BY ANDREW LENTZ
Cobus Potgieter’s music credentials are as follows: Never been in a band. Never had a lesson. Can’t read music. Never hit a drum till he was 16. Comes from a conservative family that wanted him to study engineering. You might say the 24-year-old South African’s prospects for a drumming career are close to zero.
And you would be wrong. Waaaay wrong.
With more than 72 million combined views of his drum covers of popular songs — that’s 100,000 per day — Potgieter is a genuine Web celeb. The videos, which he started posting on YouTube around four years ago, range in popularity from a couple hundred thousand views to as high as several million. For nearly half a year, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus’ “Face Down” was the hands-down favorite at 3.3 million views (and counting), but it was recently beat out by his cover of Avenged Sevenfold’s “Afterlife,” with 3.4 million as of press time. Don’t forget his 172,000 Facebook friends and the 200,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize the power of the social media platform,” says Potgieter. We’re chatting in the lobby of the Anaheim Marriot during Winter NAMM, where the drummer just wrapped an autograph session at the DRUM! booth. Since going viral he has stopped responding to every comment on his page. “I don’t want to post something every 20 minutes to 170,000 people. It just seems I shouldn’t do that. So I only post really important stuff on Facebook, and on Twitter I just go crazy.” (twitter.com/CobusPotgiter has around 14,000 followers.)
In 2005, at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, near his hometown of Bloemfontein, Potgieter blew off his math classes and stayed in his dorm room Googling around to learn video editing and sound mixing. The 3/4 angles and overhead shots of his videos are drum DVD caliber. And by recording externally to his PC instead of using the camcorder mike, the sound is far superior to the average YouTube video.
Instead of subtracting the drums completely from the song during filming, he listens through headphones to the original drummer, who is just high enough in the mix to function as a click track before the final edit is made. “I remove the frequency below, like, 150–160Hz to kind of take out the bass drum and maybe everything about 15 or 16,000[Hz] just to take the edge off the cymbals of the original song so that my drums are a bit more present.”
Potgieter’s cover choices range widely from club staple “Let’s Get It Started” by Black Eyed Peas (2.3 million views) and the Jonas Brothers’ “Burnin’ Up” (1.8 million) to “Tik Tok” by Kei$ha (1.9 million) and Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You” (2.5 million). Whether the band Potgieter is covering has a respected drummer has little to do with a video’s success. “I don’t like rock elitists,” he says. “People who say, ‘Man, don’t cover *NSYNC because it’s a crap band,’ that’s not my vibe. If it’s fun to play, then it’s fun to play. It’s as easy as that.”
Well, most of the time. When he changed up the original drum parts a tad too much on Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” it lit up his comments page with negative feedback. “It’s my expression of the song,” he says in his defense. “If I were the drummer this is how I would have done it. I see it as a live performance. So I try to be just creative enough with a song and not limit myself to these hits and those strokes.”
Maybe Potgieter’s gift is turning disposable pop songs into drum-tastic eye candy. (Check out the crossovers and double-bass work on the Clarkson tune.) Sometimes the panache borders on cockiness. During the middle of Sum 41’s “Fat Lip,” he reaches for a bowl of M&Ms and pops a few in his mouth. Most of the time, Potgieter looks like he’s having a ball, and the enthusiasm is infectious. “I thought people would respond the best to somebody enjoying playing the song as opposed to somebody thinking, Oh, the drumming is good.”
What has Internet recognition gotten this virtual drum star? Enough interest by late 2009 to make his own DVD offering marketing tips and editing how-to, which he currently sells on his Web site. More recently there was a brief North American clinic tour sponsored in part by Udrum, the custom kit builder he endorses, along with TRX cymbals and Samson microphones. But the challenge ahead is monetizing a fan base accustomed to free content. “I use copyrighted material so I can’t sell anything,” he says. “Even if I could get the acts to [let me] sell these covers I would feel very uncomfortable about that.”
Fortunately, Potgieter may have found a way to eke out a living and still play covers. Of his 100 videos, a handful are making him some money, such as the recent cover collaboration with Denver-based artist Tyler Ward, available on iTunes for $1.29. The track, Flo-Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me,” is enough of a stylistic reworking that it can be legally sold (minus the original artist’s cut). “That’s been a nice little revenue stream,” he says a few months later on the phone from East London, South Africa, where he’s currently based. “The idea is to get enough of those trickling in here and there to make this self-sustaining.”
In the meantime, Potgieter doesn’t even have a place to set up his kit and play. Fans request covers all the time, but he can only produce them sporadically, like the batch he did at Pousada Son in Spain last fall after the studio invited him. “Anyone who’s playing drums to get rich is doing it for the wrong reason,” he says, adding that he still drives his parents beat-up old car.
Like everyone else in Web 3.0, Potgieter is thinking about developing an app at some point. “That’s such an involved process,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of ideas of what to put in an interactive kind of app. But I don’t know when that will happen.”
With such high visibility on the Web, it’s only a matter of time until he’s entertaining serious offers to join a band. Still, he tries not to get ahead of himself. “Even if I get a real drumming gig I would always really dig just doing the covers because it feels like those people have gotten me to where I am now,” he says. “I don’t want to leave them behind because they like it and I like playing them. So there’s no reason why I should stop.”