I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve described a particular iOS music app as ‘good value for money’, ‘pocket money priced’ or available for ‘chump change’. When you can get some really quite good music apps for UK£0.69 (heck, and some even for free), it does take a bit of deliberate ‘hang on a minute’ thinking to step back and consider the wider implications and context of the iTunes App Store pricing model.
However, having had a bit interaction with some of my (and your) favourite iOS music app developers that touched upon the issue of app development economics over the last two or three weeks, that’s exactly what I’d like to do…. take a step back and consider the pros – and the cons – of music software priced to fit into the App Store world.
And as regulars here will know, I do occasionally like a bit of a quiet rant…. This might be one of those occasions :-)
Pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap
Played Angry Birds then? Yep, me too…. although not for long as it wasn’t really my kind of game but, for the UK£0.69 it cost me, it didn’t really matter – chump change – and probably the same for everyone over the age of 18 or who’s parents supply with a half-decent amount of pocket money.
I’ve no idea how much revenue Angry Birds has raised for the developers but, given the millions and millions of copies that it has sold (and because the Apple purchase model means that piracy is perhaps less of an issue under iOS than it is on the desktop or with sales of music), then, if they chose to, and if they managed their earnings sensibly, I suspect said Angry Birds developers could be sitting somewhere by a pool with a large drink and not having to worry about working too hard for a decade or two.
Angry Birds is perhaps a classic example of where the App Store sales model works for everyone involved; the punters get a cute game at a price that almost anyone can afford (and bear in mind that they have already purchased the hardware – iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad – required to run such a game, so we are talking about folks who have splashed the cash on a premium bit of consumer technology and who I think we can assume have done this having already dealt with more basic needs such as food and shelter), Apple get a nice chunk of the app’s sales revenue for supplying the underlying technology and the developer… well, gets to sit by the pool and listen to the cash register go ‘ka-ching’. Everyone wins….
But, of course, Angry Birds is the exception and, for every UK£0.69 app that has sold by the millions, there are probably hundreds that have not. While these less popular titles might have earned their developers something, that something might not be enough to feed their families and keep them comfortably housed. There might be lots of happy users of the app and, because Apple doesn’t shoulder any risk, they will be quite happy with their slice of income even if it is fairly modest… but the developers might not be feeling quite so much love for the situation.
In other words, unless you sell by the bucket-load, at the lower end of the App Store pricing model, the numbers simply don’t stack up for many developers. They are, therefore, either doing it for the fun, doing it part-time (while trying to earn a proper living via some other route) or only doing it for a very short while…. short as in the sense that they soon realise it’s not a way to earn a crust and they leave the arena to explore a different entrepreneurial idea… and the result is the end of support for that app and the users that like to use it.
Music tech for the masses
Such as it is, my own expertise in music technology is with software. Yes, years ago, I used to know how to code, but now my expertise is more as an ‘experienced user’. Whether through working in my own ‘project’ recording studio, and the writing work I’ve done for Sound On Sound, I’m lucky enough to have been exposed to lots of software aimed at music production, be that sequencers, audio effects, virtual instruments or other tools and utilities.
My primary interest has always been on the recording process and watching the technology behind that change over the last 25 years or so has been a fascinating, exciting and, of occasions, frustrating, ride. However, as I documented recently in the iPad Recording Studio series, access to this kind of technology has become massively easier over time.
What used to be the reserve of the super-rich is now available (at least in some form) to almost anyone with a half-decent desktop/laptop computer and a few hundred £/$/€ to invest in the required accessories. Yes, it is still an investment to make, but the entry price point is so much lower now than it was 10 years ago, that it is simply astonishing to those of us old enough to have watched the evolution.
And, in some ways, the iPad, and the iOS music apps we all buy via the iTunes App Store, are the latest stage in the democratisation (consumerisation?) of the music recording process.
Don’t get me wrong though; you can still spend some serious money building a home studio around a desktop computer. Aside from the price of the top-notch Windows or OSX machine that you just know you want to buy, a mainstream DAW/sequencer can set you back plenty (depends upon how far you go up the food-chain) and then you have to factor in some of the better virtual instruments/sample libraries, some audio effects software (AutoTune or Melodyne? You just have to have AutoTune or Melodyne!).
