Ab­bots­ford’s king of on­line drum lessons

HOW A B.C. DUCK FARMER’S SON BUILT NET­FLIX FOR DRUM­MERS

BC Business Magazine - - Front Page - by JES­SICA WERB

An Ab­bots­ford in­dus­trial of­fice

park flanked by a diesel truck re­pair shop, a tow­ing com­pany and a gran­ite fab­ri­ca­tor is hardly the place you’d ex­pect to find some of the heav­i­est hit­ters in mu­sic. Hang around awhile, though, and you could glimpse mu­si­cians with links to su­per­stars such as Jay-z, Ste­vie Won­der and Madonna stop­ping by a 7,500-square­foot space here.

The draw? Drumeo: a small In­ter­net out­fit that, over the past six years, has built it­self into the most pop­u­lar destination for on­line drum tu­to­ri­als, many taught by worl­drenowned mas­ters of the kit.

On a re­cent visit, Drumeo’s head­quar­ters are buzzing with ac­tiv­ity. The large record­ing stu­dio is livestream­ing a drum tu­to­rial by Kyle Radom­sky, for­mer tour­ing mu­si­cian and grad­u­ate of the Berklee Col­lege of Mu­sic. By Radom­sky’s side is Drumeo’s com­mu­nity man­ager, Dave Atkin­son, mod­er­at­ing ques­tions from stu­dents tun­ing in from around the globe. Reuben Spyker, drum­ming teacher and staff mem­ber, sits in the con­trol room, cut­ting be­tween three cam­eras film­ing the kit from dif­fer­ent an­gles. Jared Falk, Drumeo’s co-founder and CEO, bops along as Radom­sky bangs out part of a My Chem­i­cal Ro­mance tune be­fore dis­cussing tech­niques for avoid­ing wrist pain. As the dis­cus­sion drags on, Falk apol­o­gizes. “Drum­mers are geeks,” he ex­plains with a shrug.

Falk, a drum­ming in­struc­tor him­self, pre­sides over this small em­pire with the cheer­ful­ness of some­one who can’t quite be­lieve his luck. As the face of the com­pany, the 36-year-old is a fix­ture in much of Drumeo’s con­tent, from tu­to­ri­als to pro­mo­tional spots. With his easy smile and boy­ish, clean-cut charm, it’s not hard to pic­ture Ab­bots­fordraised Falk tour­ing with a Chris­tian rock band, which he did back in 2002 with singer-songwriter Ri­ley Armstrong. He lasted four months be­fore de­cid­ing he wasn’t meant for life on the road.

“I didn’t like be­ing away from home,”

he con­fesses, seated in the of­fice he’s dec­o­rated with pic­tures of his wife and two young sons. So Falk re­turned to the busi­ness that has been in his family for three gen­er­a­tions: Fraser Val­ley Spe­cialty Poul­try, the largest duck farm in Western Canada. Hav­ing spent nine months in the pro­cess­ing plant be­fore his short-lived stint as a tour­ing mu­si­cian, he moved into sales, hawk­ing ducks in Van­cou­ver’s Chi­na­town and teach­ing drum­ming on the side.

Falk’s for­tunes changed in 2005, when one of his stu­dents, Rick Ket­tner, re­vealed that videos he’d up­loaded to an on­line drum­ming fo­rum were get­ting thou­sands of down­loads. Sens­ing an op­por­tu­nity, Falk pounced. He and Ket­tner quickly produced a se­ries of in­struc­tional drum­ming videos. “We bor­rowed a hand­icam, and we filmed it at my family’s farm. It smelled like ma­nure in there, and there were flies fly­ing around,” Falk re­calls with a laugh. Find­ing an au­di­ence, the pair be­gan selling les­son packs on ebay, and through web­sites such as Break­sticks.com, Rock­drum­beats.com and Drumtech­niques.com, for $10 to $20.

Their busi­ness model proved to be slightly ahead of its time. Cus­tomers found the idea of pay­ing for dig­i­tal con­tent dif­fi­cult to grasp, and it didn’t help that the link to download the lessons was only ac­tive for 24 hours—less time than it took some to download the file, as many house­holds were still us­ing dial-up modems. “We got some an­gry peo­ple won­der­ing where their pack­age was,” Falk re­mem­bers.

