iOS music app pricing – how low can you go?

Euro symbol graphicI’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.

Easy money! UK£0.69 and sells by the lorry load. Angry Birds has most certainly earned its keep....

Easy money! UK£0.69 and sells by the lorry load. Angry Birds has most certainly earned its keep….

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 it was UK£0.69...!  and I've finished it!!...  I want my money back!!!

..but it was UK£0.69…! and I’ve finished it!!… I want my money back!!!

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.

Something to aspire too... That multi-million £/$/€ studio to record your next hot album in :-)

Something to aspire too… That multi-million £/$/€ studio to record your next hot album in :-)

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.

Cubasis might be priced at the top end of the iOS music app range but, like Auria, I think it still represents excellent value for money.

Cubasis might be priced at the top end of the iOS music app range but, like Auria, I think it still represents excellent value for money.

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.

Thor - mega synth - under iOS or otherwise - all for UK£13.99.

Thor – mega synth – under iOS or otherwise – all for UK£13.99.

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.

Arturia's iProphet iOS synth is unbelievably good given the pocket money price

Arturia’s iProphet iOS synth is unbelievably good given the pocket money price

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.

Stereo Designer - cheap as chips and I'd love to see is as a desktop application...  and I'd happily pay a desktop price for the privilege.

Stereo Designer – cheap as chips and I’d love to see is as a desktop application… and I’d happily pay a desktop price for the privilege.

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.

UK£2.99? Why is it UK£2.99? I can't afford UK£2.99...  Now if it was UK£1.99 then I could afford it...  yes, then I'd buy it rather than spending a week searching on line for a cracked version....

UK£2.99? Why is it UK£2.99? I can’t afford UK£2.99… Now if it was UK£1.99 then I could afford it… yes, then I’d buy it rather than spending a week searching on line for a cracked version….

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’.

Competitive pricing

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….

Animoog is 'expensive' in iOS music app terms...  but please don't try to convince me that it doesn't offer good value for money....

Animoog is ‘expensive’ in iOS music app terms… but please don’t try to convince me that it doesn’t offer good value for money….

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….

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

The likes of Audio Mastering (shown here) and Final Touch provide an incredible level of audio processing at a very modest price.

The likes of Audio Mastering (shown here) and Final Touch provide an incredible level of audio processing at a very modest price.

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.

There are lots of musicians in the world...  and lots of iOS owners...  but, at present, a pretty small community of dedicated iOS musicians....

There are lots of musicians in the world… and lots of iOS owners… but, at present, a pretty small community of dedicated iOS musicians….

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….

And the solution is? Answers on a postcard please (or via email or a comment).

And the solution is? Answers on a postcard please (or via email or a comment).

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

What do you mean...? Like, I have to pay for it...? You know, like, money? Why's that then?

What do you mean…? Like, I have to pay for it…? You know, like, money? Why’s that then?

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…

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    1. Excellent post, John, and something I’ve thought about myself. God bless the Christopher Rice’s of the world. It must be a labor of love, ’cause they sure aren’t living on easy street at these price points. Yet.

      My suspicion and hope is that they see and have committed to the ground floor opportunity of this new platform. If iOS music production goes mainstream, early developers stand to sit in the cat-bird seat. As growing numbers of serious music makers arrive, word of mouth and community will carry the best and brightest through your 1, 2 and 3 scenarios. Mainstays will benefit hugely from the curiosity of the uninitiated (“What? You don’t have Crystalline, etc, yet?”) just like it happened on the desktop. 20 years ago the jury was split as to whether you could make real music on the desktop vs. renting expensive studio time. I think a similar paradigm shift has arrived in the mobile age.

      Two things need to happen to blow this wide open for the benefit of all, and I see signs that both are beginning to happen. Apple has to shine their very large spotlight on iOS music production, something they’ve been doing more and more with recent commercials (also, props to Jimmy Fallon). Two is we need more than instrumental ambient/EDM tracks, however gorgeous, as the barely visible output of the medium. We need established and breakout artists producing commercially visible and viable albums, and then touting the new platform. One-offs from acts like Gorillaz are nice, but we need more than one-offs. Kudos to Apptronica for supporting early adopter artists, ’cause lobbing your album blindly into the vast ocean of iTunes/Soundcloud/Bandcamp is only slightly better than lobbing it blindly into the Atlantic.