Oh, and don’t forget the high-spec audio interface, some classy microphones, the best monitor speakers you can afford, a bells and whistles MIDI controller keyboard and whatever ‘real’ instruments you might like to add… Yep, it will soon get to a hefty bill if you want to go the whole nine yards….
But, just for a minute, focus on the software pricing…. If you want the full versions at their current standard pricing then not many amateur/hobby musicians would consider Cubase (€599), Logic Pro X (UK£139), AutoTune (US$399), Melodyne Editor (€399), Kontakt (probably the best software sample player instrument there is; €399), BFD3 (one of the best virtual drummer instruments; UK£229) or Reason 8 (€369) as a ‘casual purchase’. These are seriously powerful pieces of software with sophisticated feature sets and slick, well-established workflows… but ‘pocket money priced’ they are not (well, not unless you get pocket money from a Bill Gates or Tim Cook).
Now, you can buy cheaper, and you can, for some of these applications, also start out with the ‘lite’ version but, even so, by the time you have added a few of these different things together, you are still talking about a serious investment that you would not make on the spur of the moment.
Enter the App Store….
Until now that is…. because now, if you are building a music production system – for live use or recording – around your iOS hardware, while the hardware is still a hefty investment in the first place (demonstrating your ability to commit a chunk of cash when you have the desire to do so), the software is not.
The top-end of the iOS music app pricing world sits at around the UK£35 mark. This is where the likes of Cubasis and Auria – two of the more high-profile recording apps sit – and, while they don’t have the same full-on feature set as the top-end desktop software listed above, neither are they too shabby. Indeed, while it is audio only, Auria packs a pretty sophisticated feature set and Cubasis is not so far removed from versions of ‘Cubase lite’ that were available on the desktop just a few years ago for a somewhat higher price than the iOS version.
Now, I’m not about to judge anyone’s personal financial circumstances nor the priorities they might have for their money, but UK£35 for a slick and solid recording application seems like a pretty good deal to me. Still stretch for some I’m sure, but not such a stretch as to be out of sight.
When it comes to the more powerful virtual instruments on the App Store, the top-end of the current pricing model seems to be about UK£10.99 to UK£13.99 range. This is about where the best of the iOS synths seem to sit; Thor, Z3TA+, MitoSynth, Nave, Tera Synth etc. Hands up how many of you own all of these (plus a few others)? Quite a few of you I suspect.
Many of the better guitar amp sim apps sit around this price point as does Positive Grid’s Final Touch mastering app and Sugar Bytes Turnado. Animoog is an exception here that pops its head up at UK£20.99 but if anyone want’s to tell me that doesn’t represent good value for money then just excuse me for a minute until I stop laughing.
Let’s take Cakewalk’s Z3TA as an example. The iOS version was a port of a desktop virtual instrument. Currently, that desktop version sells for UK£79. In contrast, the iOS version is priced at UK£13.99. Now, I don’t know the current desktop version but I have used an earlier version of the desktop software some time ago… and I’ve certainly used the iOS version. Frankly, in terms of pure sound, I think the iOS version is pretty much up there with its more expensive desktop equivalent… but it is 20% of the price. I could make the same comparison with guitar amp sim pricing….
If you are an iOS musician, this is the App Store pricing model producing a definite ‘win’ (and, of course, Apple still get their slice; ‘win’ number two then). You get a stellar software synth for less than the cost of a Friday evening out (heck, even less than the cost of lunch for one at a more up-market fast food chain). We are, for those in gainful employment and with even just a modest amount of disposable income, entering the point of ‘casual purchase’.
Beneath this we have another tier of iOS music apps that sit around the UK£8.99 to UK£5.49. The rather wonderful iProphet by Arturia (and that I reviewed recently) sits here as does iMini, iSEM, Audio Mastering, Arctic ProSynth, microTERA, AudioReverb, Caustic, Sector, DrumJam and a host of others. Now we are in ‘coffee and a cake’ or ‘burger and a beer’ territory. This is not a price point that most of us would lose too much sleep over if we gave an app a shot and then decided that it wasn’t really for us anyway.
