Lakewood Ranch's Justin Bieber wannabe might just get there

srocco@bradenton.comOctober 31, 2013 

EAST MANATEE -- Before developing his talent, Drake Austin, a very 21st century pop star, is developing his celebrity.

Since July, the 15-year-old aspiring Justin Bieber has racked up nearly 5,000 followers on Twitter, 1,900 on Instagram and 880 on YouTube, all over his wildly popular Austin Mahone, Ryan Beatty and Bieber cover songs he sings while strumming guitar.

Never mind that he's never written a song or still hasn't fully refined his voice. Never mind that there's not much original about him -- yet.

Giggly pre-teen girls watch his videos and collapse over his cute pics. They follow him on social media, then they tell their friends, who tell their friends. A generous circle.

These days, musicians are working the Internet to get famous. Gone are the days of carpet-bombing the clubs, praying to get heard. Bieber did it. Psy did it. Rebecca Black did it. And Austin, a sophomore at Lakewood Ranch High School, is convinced he can do it, too.

"I know it's going to take a long, long time, but I know it's going to happen," Austin said in the living room of his family's Lakewood Ranch apartment. "I envision it, I see it all the time."

• • •

Drake Austin, born Drake Austin Plantz, could shred the expert level in Guitar Hero at age 10. So his father, Joe Plantz, signed him up for real guitar lessons.

By 12, Austin was a singer in his first band, Chaotic 720. He signed up for choir, practicing playing guitar and singing at the same time. He perfected Thomas Rhett's "If I Could Have A Beer With Jesus," then Austin Mahone's "Say Somethin'."

He uploaded his cover songs on YouTube, made Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, which he and Dad update each day. On Sundays at 7 p.m., he has Skype chats with fans from all over the world: Japan, France, Australia. He sends them rubber bracelets that say #DRAKEAUSTIN.

A few days ago, Austin, who one year ago moved to Florida from Columbus, Ohio, got his first piece of fan mail: "Just remember I am and will always be a fan. Oh and when you go on tour you will take me lol."

For the last month, he's been taking private dance lessons at Sarabay Dance Club in Bradenton to ramp up his ability to engage a crowd and nail down the basics.

"At this stage, we're trying to help him get poised, get comfortable," said club owner Tess Chawi.

So what's the plan?

"We're going to build our fan base for the next year and then come out with a single," said his dad, Joe, 40, a sales manager at Tropical Cadillac. "Hopefully this time next year we'll have the fan base that we're looking for, we'll have the experience behind us performance-wise, so when the song does break, he's polished and prepared."

Austin's choreographer was key in helping him prep for his first major performance Wednesday in front of 1,000 students at Haile Middle School in Bradenton.

Flyers were plastered on school vending machines to advertise Austin's six-song show.

"Looking back on some of these groups that really started -- NSYNC, New Kids on the Block -- their first foreground was in these middle schools and high schools ... then they grew from there," his father said. "That's the same path we want to put him on."

"OMG ur coming to my school today!!! I'm so excited!!!" @taylor_hilyer said on a @drake_austin Instagram photo.

• • •

Kids waved their arms and screamed as Austin uncorked his version of Justin Bieber's "Girlfriend" -- yes, even the dudes.

He threw #DRAKEAUSTIN bracelets into the bleachers: white for girls, black for guys.

Haile Middle's gymnasium is massive, but Austin worked the entire floor with gusto, making sure everyone got a taste.

At the end of his show, groups of girls swarmed him like bees. They whipped out their iPhones for pictures against school rules, asked for autographs, ignored their teachers who tried to send them back to class. They begged for one last hug before they had to go.

Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.

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