There’s a term that has emerged in the online drumming world, “Drumtrepreneur.” People use that word to refer to drummers who have found ways to either make a living, or to supplement it by doing drumming-adjacent things: teaching, creating and selling goods or services, podcasting and creating other digital media, and other activities that allow them to bring their passion for drums outside of literally playing the drums to support themselves.
Our guest on this week’s episode is one of today’s most successful #drumtrepreneurs. After graduating from Berklee College of Music with a performance degree, Ryan Gruss started a blog sharing his self-recorded drum loops after being dissatisfied with the stock GarageBand ones. That lead him eventually to quit his day job in digital marketing to start, build, and most recently sell his company, The Loop Loft to Native Instruments in under a decade.
The Loop Loft creates loops by working with name brand musicians such as Omar Hakim, Simon Phillips, Matt Chamberlain, and many other drummers and other instrumentalists so that music makers can create songs, loops, and practice tracks that have human spirit. Wouldn’t you rather practice with Janek Gwizdala’s bass through your laptop than your Rhythm Watch’s shrill pulse?
DS: You went to school at Berklee, and were following the relatively standard path of performing and being a player. You had some sort of inspiration along the way to transition from being a player to starting this company focusing on sharing the uniqueness of drummers and other musicians with music makers in a very unique way. Can you share how you had the insight to start the company?
RG: As you said I went to Berklee and graduated in 2000 with my Performance degree, and then I was off to conquer the world of session drummers and getting the next big touring gig. I moved to LA and quickly realized that you can’t just show up in LA and roll into the studios every day. You have to have a network in place, and it’s not as easy as one thinks. The rest of my friends had moved to New York, and were having a blast. New York just had much more of a scene at the time: music going on every night; jam sessions… it was much more interactive, especially for young musicians to get involved in the scene and work with each other.
So after nine months in LA, I packed my bags ended up in New York. And then to pay the rent and survive as a musician in New York, I quickly looked for a day job. I heard about a temp agency that was temping people at Atlantic Records and quickly signed up with them. They shuffled me around different departments, answering phones as temps do, and eventually I met the woman in HR who was in charge of hiring people.
She came up to me after about a week or so, right after I had moved to New York, and she said, “Ahmet Ertegun, the founder and CEO, is looking for an assistant. Are you interested?” and I said, “Of course!” So I got to work with Ahmet, which was incredible to see how he operated and how he worked with artists, and how he curated such an incredible label from scratch.
He had built the company up to what it was. I stayed at Atlantic for a while, and then there was the big merger with Elektra, and we’re talking 2005 at this point and the music industry was tanking. People were getting getting laid off, and I was one of those people.
But that seemed like a great thing because I was also in a band at the time called The Rinse–a Britpop thing–and we just signed a management deal with Peter Asher. He’s a legendary producer and manager, so it felt like, “Oh, we’re gonna get a record deal. Awesome!” But, this was 2005 and I’d just gotten laid off because because of the industry’s issues at the time.
Long story short, we did the whole thing, but after a while, a deal never happened, and it was back to working a day job in New York, which led me to digital asset management. It was pre-Dropbox-era stuff for companies that had to share files securely. I worked at Nickelodeon and then Revlon doing it up until about 2009. I got married and decided I was going to walk away from the music business, and accepted a a great job in Boston at this company called Continuum. That’s where I finally had a house where I could set up a recording studio and play drums and record and get into self-production.
What I found when I opened up GarageBand and was just looking to play along and create a track, there were loops there, but they weren’t as good as the people I had been playing with in New York City: these incredible musicians. It just wasn’t inspiring to me, and so I thought what if I just start with myself. I felt pretty confident that I could make better loops than what were inside of GarageBand or Logic.
So I started a blog called ryangruss.com, and every day I would post a drum loop and a little silly story about what inspired it. And over time that gained some traction and Create Digital Music–which is a pretty huge music tech blog–Peter Kirn, the editor, picked up on it and shared it. “This guy’s putting up drum loops for free. Go check it out, and you can download them.” I got a bunch of traffic from that and decided to do a subscription-based model where every month you could sign up and get all the loops I had recorded plus a lot of extra stuff. It was over 100 loops every month for 10 bucks. I did that for about a year, and I had a big library of loops.
