Abbotsford’s king of online drum lessons
HOW A B.C. DUCK FARMER’S SON BUILT NETFLIX FOR DRUMMERS
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.”