Interview with Mike Johnston - www.mikeslessons.com
Interview with Mike Johnston
Mike Johnston is an educator and clinician who has made waves in the drum world with his website, www.mikeslessons.com, which offers online lessons, downloads and drum camps that are all taught by Mike himself from his facility in California.
The website has been hugely successful worldwide and the Mike Johnston signature Vater stick, the ‘2451’ (after the bathroom code at his business!), became their best selling stick of the year. I caught up with Mike at the Meinl Drum Festival in Germany, where he performed on both days of the weekend.
What was the concept behind your website?
It really started with Youtube. When I was touring I would put videos on there for my students while I was out of town and say, ''It''s on this new website'' cos it was brand new at the time. Then I would come back home and it should have only had 70 views from my students but it would have 20,000 views in a weekend. It kept growing and when it got a million views I thought, ''If I just had 99 cents from every one of those there would be a million dollars'' so I decided there must be a need for it. At the time DVDs were 40 dollars for a any kind of educational content but sometimes I just wanted one chapter of that so I thought, ''What if I film everything in five to ten minute chunks?’. You could just get the mambo, or just get the songo or one rudiment. So that was the concept.
How has it grown and where do you get your main visits from?
It went from being just downloadable content to live streaming of online lessons plus the downloadable content plus drum camps. I wish I wouldn''t have named it mikeslessons.com because it''s grown into this huge drumming community that has nothing to do with me, I''m just the guy that teaches it, but it is it''s own family.
It''s grown very fast for me and we get our visits from pretty equally across the world. So many countries that you don''t think of as being big for drums, since they don''t have a lot of drumming education, they''re the ones that come the most. So we have India, China and Japan and then obviously America, Canada and the UK that are huge.
How far in advance do you prepare the lessons and what''s your system for them?
The downloadable content is just really an encyclopedia. If there''s anything that someone knows the name of it''s my job to make sure there''s a lesson for it. I have to research them so if somebody says, ''What about the abakwa?'' I need to research the African abakwa. The lesson schedule comes out a month in advance but I prepare the lesson on the day because when I''m looking at the camera I don''t have the sheet music in front of me and I have to remember every accent, every ghost note that I wrote in that sheet music and it''s easier if I do it the day of. That way I can say, ''Look at number five of your PDF and be careful of that ghost note'' and it''s fresh where as if I prepare it too far I''d forget what I wrote.
How do you maintain inspiration for the lessons and keeping it fresh?
It''s tough; we''re on live lesson number 645 and we do two broadcasts a day so it''s been 1300 broadcasts since we started the live thing and every lesson has to be new. There''s certain material that has to be redone because we always have new students; even if I just taught a Brazilian samba two months ago we have maybe 40 new students that didn''t see it so my job is that I teach the Brazilian samba plus new variations that I''ve never taught.
Then there''s the fact that I''m still a drummer myself so any time I create something on the drum set as an educator I think, ''Oh I can''t wait to teach this'' so I write it all down with the variations. The biggest inspiration comes from being on the drum set and being bored so that you are forced to create.
What''s your advice for people who want to teach but they don''t necessarily know how to get started?
Taking lessons yourself is really important because as you''re being taught you can internalise if it''s working or not. Is this guy or girl teaching you in a way that you think clicks? If not, that''s good too cos you can find a better way to explain it.
Obviously being thorough in everything. You have to be able to teach a kid trying out for a symphony but the next person wants Slipknot and the next person wants to learn jazz; you have to be well rounded. You also have to be humble enough to give a student to another teacher and say, ''Well look, you want to go to the Berklee School of Music. I''m not a jazz guy but I do know somebody''.
Yesterday you were talking about multi-tiered approaches to work. What do you advise your students to do to make a living in music?
I let them know the state of the industry as far as what they can expect to earn on tour and they''re usually shocked by how low the money is. I let them know where the money''s coming from and that if you have a two million dollar record deal the record company doesn''t give you two million dollars; that''s two million dollars that will put into the success of your band. You don''t get a cheque for it. I let them know too that the band route and being in a signed band is a lot more to do with luck and timing. You hope for it but you can''t work your way into it.
There are other aspects of the drum industry where hard work actually pays off, so teaching is one avenue and it helps you to become a better player. Working in a local music store...I''ve always felt every drummer should work in their local music store because you''re already going to spend your money on the stuff, you might as well get a discount. It''s like having a global endorsement because you get 50% off everything, or whatever it is.