      I’m encouraged by developments on both of these fronts. However, I don’t want it to take off TOO soon. I still need to finish writing/recording my own iOS magnum opus ;)

      Also regarding your proposed IAP solution, Auria’s ever-looming Big MIDI update will be an IAP. Other developers will take note, I’m sure.

    2. Graham Hanks says:

      Having Paid over £100 for the desktop version of Arturia’s mini moog emulation, I can say with confidence that the iPad version (iMini) is a steal at the current price. And it is just as good to my ears ( admittedly ageing ears now). The same could be said of iSem and new iProphet. And I don’t begrudge the fact that I paid a lot more on the desktop version. It was actually the dr bob collection, which I bought more for the Moog Modular than the mini Moog, but I decided to pay extra to get the Mini Moog as well. If they ever released the Modular on ipad I would rush out and buy it tomorrow – even if it cost me £35!

      I would certainly agree that many apps such as audio-mastering and crystalline are very underpriced. Crystalline at £2.99, actually does a better job of shimmer reverb than my £89 zoom CDR guitar pedal!

      If anything, when an app is less than beer money it can actually give the impression of being cheap rubbish – I actually expected crystalline to be inferior to my dedicated fx pedal!

    3. Robert Goldberg says:

      Great article, which is not to say I agree whole cloth with it. One thing to remember: Those of us making music on iOS devices find ourselves where some of us were, say, 35 years ago on the desktop, around the time MIDI4+ was running on the Apple //e computer, or a few years later with the Commodore 64 and Amiga, or the Atari’s first 16-bit computers. I’ve wondered about this business model especially in terms of the larger, mainstream developers like Steinberg, Korg, Yamaha that are also creating apps for iOS. The price point is so much lower: does this create a sort of orphan-child status? How else to explain that Korg has still not updated its comparatively pricey apps for iOS8, or that for quite some time, Cubasis was anything but “a slick and solid recording application,” with slow updates, no automation, and to me at least, unpredictable results like disappearing audio files? This from one of the pioneers in desktop DAW creation? I can tell you this: I’ve done my bleeding edge time in the days of TEAC 4-tracks and monophonic synths. When I experiment with iOS in any serious way, that’s what it is: an experiment. Often I have to find workarounds. It appears Cubasis lacks the ability to crossfade, for instance! Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. Perhaps higher prices would allow for larger staff, more vigorous debugging, more incentive to devs to get it right. But I wouldn’t be spending large sums on a platform that I still consider in its infancy. Over time, more apps will appear at a higher price point (think iSymphonic or the new Omenie everything package, both c. $75 US, IIRC) and there will be a natural evolution. Perhaps Apple will break down and throw another measly gig of RAM into these pricey little infants. But for right now, the model facilitates experimentation, there is no dearth of devs (who deserve better pay), and it’s an evolutionary process. Thanks for the article. Nicely done.

    4. I don’t see why app pricing should be different from any other business model. Some of those models use low price and volume to drive sales while others promote quality and a higher price to profit maximize. What’s different about apps is that there really isn’t enough users ( music apps anyway ) that have the expertise and name recognition to promote a given app. So, a freemium model is used to drive units and hopefully, once a good taste is achieved, the IAP’s drive business.

      That’s seems to be gaining traction but I’ve always thought the freemium model was flawed. Sometimes there’s not enought to get a real good taste and sometimes there is but you have to pay for stuff like midi capabilities.

      I’ll offer that the shareware “free to try for x days” should have greater appeal to users and developers. If we I can get a fully loaded app to try for a few weeks and get hooked I’ll wager the conversion ratio to full price would be substantial. If the thing is a dud, for any reason – unstable operation , poor support, memory hog, sounds like crap – whatever, we can take a pass and not be out any cash whatsoever. To be honest, even if an app only costs 99 cents, if it doesn’t work, I’m still a bit pieved.

      The bottom line though is that, like any other product, if the market is big enough and the product fulfills a strong want ( or desire…I’m leaving out “need” because I have a hard time believing most of this is really needed) and is priced right, then business should be good. If not, well even the heavy hitters fail more than they succeed.

      I think I just ranted. Must be the topic. Contagious.

    5. Great article, John. One of the best ways users can keep the scene healthy for developers is by reviewing their favorite apps on the App Store. It’s also important to update reviews occasionally, keeping in mind that when developers put new builds out (usually containing fixes and cool new features), all the reviews get hidden by default.