Really? iProphet… UK£6.99? Audio Mastering… UK£8.99? Caustic… UK£6.99? Sector… UK£5.99? Again, in terms of value for money to the user, these are just staggering and, put into any sensible context of the history of music technology, the phrase ‘we’ve never had it so good’ seems like a pretty good fit to me…. iOS is far from the ‘perfect’ computer platform in lots of ways but, in terms of providing users with access to brilliant software at insanely low prices, it is second-to-none.
And it goes on… because beneath what is – to me anyway – already the point at which I’m losing any sense of what music software is actually worth, or how any manufacturer of that software decides what price point to start at, we have at least two further layers…. perhaps best typified by apps at around UK£2.99 and those that, like Angry Birds, come in at UK£0.69.
So, Christopher Rice’s brilliant iOS audio effects app series – Echo Pad, Crystalline, Swoopster, Stereo Designer, Caramel – all at UK£2.99, or buy the ‘bundle’ of all five for UK£8.99. Seriously, I’d pay 2 or 3 times that just to have Stereo Designer on my desktop and I’d still think I’d got a bargain…. Cotracks at UK£2.99… triqtraq at UK£2.49… Garageband at UK£2.99… Chordion at UK£2.49…. Xynthesizr at (ouch!) UK£3.99… Oscilab at (current sale price) UK£2.99…. Loopy HD at UK£2.99… Impaktor at UK£2.99…. I could go on….
… but I need to get to the cheaper ones such as Figure (UK£0.69), Launchpad (er… free), Boom 909! (UK£0.69), Beat-Machine (UK£0.69), Synthecaster (UK£0.69), XK-1 (free), Guitarism (UK£0.69)…. OK, I’ll stop now… you get the point….
Win, win, lose
Or at least part of the point. The part where it is blindingly obvious that you can buy some brilliant music software via the iTunes App Store that, in the wider context of music technology and computer-based music production, is very (very!) inexpensive compared to what has gone before.
Yes, there might be areas where, feature for feature, it is not as sophisticated as its more expensive desktop equivalent (and recording/sequencing software is perhaps the most obvious example) but there are others – and software synthesis is the best example here – where the best iOS music apps can stand toe-to-toe with some very expensive desktop equivalents and slug it out without feeling they are in the wrong weight division.
So, for us as users of these apps, there is one big, bold tick in the ‘win’ box; we can buy lots of great software and build our own specific collection of iOS music apps to match our specific needs at what amounts to a fraction of doing the same on the desktop. Perhaps the only danger is a self-inflicted one and nobody’s fault but our own; we end up spending more than we actually need simply because this stuff is so cheap and impulse buying at this kind of price point is unlikely to leave us homeless.
Having set up the technology that is the App Store, then I expect Apple would see any app sale as a ‘win’ also. I’m sure the company wants the App Store to be full of excellent products that their customers will love but, ultimately, a sale is a sale, and Apple will take their portion of it whether the app is great or the app is not.
So we (the users) win with the App Store pricing model and Apple win because app sales are, in general, going on all the time at a phenomenal rate. But what about the third party in this arrangement – the developers? How does the App Store pricing model work for them?
This is, I think, where we – as users and consumers of this software – need to think somewhat more long-term than our next ‘app fix’ thinking usually lets us. A price of UK£0.69 works if your app is selling millions of copies but, if it is a niche product – and, at present, most iOS music apps (with the exception perhaps of Garageband?) are niche products – then maybe it doesn’t stack up.
Indeed, if the conversations I’ve had with some developers are typical and representative, given the current level of sales of many iOS music apps, any app in the lower to mid part of the pricing structure described above is going to be difficult to build a secure business model upon. And if that’s the case, then, for the developers, this pricing model – at least how it is currently structured – is most definitely not a ‘win’; at best it’s in the balance and, at worst, it’s a ‘lose’.