I though maybe I could start an e-commerce store. Sort of like a record label. This goes back to all my experience working at labels and Nickelodeon, and Revlon, understanding how to market things and SKUs and product-release roadmaps and all this day-job stuff all of a sudden was playing into how I understood the process for launching.
So I started The Loop Loft in 2010, and to take things to the next level, I started recording my friends who were some of the bigger names. Probably most well-known people on the roster are Matt Chamberlain, and Joey Waronker, who’s Beck’s drummer; Omar Hakim, who is a legend. He’s actually head of the drum department at Berklee now. Omar’s played with Miles Davis and Sting and Daft Punk and was my hero growing up. Charlie Hunter who again was my favorite musician when I was in high school. Growing up, I owned all his albums and I would go to his show anytime he was within a hundred mile radius of Des Moines. Larry Goldings just recorded for us. He’s probably one of the most respected Hammond B3 jazz keyboardists and also of course a great piano player as well. He does some major pop stuff tours with James Taylor, and he’s in John Mayer’s band right now. I’ve been working with a lot of John Mayer’s band. I know John from college: we were at Berklee the same time.
DS: You didn’t have an academic engineering background; you figured it out yourself for the most.
RG: Yeah, I mean so I did one semester at Berklee as a Music Production and Engineering major, so I learned all of like the 101 basic stuff like signal path, and so I had a very basic foundation. When I really learned, it was just from watching other engineers in the studio on my own recording sessions. And then with the technology and laptop computers, Logic and GarageBand became so easy to teach yourself. And you could watch YouTube videos and all of a sudden, the barrier to entry on the technology side was so much lower.
DS: I remember working with some MP&E majors when I was at Berklee, and I remember going in the studio and seeing them with tape measures and protractors setting microphone. Were you one of those people?
RG: Yeah, I’ve never been that way. It’s about using your ears, really. I’ve always just been a feel person. Let’s just get the vibe on tape.
DS: A lot of company founders I’ve talked to have interesting stories of something that happened along the way that shaped their company. Do you have any stories that are fun for you to tell?
RG: Just the exciting little moments that happen early on that let you know you’re on the right path, or people are really digging what you do. It was getting an order from Peter Gabriel. One day, I was looking through my orders–and this is pretty early on in the company–I don’t know how Peter Gabriel found my website, but I saw his name on an order list as I was scrolling through. Peter Gabriel has access to anybody he wants and has one of the best studios in the world in his house! It’s those little things.
Rivers Cuomo from Weezer: I would see his name pop up. And then Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys buying stuff. It’s getting your idols, the people at the top of their game buying the stuff that you produce that really inspire and push you that you’re on the right path. When you see that happening.
DS: When you were getting started, were you still working the full-time day job, or did you immediately make the leap to doing The Loop Loft full time?
RG: No, it was definitely nights and weekends as far as working on The Loop Loft. I was still working at Continuum in Boston. That’s when I started the Ryan Gruss blog and I was still working there when I launched The Loop Loft. Maybe a year or so in, it was making enough money to barely survive. At this point, I had a son and a mortgage and real adult responsibilities. Fortunately I had a couple angel investors come in that helped provide a little bit of a cushion and a support system to make the leap. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Giving my notice at work, and knowing in two weeks it’s do or die. But that’s when the business really took off. I would devote 80 to 100 hours a week into it, and it was all my blood, sweat, and tears that went into making the thing a success. Those are the risks you have to take to really get there.
DS: When you were ready to make the leap was that because you were at a certain financial level with the business, or was it because you got the angel investment to help you be able to bridge the gap financially? Or was it something in your gut, or something in the market that said, “now is the time?”
RG: It was a combination of all three. I mean, it wasn’t a huge angel investment, but it was enough. I didn’t even have a line of credit at the time. There was nothing to fall back on if there was a bad month, so that helped, at least the sleeping-at-night issue: as far as, “how do I pay the mortgage next month?” I knew the least a little cushion there. But the business was at a point where it was definitely profitable and making money.