    6. Interesting article as always. I can only speak for myself but i have spent £100s trying out different music related apps because the prices are cheap enough to do this. I simply wouldn’t do it if they were not cheap. I was always look at IAPs before I buy as well and if they are stacked up to get full use of the app, I tend not to buy the App.

      If great websites like this one tell me about special offers, I usually take advantage. Auria to name but one was half price a while ago and an absolute steal. I use it daily without having to purchase all the expensive IAPs because of so many cheaper external options. Had it not been half price, I would have stuck with Meteor. If Cubasis goes on special offer, I will probably buy that as well but if not, I won’t as I have no real need for it.

      The successful business model here for developers in my opinion is that they are more likely to sell a 1000 copies of something priced at £2.99 because people will buy it and try it than they are to sell 100 copies of something priced at £29.99 that is not in a buy and try it price range.

      The whole attraction of using the iPad and related music apps is the amazing value for money. Take that away and people will revert back to the PC or MAC platform.

      I for one don’t own an iPad because I want an iPad or to please Apple (I would never buy a MAC over a PC but that is a different discussion) I have an iPad because of the amazing apps available at such good prices. (Music and non related music apps) If that becomes too expensive or even close to PC costs, I simply wouldn’t buy an iPad.

      I fully understand and appreciate the challenge developers have but they choose the platform they develop on and we the consumer choose which one to use. Push the prices up too much and the value of owning an iPad disappears and back to Lapttops and Desktops we would go.

    7. Patrick/Secret Base Design says:

      Great article — it’s tough for developers who are hoping to make music apps full time. I know that I couldn’t live on my app revenue. It’s my day job that puts food on the table.

      My expectation is that many developers will start using bundles as a way to create paid upgrades; I’m planning this for some of my apps. A bundle could have version 1 of an app, and also version 2. If a user has version 1, they can get 2 at a discount through the bundle. New users grab version 2 directly… And people who are happy with version 1 can stay there as long as they like. (Hat tip to Bianca — I saw a comment from her on this, and the light bulb went on).

      John’s (4) above — that’s where I hold out some hope. We can grow the user base; there’s an ocean of musicians (and potential musicians) who have no idea how good some of the apps are. Getting the word out through blogs is one avenue. Psicada touched on another — it would be great if more users put reviews into the app store. I get emails from people telling me how much they like some of my apps; while that’s nice, it would be even better if they put the comments into a review. Robust reviews give new users confidence that they’re not getting scammed.

      Ultimately, developers are slicing up a revenue pie (with Apple taking a 30% slice right from the start). I’d like to see the pie grow. I don’t really want to charge more for apps (I like that they can be tried for pocket-change); growing the pie through more users would be fantastic.

    8. Great article John, it didn’t cover anything I haven’t considered before but it’s great to see it so nicely presented and discussed.

      The one aspect of this drive forward that you didn’t mention is the inevitable merger between desktop and mobile operating systems. This has been on the cards for a long time and we’re slowly but surely see these two eco systems come together and I don’t think it will be too long before we can run iOS apps on OS X. That’s a very intriguing, and exciting, thought for me that raises the importance of the questions raised here even higher.

      What happens to the pricing model when you can get an iOS app for £10 instead of the desktop equivalent at £50 – but you can run it on the desktop?

      I don’t know the answer …

    9. Good article showing the problems with funding a niche market. You can tell it’s niche as a number 1 music app isn’t anywhere near number 1 overall.
      Developers create apps for two reasons imo 1) because they want to create something on an emerging platform that hasn’t been done before and 2) yes we all want to give up our day jobs and play with creating music apps.
      Realistically for me 2) will only happen if I keep releasing new apps (less effort to create as you can use an existing framework or library) rather than work on 1 and increase (and lower the volume) or decrease (raising the volume). I’ve actually found reducing the price does not increase sales. People will buy your app – after all they spent $1000 on their ipad so collecting as many apps as possible is a must.
      For 1) it’s the only way a developer can survive at the moment – a labour of love. Compared to my day job I earn 5% of my salary of my day job on one app (which is more than I expected), and spend 70% of a 7 hour day doing that – not economic.
      The route I will take is 3) IAP – I’ve release a base app with many functions, but if something larger comes along, its reasonable I think to charge additional for it.
      I’m finding 30% takeup on the IAP I created – probably low because of another issue (for developers) not mentioned in your article. Marketing. I spent $0 on marketing – but hope to increase this soon as word of mouth isn’t good to spread beyond the 2000+ IOS musicians we have here.
      So for an indie developer (without the contacts the big companies already have), the biggest problem is deciding how much revenue to spend on marketing. That worries me as we are still niche – take all the profit out of it and it goes sour – developer leaves and focuses on other more lucrative areas that aren’t really serious but generate alot of money…

      I for one have many designs I want to see on the ipad to support the music I create, so will continue to do so….

