Freelance drummer Karl Penney writes about the pressures of the music industry and being a touring musician.
Karl Penney at Red Rocks Amphitheatre
My name’s Karl Penney. I’m a freelance drummer and basically a gun for hire for various live and studio performances. I’m a long way from being one of the greats that everyone looks up to, but I feel very lucky to have had some great experiences. I’ve played with amazing acts in some of the legendary venues and studios that I dreamed of as a teenager, such as The Royal Albert Hall, Wembley Arena, Abbey Road Studios, and many more.
I’ve been playing drums since I was a toddler and could sit upright on my dad’s lap. My dad is also a drummer, so there was always a drum kit in the house growing up.
Although I absolutely love being a drummer, and feel very fortunate to have made a career playing the drums, it can be extremely tough and mentally challenging, especially when work is thin on the ground. It can be stressful when I look at my diary and only see a few gigs confirmed. It can also be a very unpredictable life being a musician, especially when you’re living from tour to tour, or even gig to gig, uncertain if they will go ahead.
One of the things that keeps me positive during times of worry is talking to other musician friends who I respect and trust. A lot of the musicians I know will talk openly about the times when they’ve been worried about a lack of work.
Music has helped me through pretty much all of the difficult times in my life – times of worry, stress and heartache, and the list goes on. For me, it is the best way I can express myself. I’ve never been very good with words, especially as I’m dyslexic, but I feel I can really express my feelings when sat behind a drum kit. I always feel in a better mood after I’ve played. Sometimes, I can feel quite edgy and restless, but it’s usually just because I haven’t played drums for a few days.
Being on the road can also be tough, especially when you’re far away from home and not able to see friends or family for months on end. It can feel quite lonely, particularly when you miss out on important life events like weddings, parties and family births. Technology has really helped with this though, as it’s very easy to use Skype and Zoom to stay in contact (internet providing…). As I’m getting older, I would ideally like to do more remote recording work, so I can have more of a day job and work from my studio at home.
I think there is more awareness about mental health than a few years ago, and thankfully people are starting to talk about it a bit more, although I still feel a lot of people are afraid to admit they are struggling. There’s a lot of pressure in the music industry to constantly appear busy and give the impression that you’re in demand. The truth is that people often have gaps in their diary, and it’s okay to tell people that. It can also be hard during quiet times if you’re telling yourself that you need to constantly practise to get better.
If I could give advice to someone starting out, it would be to stay true to why you started learning an instrument. For most people, this is probably because it makes them feel good. Try to find a balance between doing what you must to pay the bills and doing the things that make you feel good. Hopefully you can find a healthy balance.