Developers could, of course, simply increase their prices in the hope of producing a healthier balance sheet. However, they then run into the very competitive nature of the App Store pricing model. Users complain that ‘app X is too expensive at UK£5.99 when I can buy app Y at UK£2.99’. Once Apple had set the App Store model, and once a bunch of developers (and not just music app developers) had bought into it, it becomes very hard to break out of. This is a very competitive market place….
Having let the App Store sales model out of the lamp, and with millions of users now accustomed to its pricing structure, this is a very big genie to try any re-capture. Indeed, for the relatively small community of iOS music app developers, I suspect it is akin to changing the direction of a super-tanker with the paddle from an inflatable dingy.
But something probably does need to change or otherwise, our short-term thinking as music app consumers – where we want all the apps we can eat at the lowest price we can get them – is going to mean some of our favourite developers – along with their apps – will not be here for the long haul.
Long-term survival of the species
There are, of course, some fairly obvious solutions to these rather delicate app development economics and that I’m sure the developers involved will have considered. Let’s consider a few….
- Let the status quo remain and let Darwin do his thing; the fittest (those with the best apps, the highest sales and the lowest costs) will survive and the rest (along with lots of apps that we all like) will not. Those that remain can pick up a bigger share of the market.
- Increase the price of the apps. Maybe not so much at the top end of the iOS music app range…. but everywhere else a modest increase in price ought to be something that punters could bear. They might not like the fact that an app that was UK£2.99 is now UK£4.99 but those apps that are good enough (and all those mentioned above are plenty good enough) can easily justify the extra cost and, frankly, we are still talking about pocket money pricing.
- Charge for significant updates or provide updates through the IAP system. Again, punters might not like it, and charging for updates is not common on the App Store, but is does represent an additional revenue stream.
- Sell more copies…. that is, work towards a model that explains why the Angry Birds developers own a small tropical island when their app only costs UK£0.69. The catch here is that – at present – iOS music making is, in App Store terms, a drop in the ocean. For this to work, that existing user base has to be grown.
- And I won’t discuss this one further because I don’t think anyone is ready for it quite yet; a subscription model for apps similar to that now operated by Microsoft for Office and Adobe for their Creative Suite.
There may well be other approaches that developers might adopt in order to make their books balance (in-app advertising anyone? No, I thought not…) but, if these are the most obvious solutions that might make some sense from the developers perspective, how would they go down with the user community?
Well, from the perspective of an iOS music app consumer, (1) is probably the ‘head in the sand, I want them cheap’ approach. Frankly, this might be what we get and, if so, then prepare for some of your favourite apps to eventually become extinct as their developers finally decide to go and do something more lucrative.
Both (2) and (3) require users to pay more for the apps they buy and use. Yes, we all like to get something for (next to) nothing but, unless the developer community can make a living producing these apps, keeping them up-to-date with the latest changes to IOS and adding all those new features we keep demanding, then, again, causalities are inevitable.
For (2), I’m afraid that we really (REALLY) do just need to wake up to the fact that this is a specialist niche market and that we ought to expect to pay somewhat specialist niche-market prices. And, if an app increases in price by £1 or $1 or €1, is that really such a big deal? No, its not… and it’s certainly not a big deal in the context of the price difference between an iOS music app and an equivalent piece of desktop music software.
For (3), this is also a case where we, as users, might need to cut developers some slack. Paid updates are not standard practice on the App Store. Well, tough… if you want some of these apps to exist at all then we have got to think beyond the extra couple of £, $ or € in our pockets and think about how we help sustain the very thing that we all want to see happen; music app development.
Incidentally, Propellerhead released an update to their desktop Reason software a few days ago; $129/€129 for the update which is about 30% of the price for the full product if you don’t already own an earlier version of Reason. Would it really be too much to ask of a user to pay (say) UK£2 once a year for the major upgrade cycle of a UK£5.99 app if all the routine bug fix/minor updates during that year were free? Personally, I think not… but developers are caught between a rock and a hard place given the expectation in the wider App Store model of free updates.
And then there is (4). And while (1), (2) and (3) all have some element of ‘lose’ for someone in the food-chain, whether developer or user (although probably not for Apple), (4) is the one possible solution that does not; as a strategy on its own, it would be a win for everyone…. well, it would be if it could be pulled off.