    10. Eve Severe says:

      I love my iOS devices. I am an app addict and blessed to beta test SO many awesome audio apps (from the big guys to the Indy Devs) and own too many too list. I rarely complain about prices of apps because we are fortunate to be able to make some killer music on a small mobile platform.

      I would have never thought back in my high school days that my instruments could be simulated on a computer let alone a 1/4 lb device I can put in my bag and even my pocket!

      Goodness know I love my analog hardware, my digi hardware, my software, and my apps. I will never part with my studio gear (even if takes up a boatload of space).

      We truly have it made these days.

      I wish all the small Devs that make affordable and awesome apps that are updated often (and priced fairly) would be able to have designing their own apps be their main job and make a great living at it.

      It does drive me crazy that some (some) large companies make crappy apps that never get updated or are filled with bugs and they charge a hefty price. I can think of one in particular that I have bought all the IAPs only for it to have one crappy update in the last 2.5 years and no Audiobus, IAP, or even Audio copy/paste in it!

      Those are the only apps I ever complain about. I don’t mine throwing down 40 or 50 bucks on an app if it blows my mind. I do get bummed out if I spend that much and am not impressed (which has happened many times) but that won’t deter me from buying audio apps and still getting giddy when an awesome new app comes out!


    11. I was using Nanostudio on my lunch in work the other day. Someone asked if I was making music on my iPhone.
      “Yes” I said.
      “What’s the app called?” He asked.
      “Nanostudio. It’s really great”.
      “How much is it?”
      “About £10”
      His eyes nearly popped out of his face. And nothing I said could convince him that £10 for an app was worth every penny.

      The scary thing about it is that if an app gets abandoned (and it’s completely bug free at time of abandonment) its still not going to last forever. It’s going to become obsolete when there is an iOS update in the future, or an Audiobus update. These apps aren’t self contained anymore.

      I for one would definitely pay a little extra for apps, and I’m also not against paying for major updates like you mentioned above. I’d even pay a yearly subscription for an app that I love.

      In some ways raising the price of apps would cause people to be more selective and it may mean some developers would lose out. This may separate the wheat from the chaff, but it may also mean losing some developers in the long run.

      Anyway, a great article that certainly gave me something to think about.

    12. Hi All…. thanks for everyone who has left a comment on the post so far… Some really interesting view points and adds a number of things to my original text. It is also great to see a few developers adding their insight here – again thanks. Keep the comments coming…. Best wishes, John

    13. A very interesting and encouraging discussion. It’s great to see people who care about the future of apps (be they music or otherwise).

      A few thoughts and observations:

      1) The mass market consumer generally does not want to pay anything, let alone £0.79. They think that Facebook or Apple pay to make all the good apps. This therefore renders option (4) (sell more copies) less likely to me. Our music practice app Soundproof ( is free with in-app purchases and we’ve had a major publication’s reviewer feature us and then complain that practice is limited to 30 minutes per week without paying a one-off £1.49! As fellow developers here will know, that kind of attitude can make months of work feel like an utter waste of time.

      2) Time limited trial where it stops after a time is, to my knowledge, not permitted by Apple. An app must continue to function as per the App Store Guidelines… see:

      … 2.9 Apps that are “demo”, “trial”, or “test” versions will be rejected. Beta Apps may only be submitted through TestFlight and must follow the TestFlight guidelines

      … 11.9 Apps containing content or services that expire after a limited time will be rejected, except for specific approved content (e.g. films, television programs, music, books)

      We have managed to get through app review (so far) with a weekly usage time limit, so people can use it in perpetuity and pay nothing, provided they can wait until next week to carry on.

      I’m not sure what the solution is. I am experimenting with in-app purchases for feature-bundles, on the basis that new categories of features will be added in future as separate purchases.

      Paid upgrades are unlikely to work in the current system because there are complications with Apple’s pricing tiers. We tried to offer in-app purchases for “basic” and “advanced”, with a hidden purchase tier to upgrade from one to the other in case you bought Basic first – so we could offer an upgrade to Advanced at no cost penalty. Sadly in many countries this is not viable as the pricing tiers are not proportional to those in other countries. The result is you end up with a morass of per-territory pricing and upgrade price points or people get screwed if they buy at one level and try to upgrade to another. Similar problems exist with bundle pricing, in that it can cost more to get the bundle than buy the remaining apps you don’t already have.