The other thing about working in your local shop is when guitarists go in and say, ''We need a drummer. Who do you know?''. It would be great if you were the guy behind the counter who could say, ''Well I''ll do it''. It connects you to a whole scene of musicians. Also, getting into your local studios. Not all studios are in Hollywood or Nashville; every town has them. So getting in to those studios and saying, ''Here''s what I do and if you ever need somebody I''d be down to work for free just to get my role going'' and also offer yourself as a tech. A lot of young drummers come in with very bad sounding drums and they don''t know how to tune but if you can say, ''That drum sound represents your studio and the quality of the recordings represents your studio so for fifty dollars I''d be happy to come in here and tune up these drums'' or whatever.
Your wife, Amber, works with you. That seems like a really good way of living!
It''s awesome. She pretty much runs all of the customer service because now we''ve got thousands of students from all over the world; some of them are flying in to see us and some of them are just online. We get about 200 emails a day that have to be responded to; not junk emails but real, legit emails. She handles all that and filters them down to say the ten that I have to deal with because they''re drum related. At the mikeslessons.com facility she has her own office with her own door so we''re never forced to work together, which is good for our marriage. She values customer service more than anyone I''ve ever met in my life, just as a customer herself. If she gets great customer service she talks to the manager and tells them, ''This waiter was amazing'' and she really cares so I thought, ''Why should I pay someone else to do that when she''s the best?''.
How do you work as a team at mikeslesson.com? Are there other people involved?
It''s just the two of us. I''m an only child so it''s really hard for me to work with anyone. I''d rather stay up til two in the morning and do it myself. I do have a web developer now because it grew to a point where I couldn''t do it on my own. He lives in LA and I''ve never even met him but we talk on the phone all the time. So it''s me and Amber and that''s it. Her role is really to be the non drummer and when I''m trying out a new concept or a business plan she comes at it from a totally different aspect cos I just see it as drummer, drummer, drummer and she has a totally different viewpoint.
How do you cope with things yourself? You must have such a busy head! What do you do to keep yourself grounded?
One thing that really helps is passion. I never meant to be financially successful at this stuff. To me, if I could just pay my bills with drums I was good. I do feel that I''m in a lucky honeymoon phase where at some point this kind of stuff will become normal. If you have passion, whether there''s success or no success, you''re happy. Any time I explain something to somebody it feels like I''m playing to 200,000 people. I get the chills and I''m like, ''So you get it?'' and the kid goes, ''I get it!'' and we high five and we say, ''This is amazing!’.
The desire to move this industry forward keeps you going. What we''re doing here is so normal in the tech world but because the drum world is quite a bit behind it seems revolutionary. I''m trying to get the drum world to come with me and realise this is normal; these websites, content delivery networks and online lessons are the norm in the rest of the world.
Tell us about the signature sticks that you released
The sticks were my first signature product and it was somewhat accidental; I definitely didn''t set out to have a signature stick. I''d just moved from Vic Firth to Vater and we were trying to find the perfect stick. Eventually Vater said, ''Why don''t you tell us your favourite grip, taper, tip and length and we''ll make it for you, as long as it''s nothing we need to create new technology for''.
I just thought they were going to ship them to me and that would be it. They sent me a prototype, which was perfect and they said, ''OK, we''re going to release it''. I said, ''You can''t do that because I actually play maple and if you put my name on maple sticks and release them to the world the people that don''t know maple is a lighter wood will break them, blame me and think the sticks suck but it''s just that maple is lighter and I teach so I don''t play with a heavy stick.'' They said they would release it in hickory and maple and it sold really well. Because it was Vater''s first stick that was between a 5A and a 5B with a non rounded tip, so it wouldn''t dent your heads, it became their best selling stick of the year, which was really cool. It had nothing to do with me, I think it just filled a hole.
It''s called the ''2451'' and that''s our bathroom code at the mikeslessons.com facility. When I started doing camps everyone would say all day long, ''Hey Mike, what''s the code to the bathroom?'' all week. I decided if I ever got a stick I would put the damn code on it so it says it right on the side. I hope they never change the code!