Now, I’m not suggesting we shall ever see an iOS music app selling at Angry Birds levels, but I do think that the iOS music app market is still one with huge growth potential. The sheer number of iOS devices out there, and the huge numbers of owners who perhaps have some musical aspirations, mean that, with a fair wind, the overall level of iOS music apps sales can rise.
Perhaps the real question with (4) for the developer community is how to leverage that expansion of the market? As demonstrated by online communities at sites such as Audiobus (and their excellent forum), the iPad Musician Facebook page and even by the regular audience that frequent the various iOS music themed websites such as dischord, thesoundtestroom, Palm Sounds, iOSMars and even the Music App Blog, there is a small (hard core?) iOS musician community who have an appetite for the platform.
The problem is that this ‘already convinced’ audience, in the wider scheme of things, probably only amounts to a few thousand individuals worldwide. However dedicated they are, and however eager they are to support the developers and to keep up with the very latest developments in their iOS music making passion, these sorts of numbers are simply not enough to sustain a fledgling branch of the music technology industry on their own. We already buy all the great apps…. the developers, however, need more of us.
However, sitting around that hard-core community, will be those who have a more casual interest and I suspect that (a) this is a far, far bigger potential pool of people and (b) it is a pool open to persuasion if they can be reached in a suitable fashion.
In fact, this might actually be all sorts of different groups of people with very different musical interests and needs so the trick is working out how to appeal to this diverse group of casual users; those who are kind of aware of the technology but have not fully embraced it; those who have musical aspirations but are not really aware of how far they might be able to take them via iOS; those that are already committed to their musical passion but have not yet embraced how technology (any sort of technology) might help them pursue it.
How do we expose them to iOS as a music-making platform? How do we raise the profile of the platform within the wider music technology community? How do we showcase the platform and what it can do? How do we draw potential users in and persuade them that iOS is a great choice? How, ultimately, do we get more people wanting to make music based around iOS technology?
Answers on a postcard please….
There will be all sorts of different answers to all of these questions. The initial question for each developer, however, will be how they might, individually, contribute to those any of those answers in a meaningful way. Can an individual developer make the sort of contribution that will begin to open the door for the rest of the developer community to follow?
Or does it require a community-level response? Does the developer community need, in some way, to apply its collective efforts to showcase what it has to offer to attract a new – but potentially significant – audience?
I can think of a few possibilities here but I’ll save those for another time (I’ve already been in ‘rant lite’ mode for way too long). However, I would be interested in your own thoughts…. so, if you feel so inclined, either via email or via the comments section below, chuck your own ideas into the ring…. How does the iOS music technology industry grow its user base and, as a consequence, put itself on a more sustainable footing?
1, 2, 3, 4
Personally, while I think option (1) above is inevitable part of any business community, I’d rather it wasn’t the default solution. Equally personally, I could live with either (2) or (3) because I’ve enough grey hair to see the wider context in which the App Store pricing structure sits and that means the vast majority of iOS music apps already represent staggering value for money (and the majority in the mid/low pricing tier still would if you doubled their price).
Those with somewhat fewer miles on their personal clock, or for whom iOS is the only software platform they have ever known, or whom don’t expect to pay for anything if they can get it for free (er… like music), may have a different take. Unfortunately, they may need a bit of work to persuade them why, in anything but the short-term, that position is untenable.
And (4) is – obviously – the best solution for all concerned but also the one that is probably most difficult to achieve and would, in whatever its various forms might be, perhaps take longest to plan and implement.
None of these possible solutions are mutually exclusive though. Option (1) is going to happen anyway as a bit of financial natural selection – developers will come and go – but the other options can easily run alongside each other. In the shorter-term, maybe (2) and (3) are what we face and, if so, so be it…. but I sincerely hope that, somehow, (4) can also be achieved.
Those of us already inside the circle – whether right in the centre as a developer, or sitting around that centre as a dedicated iOS music app user – are already convinced of the creative potential the platform offers but, if the platform is going to succeed in the medium-term, then we need to make a bigger (much bigger) circle and invite others inside…
… and if you have ideas on how to make that happen, then please feel free to share them…