It was the first time, with Facebook ads, where anybody could start advertising to a very targeted audience. I would spend twenty dollars a day, and if that worked, then you could spend $100 a day, and if that worked you could spend $1,000 a day. Scale it up by yourself and you didn’t need a team or marketing agency, or to hire somebody full-time to manage that.
DS: So how much do you think you’ve spent on Facebook advertising?
RG: Oh man, it’s millions of dollars, I don’t know exactly I know! I’ve gotten a lot of American Express points over the years. My wife and I have never had to pay for a vacation fortunately.
But yeah, that’s how you scale a business. Any entrepreneur should know: what’s your customer lifetime value? What is your cost per acquisition: if you can get that person for, say $40, to purchase something, you’re off to the races at that point as far as as making money.
DS: At some point in year six or seven, you had a conversation with a company called Native Instruments.
RG: Yeah, I’d been doing loops and samples and not developing any software. But I knew there was a huge market as far as Native Instruments users in the Kontakt [software sampler] instrument world. I had a developer approach me with an idea, a concept where he could take my content and create something that was an instrument inside of Kontakt. So together, we created a concept called the Drum Direktor, which is a slice-and-dice, everything-in-the-kitchen-drawer loop player and step sequencer
That’s when I started meeting people at Native Instruments because we were licensing the their sampler engine and tapping into their whole ecosystem. And I got to knows one of the executives. Over time, when they were ready to start the content side of things and The Loop Loft already had this roster of musicians, we decided to do an acquisition and have The Loop Loft become part of Native Instruments.
DS: So you are now an employee of Native Instruments, Director of Products – Content. What does that mean?
RG: Well I am in charge of producing content! Nothing has really changed as far as what my focus is, and The Loop Loft brand continues. It’s like a record label imprint, if you want to think of it that way, inside of Native Instruments. So now my role is to keep producing new content.
We’re working on some really cool new instruments and but it basically just gives me the ability… so, now I’m living in Los Angeles. For example, today I’m going to record Matt Chamberlain at Sound City, and two days ago I recorded this amazing cello player. It’s great having more resources to quickly scale up and record some amazing content.
DS: So basically you’re doing the same job, the creative part of it, and now you have a team that handles all the back-office day-to-day business stuff?
RG: Yeah exactly. So now that we’re a part of Native Instruments, that was the appeal. I was spending 90% of my time running the business and 10% of the time producing the content. I think most entrepreneurs feel that in the startup world. So now it’s amazing to have the majority of my time to just really focus on the production aspect, working with artists and being in the studio and then having Native Instruments to help market and get deep into integration with Maschine [performance and programming drum machine] and Komplete [production software and sample library].
Making the content feel more like an instrument, and not just a folder of wav files. Just was a no-brainer for us to get together. Why not get the world’s best musicians, their performances, and partner with the world’s best music hardware and software company. It’s a pretty powerful combination.
DS: Had you thought about an exit plan or was your thought to run it until you didn’t want to do it anymore?
RG: I always wanted an exit, but I never really knew what it would be. I knew if I just stayed focused on content, there was so much value. I assumed it would probably be a software company in the end. The beautiful beautiful thing about content is that it’s timeless. Great audio will always be great audio. Software and hardware have a shelf life and need to be refreshed and rebranded. But a really great sounding Matt Chamberlain loop will still be a great sounding Matt Chamberlain Loop 50 years from now.
DS: Since this is a gear-oriented show, what are some of the favorite studios, players, and equipment that you’ve had the opportunity to work with?
RG: Oh wow, I mean studios: my favorite home-away-from-home is The Bunker in New York, where your intro and outro music was recorded. Just an amazing sound. They have this beautiful little Neve board in there, so that’s my ideal place to do sessions if I’m in New York.
Those are my favorite days, the studio days, and when you get to team up with a great engineer and a great musician… because me being a drummer, I’m taking it in from from both sides. The geeky engineer in me is watching the engineer do his thing and taking notes, and then the drummer inside of me is watching the drummer approaching this beat. Where is he his feel? What equipment is using?
Today with Matt Chamberlain, the concept is: we’re just going to record weird drums. He just went to Seattle and he had a storage unit full of all his old snare drums and gear. He was living up in Seattle up until a few years ago when he moved down to LA, but he still had a lot of stuff there. So now he brought his stuff down to LA, and we’re just going to throw up the most bizarre snare drums we can find, and weird cymbals, and weird kick drums and just see what happens.