The pair took the hint, opt­ing to sell DVD pack­ages of their Rock Drum­ming Sys­tem di­rectly to con­sumers. At the time, even this was dis­rup­tive—tu­to­rial books had tra­di­tion­ally in­volved sep­a­rate au­thors, pub­lish­ers and sell­ers. “Books and DVDS are small enough that it’s cheap to ship,” Falk notes. “It’s more log­i­cal to go straight to the cus­tomer, and then we own that re­la­tion­ship.”

Falk es­ti­mates that he and Ket­tner sold about 100,000 of their DVD pack­ages be­fore cir­cling back to the dig­i­tal space. In 2011 they of­fi­cially launched Drumeo, which Falk de­scribes as “Net­flix for drum lessons.” The plat­form pro­vides ac­cess to drum tu­to­ri­als produced in-house, hosted by teach­ers rang­ing from mu­sic legends such as Bernard Pur­die (who’s played with Aretha Franklin and Steely Dan, among oth­ers) and ac­claimed stu­dio drum­mers like Kenny Aronoff (Bruce Spring­steen, Rod Ste­wart, Smash­ing Pump­kins), to lesser­known teach­ers in­clud­ing Falk.

Drumeo pro­duces plenty of free con­tent, in­clud­ing in­ter­views and demos with drum­ming stars, but its bread and but­ter comes from mem­ber sub­scrip­tions. For US$29 a month, or US$200 a year, sub­scribers get ac­cess to mem­bers-only step-by-step cour­ses, on-de­mand lessons, play­a­long tracks, live lessons and per­son­al­ized feed­back from teach­ers. Falk bought out Ket­tner’s share in 2013 and steadily built Drumeo into a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar out­fit.

To­day, the com­pany has about 10,000 ac­tive Drumeo mem­ber­ship sub­scribers, close to 390,000 Face­book fol­low­ers and more than 700,000 sub­scribers to its Youtube chan­nel. Voted Best Drum Ed­u­ca­tional Web­site by read­ers of Drum! mag­a­zine three years in a row, the com­pany em­ploys 25 full-time staff. Af­ter post­ing $4.3 mil­lion in rev­enue last year, it’s on track to hit $7 mil­lion in 2018.

Asked why such renowned mu­si­cians would take time to hang out in Ab­bots­ford for a cou­ple of hours and teach drum skills, Falk has a ready an­swer. “Drum­mers are nor­mally in the back [of the band], and they nor­mally don’t get any recog­ni­tion, or very lit­tle,” he says. Of­fer­ing them di­rect ac­cess to Drumeo sub­scribers puts them in the spot­light for a change.

Todd Sucher­man, drummer for progrock band Styx, has a slightly dif­fer­ent take. Sucher­man, who spent two days last year film­ing tu­to­ri­als for Drumeo, says it’s a way to con­nect the drum com­mu­nity. From the road in North Carolina, he de­scribes what he calls “the plight of the drummer”: the bur­den of con­stantly haul­ing gear from gig to gig. “There’s a shared ca­ma­raderie, and drum­mers by and large are very friendly to each other.”

Then there are the ma­te­rial ben­e­fits. “I know that my ex­po­sure went up a bit hav­ing ap­peared on Drumeo,” Sucher­man says. Get­ting paid and be­ing “wined and dined” by the team didn’t hurt, ei­ther: “It’s a nice way to spend some off-time from the road do­ing some­thing else.”

Falk’s first con­tact with many of his big­name guests comes through drum man­u­fac­turer reps, who have spon­sor­ship and brand am­bas­sador re­la­tion­ships with mu­si­cians. “Yamaha will pay a drummer a chunk of money and say, ‘We want you to do th­ese five dates,’ and Drumeo’s one of them.”

Sean Browne, in­ter­na­tional drum prod­uct mar­ket­ing man­ager for Yamaha Canada, has con­nected sev­eral artists to Drumeo. In his view, Falk’s busi­ness has set the bar: “Other [tu­to­rial] sites, they just

So­cial me­dia has been good to Drumeo—take a 2014 Kick­starter cam­paign to ren­o­vate and ex­pand the com­pany’s head­quar­ters, which raised more than $100,000, well above its orig­i­nal goal of $25,000

sort of give a quick les­son, and the au­dio is usu­ally not so great, and the light­ing is usu­ally quite medi­ocre,” he says from Toronto. “Jared made it in a way that the qual­ity was so much bet­ter.”

