the sting someone feels when they first hear those awful words.
What’s worse is, I’ve often liked the people I’ve had to fire tremendously- even admired their talent and determination. In spite of this, I also have a responsibility to the project we’re doing and the rest of the people on it. I’m always faced with a choice when this situation looms- either fire someone who was doing a poor job or spare their feelings, keep them on and make a poor record. If the same choice stood between me continuing work on a project or being fired in order to ensure a better end result, I hope the person in charge would have the good sense and do what’s best for the project.
In the aftermath of a firing, feelings are hurt and pride is bruised, but, like with all life-altering events, everyone involved is confronted with yet another choice. The choice is to stand right where you are, luxuriating in the pain of rejection and loss or you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try to move forward. You can be resentful, bitter and blame everyone else around you for something which you ultimately are responsible for or you can ask yourself- “What can I learn from what just happened? How can I use this as a means to improve myself? How can I turn this negative into a positive?”
On almost every project I’ve worked on, however unpleasant the circumstances, the drummer who was fired inevitably agreed to step aside because he realized it was the best thing to do. Confronted with the fact that he wasn’t doing his job well enough, he put the needs of the project in front of his own needs and feelings. He felt as if he’d failed but he knew that stepping aside was best for everyone. I’ve always had an immense amount of respect for musicians who could take their ego out of the picture and put other people’s needs ahead of their own. Although it didn’t feel good, they chose sacrifice over selfishness.
Everyone has gotten fired at some point. I have been fired from a few recordings and it didn’t feel good. In the aftermath, I was always forced to acknowledge that my being fired was best for the project. I have quit working on projects for the same reason. Leaving anything, either by choice or by concensus never feels good, but it’s usually a necessity.
Ultimately, the smoke screen of scandal around firing drummers exists to conceal a deeper truth. This truth revolves around emotions rather than unethical practices- bitterness, hurt feelings and a need to blame someone else for everything that goes wrong instead of taking responsibility for one’s actions and choices in life.
It’s not my problem or my business if someone chooses to shoot heroin, stay up late and be completely irresponsible about how they lead their life. However, the moment we both set foot into a recording studio under the pretext of working together, the context has completely changed. In this new context, if that same individual forgets how to play all the songs we worked on together for months prior to recording, performs everything far worse than when we were in rehearsal together and refuses to address any of this, they have chosen to make their problems my business.
And if that individual feels that I shouldn’t speak up about their inability to do their job- when this is exactly what I was hired by them and their band to do- they shouldn’t have hired me in the first place.
When a drummer walks into a recording studio and is completely prepared to record, I consider it my duty to support him and recognize his efforts. By contrast, when a drummer walks into a recording studio and instead of being prepared to record brings all his personal problems with him, this is the height of selfishness and thoughtlessness. At that point, he doesn’t care about anything or anyone else apart from bringing everyone else’ work to a screeching halt.
Would I say that someone like this is asking to be fired? I would.
Yes- Michael Beinhorn does indeed fire drummers. But Michael Beinhorn only fires drummers if they can’t do their job.