      Basically, it’s really tricky. I think long term subscription and/or selling more in-app content people actually want is the only model likely to be sustainable. Paid upgrades are unlikely to happen any time soon even with app bundles, and even if they do – the per-unit price is so low its going to be really hard. This is being borne out by the successful revenue generating titles being free with purchase for credits/add ons. Scummy as it may seem, most people prefer this model. Music apps obviously don’t have to be scummy about it like games are.

      In essence I like the idea we are left at: build an app that is your “bricks and mortar” and then sell stuff you create or curate from it. It’s just a lot harder, and more risky, to design a whole business than just build an app.

    14. Just a quick note on subscription models. As a creative professional, I can tell you the pro design community by and large were VERY unhappy when Adobe announced their “subscribe or hit the bricks” strategy with Creative Suite. Ditto for a fair amount of Microsoft Office users with this whole Office 365 model.

      Successful subs beyond magazines typically have two things in common: they think they’re the only game in town (think of your local cable provider) and their insistence that you either feed at their trough like the rest or starve breeds consumer resentment (think of your local cable provider). I would balk at any iOS music app announcing they were going subscription-only.

      Finally, it seems logical that at some point users reach a subscription saturation point. Is it realistic to expect users to track and manage 50+ music app monthly or even annual statements? On top of their Hulu and Netflix? Would new developers/apps find it difficult to break through a user’s established subscription bubble?

      I prefer the smorgasbord. Best way to make it the most profitable buffet in town is to make it the most visible buffet in town. Grow the user base and everyone benefits.

      PS – pleased to see so many developers weigh in! It adds insight and helps center the conversation. Thank you all! And thank you John for such a thoughtful article.

    15. When I put out my first app – SrutiBox – in late August 2008, it was hard to think of what price to go in with. (Hey, I have a new iOS8/iphone 5,6,6+ version of SrutiBox waiting for review right now). I think there was already a low price precedent, and though I think this was a few months before SMULE’s Ocarina, it was pretty quickly perceived that an app store app – music app at least – was going to be at a Tier 1 price point. But it was also obvious that that price was ridiculously low. People were just vacuuming up apps, hating them, and leaving the kind of comments one reserves for your political bugbears, inedibly on the app store pages, practically the only place to discover apps. So I priced it in Tier 3, where it has stayed all these years, figuring it would cut down on the impulse buyers, and maybe create an impression of quality by requesting to be paid, even though it’s less than I typically tip for lunch.
      It’s hard for a single programmer with no budget for publicity to move those virtual units. My apps’ audiences are not particularly apt to promote them socially.
      Then Audio Copy and Paste and Audiobus came along. What these APIs provide is their own, mini versions of the AppStore, where synth apps can be separated from others in Apple’s music category like education, tuning, band promo and radio apps. This really helps the visibility, but they don’t have ratings systems built in them. I actually suggested at one point that there be a kind of agreement that no audiobus app would be priced less than Tier 5, (and allow for occasional sales price cuts) so that people could understand that they would pay a little more for the ability to interoperate. That’s something like your option (2). This was shot down immediately as potentially illegal ( in Europe at least) as a price fixing scheme, which I completely understand. Nevertheless, these low prices are really , really low.

      I’m glad to see packages now in the App store, I’m curious to see if a scheme like Patrick Secret Base describes will pass muster at Apple, since Apple has been trying to cut down on “redundant” apps in the app store. Every app should be a working app, all the time, no matter how “lite”, so this weekly time limit thing seems really close to the edge of acceptability. There have been weird and arbitrary decisions in the past, like not allowing MIDI as a paid add-on.

      Increasing the user base would obviously be a great solution. Most people don’t even know how sophisticated the iOS music app ecosystem is. If the devices get a little beefier, and there are good interfaces for professional I/O, it could really put a dent in the professional music making world. My apps would probably remain marginal, they are not really for casual users and are somewhat closer to art pieces or acoustic though experiment tools, a new form of interactive media that itself is trying to find a price level.

      But this whole app ecosystem may change as iOS and OSX grow together and for all I know will become a single OS, supporting apps under OS X by making a consumer version of the simulator or something like that. Then I’d expect desktop apps to start racing to the bottom as well.

    16. Great article. Great replies.

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