For his part, Sucher­man was stunned when he first ar­rived at the Drumeo head­quar­ters. “I thought there would be, like, five guys in a ware­house,” he says. “I was sort of taken aback when I walked into a build­ing, and they owned the build­ing, and they had a re­cep­tion­ist and staff of 25. Up­stairs it was like the in­cu­ba­tor of Sil­i­con Val­ley, with 12 peo­ple be­hind com­puter screens. I was re­ally im­pressed and knocked out with the scope of the op­er­a­tion that those guys have built.”

Drumeo’s op­er­a­tions ex­tend to stand­alone prod­ucts, in­clud­ing its orig­i­nal DVD pack­ages, drum­sticks, cloth­ing and a ru­n­away hit, the Drumeo P4 Prac­tice Pad. Re­leased in 2016, the US$79 pad is the only Drumeo item car­ried in stores, and it’s shipped by the thou­sands to Asia, Europe, and North and South Amer­ica. Falk hes­i­tates to put more mus­cle be­hind it, though. “I like to have the di­rect re­la­tion­ship with the cus­tomer,” he says. “I just don’t want to put the brand ev­ery­where on any­thing.”

Falk is ter­ri­to­rial about the Drumeo brand. “Build that brand, and then own the land it sits on,” he de­clares. That phi­los­o­phy ex­plains why Falk re­gards so­cial me­dia plat­forms with cau­tion: “Youtube can change an al­go­rithm, and your videos go from get­ting 100,000 views to 10,000.” But so­cial me­dia has been good to Drumeo—take a 2014 Kick­starter cam­paign to ren­o­vate and ex­pand the com­pany’s head­quar­ters, which raised more than $100,000, well above its orig­i­nal goal of $25,000.

Falk again turned to the Drumeo com­mu­nity when the busi­ness suf­fered a spam­ming at­tack. Last Novem­ber, hun­dreds of neg­a­tive re­views flooded the com­pany’s Face­book page in a mat­ter of hours, bring­ing its 4.9-star rat­ing down to a 4. When Falk filmed a plea to his fol­low­ers for help, his SOS was viewed 50,000 times and gen­er­ated 3,000 five- star re­views. “Face­book fi­nally re­moved the one-star re­views be­cause they were all fake,” Falk says tri­umphantly. “So now we have a fives­tar rat­ing.”

The spam­ming in­ci­dent does hint at ri­vals—and Drumeo could be in for more battles as it stakes a claim for on­line ter­ri­tory al­ready oc­cu­pied by en­ti­ties such as Guitar­tricks and Play­ground Ses­sions. Its tu­to­rial sites for gui­tar and pi­ano, Guitareo and Pian­ote, both launched in 2016. So far, the re­sults have been mixed. While Guitareo had more than 403,000 Youtube sub­scribers and 2,500 pay­ing mem­bers as of this March, the up­take on Pian­ote has been slower, with roughly 67,000 Youtube sub­scribers and 1,000 pay­ing mem­bers.

Whether Falk can repli­cate the suc­cess of Drumeo with th­ese new ven­tures re­mains to be seen, but his achieve­ment to date is no fluke. “We’re very strict on set­ting goals and hit­ting dead­lines,” he stresses. “We al­ways hit a dead­line. That’s one of our val­ues.” His next big push: trans­lat­ing Drumeo con­tent into Span­ish, and cre­at­ing Span­ish and Por­tuguese por­tals to tap the South Amer­i­can mar­ket.

Falk also main­tains a healthy work-life balance, en­sur­ing he’s home ev­ery night by 6 to spend time with his family. It’s a far cry from the life of a tour­ing mu­si­cian. “A lot of drum­mers, I call them road hogs: they’ve been rode hard and put away wet,” Falk says with a wry smile. “They’re on mul­ti­ple mar­riages, they have kids from mul­ti­ple peo­ple, and their kids hardly see them. That’s not what I wanted.”

Por t rai t b y ADAM B L ASBERG

HIGH STICK­ING Drumeo co-founder and CEO Jared Falk has al­ways loved drum­ming but didn't en­joy the life of a tour­ing mu­si­cian

BEAT MAS­TERS Drumeo tu­tors in­clude (clockwise from top left) Grammy win­ner An­to­nio Sanchez (has played with Pat Metheny); Bernard Pur­die (Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Cé­line Dion); Billy Cob­ham (Ma­hav­ishnu Orches­tra, Miles Davis); Mark Guil­iana (David

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