Tell us about the camps that you do
We host six day long camps and the thing that makes it original is they''re very small; we only allow eight people per camp and I just felt that was the most people I could give proper attention to. When you get into 20 or 30 it becomes like a sports camp where I just think of them as a group but I really want to focus in on the individual.
They''re from 10am to 10pm so it''s 12 hours straight of drumming every day. We have different levels; intermediate, advanced and teacher so in teacher camp we just show people who are becoming teachers how to brand themselves, how to get new students. Some of these people are phenomenal teachers and drummers but they''re not outgoing so they don''t know how to be an independent contractor and understand that you are now your own corporation. Whoever you are, you are your only business so you have to get out there and hustle. Once you get those students you have to retain them and be a good teacher to keep them for five or six years.
The camps change these guys'' lives because they get to see one thing, which is how much better they get in a day of ten hours of practice. They see such a huge improvement that I finally get to say, ''Well maybe your favourite drummers, who you thought were gods, maybe they just had this life the whole time''. For me, I''ve always had six to eight hours of practice a day my whole life so these guys that thought, ''Dave Weckl is so talented'', well he is, absolutely, but he''s also been practising like this his whole life and that''s why he''s making these huge gains in his skill level.
It really helps to see that it''s not your fault; you might have a full time job and you only practise for an hour a day when these guys you look up to get six hours a day.
Have you got any further plans for expanding the site?
I think my business rule for myself has always been that if I ever say the words ''I wish'' out loud then that''s my moment to grab a hold of that idea. With my practice pad I wished there was something that could help you with your ghost notes so I decided to make it. I''m waiting around for the next ‘I wish’.
Mikelessons.com was really based around what I wished my heroes would have done. I wished I would have had live lessons with Virgil Donati and Vinnie Colaiuta and I wished there was downloadable content from Phil Collins on how he played these songs and wrote his drum parts. Since it couldn''t be in reality then I made it happen.
Anything else you''d like to add?
Yeah. The one thing that I''ve been doing, and I''ll be doing it here at the Meinl Drum Weekend...it''s a cheesy name but I don''t know what else to call it. I call it the ''Positive Post Campaign''. It''s a campaign that I''m doing, there''s no funding or anything, it''s just me talking about the negative comments on Youtube that are almost an epidemic right now.
At every clinic I ask everyone that''s in attendance to go online and find a video of anyone playing drums, whether bad or good, and say one positive thing. If they''re the worst drummer in the world say, ''Your hi hats sound great!'' but that one comment might be what keeps them from quitting. We can''t stop the negative comments; that comes from insecurity and I understand that. But what we could do is have so many positive comments on every video that''s out there that if you were going to write something negative you''d look out of place so there''s pressure the other way to say something nice.
I want everyone that''s ever put up a video of themselves on Youtube… I want to give them the freedom to take off the negative comments. A lot of people think it''s cheating to take them down but if the comment doesn''t move the issue forward it''s just blatant negativity so get rid of it. I''ve talked to students and said, ''This guy is saying you suck. Get rid of that!'' and they say, ''No, that''s cheating'' and I say, ''That''s not cheating. Take that off''. If your video has nothing but positive comments they''ll look really out of place.
I don''t mind constructive criticism on my videos; something that has really helped me is video stuff. Some people have said, ''Hey, you look really washed out on your camera. Change your white balance''. That was helpful, thank you. But the two things I take off are blatant negativity and cuss words. There are so many kids on Youtube; they don''t need to see ''You effing rock''. Even if it''s a compliment I still take that off.
The big one is when you compliment me by dissing another drummer, like ''You''re so much better than this drummer''. Well now you''re making fun of that guy so even though you''re being nice to me you''re still being negative.
That''s what I''m trying desperately to change around the world because it just doesn''t need to be there. It doesn''t help anybody. The only reason it happens on Youtube is because they don''t have a face or a name. It doesn''t happen on Facebook half as much but on Youtube you''re just ‘drummerdude21’ or whatever so you can say what you want and no one can find out about you.
On mikeslessons.com we don''t do usernames; your name is your name. I want to know who you are, you''re part of our family.
Thank you to Mike and Amber for being so approachable and taking time out of the Meinl weekend to talk to us at mikedolbear.com for this interview.
For more information on Mike’s playing, teaching and products visit www.mikeslessons.com.
Interview by Gemma Hill
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