DS: Being that you are providing sounds and feels along with your artists that get built into tracks. What are some of the trends that you see among drum sounds that we’re going to be hearing on records for the next five years.
RG: Right now, there’s this 80s throwback trend in production. A lot of that big gated drum sound and a lot of single-headed concert toms. I try to avoid trends because that really dates a sound. Sometimes we do experimental stuff, like Joey Waronker’s last loop release, it was just how weird we could make things on purpose, but 95% of the time it’s just trying to capture a classic sound and just letting the drums sound like they’re supposed to sound.
DS: Joey was about 10 years ahead of the concert-tom trend!
RG: Right. Yeah, exactly. Yeah, he has quite the collection of concert toms. Probably between him and Hal Blaine: I don’t know who’s gonna win that contest.
DS: Well I think that Bermuda Schwartz from Weird Al’s band is also in that competition.
RG: Okay, so yeah, those are probably the top three concert-tom owners in the world. It’d be an interesting conversation to see who’s who has more. Or we could just put them all together and make the biggest concert-tom drum set ever.
DS: I’m sure that would win Instagram. [laughs]
What’s your desert island–if you could have one snare drum, what would it be?
RG: That would be my Ludwig 6 1/2 by 14 Supraphonic, which I think a lot of drummers would take on that island with them. It just sounds good. No matter what you do with it. You can tune it up. You can tune it down.
DS: Yeah, we recently had Steven Wolf on the show, and in addition to being a beatmaker, he plays drums on records with artists like Miley Cyrus, Beyonce and Katy Perry. And the two drums he brings into most sessions are either a pair of Acrolites or a pair of Supraphonics.
RG: Yeah even with the Acrolite, you can tune that thing way down and it’ll sound like a eight-inch wooden snare drum, and you could put a lot of tape and paper towels, or do the old wallet trick… or you tune it up, and it sounds like the most gunshot poiccolo snare drum you’ve heard in your life.
DS: You’ve lived all over the country. You went out to Boston for Berklee and then moved out to LA, moved back to New York, to Des Moines, Iowa where you really built the company, and now you’re back in LA.
RG: Yeah if we draw on a map, like my journey is this big circle around the US! After I quit the day job and was doing The Loop Loft full-time, we wanted to have another child and the company was doing well enough for I could live anywhere with an internet connection. That’s all I needed to operate the company so we decided to move back to Des Moines, my hometown, and be closer to my parents and my sister. Having that family support around, because I was traveling a lot, and the lower overhead, which I think is important for any entrepreneur, helped a lot. So we hunkered down in Iowa for a good four or five years, and then December 27th, we made the move to Los Angeles as part of the Native Instruments acquisition.
Now in LA it’s a very exciting time and I’m doing a lot of concerts in my house. So tomorrow night, David Ryan Harris is playing a set, and then what I’m calling The Loop Jazz Odyssey is going to perform. It’s Larry Goldings, Matt Chamberlain, and Bob Reynolds [sax player in John Mayer’s band], and they’re just going to do an improvised set of music in my living room, which to me, that’s the greatest concert in the world. I get to host it at my house and for my friends and for people from Native Instruments. It’s such a great way to get everybody to hang out. So much nicer than a bar or a club or something.
DS: It really sounds like you have curated a really wonderful life in your new home and in your new role with Native Instruments. I’m really happy for all the success that you’ve had. The hard work you’ve put in has certainly paid off for you and your family, and I wish you nothing but continued success and happiness.
Ryan Gruss is an inspiring example of what we as drummers can accomplish, not so much by following our passion, but bringing our passion with us to where the opportunities present themselves. He has supported his family, paid his mortgage, traveled the world, played drums, recorded his heroes, built a network of amazing musicians he calls friends – all through embracing the way music is made today. And that should sound pretty good to any Supraphonic fan with a set of Rototoms set up above his or her hi-hats.
This week’s episode was produced by Ben Etter with Social Media by Nate Testa. If you’re interested in joining the Drum Showroom production team, please send us a note. We’re looking to add writers, graphic designers, and other people who love drums to continue to build the team.
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