The iOS music technology industry – and being not quite mainstream

Euro notes 1This is a slightly different article to the usual news, reviews and tutorials I generally provide on the Music App Blog and perhaps more of a discussion piece.

It’s prompted by a combination of three separate news-type stories got me thinking this week and pondering the current status of iOS (or maybe that should be lack of it?) as a platform for musicians and, if you make it to the end (!) then I’d be interested in your views….

Small is beautiful?

Those of us who have used the iOS technology for music making know full well the potential the platform offers, the fun that can be had and, equally, the frustrations it can throw up. Perfect it is not, but I’m happy and willing to predict is has a very bright future over the next few years.

However, I think it is fair to say that music production under iOS is still a minority sport; this is a very small niche (iOS music production) within what is only a modestly-sized niche (music production in general) compared to lots of other potential interests inhabitants of planet Earth might have. Take football (soccer) or film stars for example. If you want to find out what’s happening in those worlds there are literally hundreds of online portals you can go to, print publications you can buy, TV shows you can watch and podcasts you can download. Some will be serious, some will be fun, some will be libellous, some will be good and some will be c***….  but you have plenty to choose from if your particular ‘interest’ is already in the mainstream.

If you are an iOS musician, there are perhaps fewer choices. Yes, lots of websites – including some of the bigger, more general, music technology websites – give iOS music making some coverage as do some mainstream music technology print magazines, but if you want something focused on our particular (minority) interest then there are relatively few places to go.

Connecting three threads

OK, what about those three stories/news items I mentioned above? Well, the first involved a post I saw via the iPad Musician Facebook Group saying that the iDesignSound website has put up a ‘now closed’ notice. The second was a thread on the Audiobus Forum reporting the serious health problems that Doug who runs thesoundtestroom YouTube channel (and which covers lots of iOS music technology) was currently facing and that means he is out of action (although, thankfully, the news is now more positive and he seems to be recovering). The third was a discussion by site members over at the discchord website – run by Tim Webb – where one reader, in passing, commented on Tim’s efforts to make the site earn an income.

Discchord is probably the most popular iOS music website out there. Tim always provides interesting and informative content and he does it in an engaging and entertaining way. He also provides lots of that content and that requires a combination of energy, enthusiasm and commitment on Tim’s behalf. And, ultimately, if you are going to be able to sustain that sort of commitment level, you are going to need a suitable supply of something else; money.

I don’t know Tim particularly well but, a good while back, we did exchange emails that touched upon this topic. Could you find ways to make a website dealing with iOS music technology support itself financially? At that point, the Music App Blog was just finding its feet, earning pocket money from a few affiliate links on iTunes app sales (it’s earning a little more now but it’s not going to pay my mortgage any time soon; that has to come from the other work I do) and I was grateful for his insights. Tim was (and still is I suspect) much further down the line in making discchord pay its way. I’ve no idea how close he might be to achieving the obvious goal of the site providing him with a decent living (and I’m too polite to ask) but if he is getting there then that’s a damn good thing – for him and for the rest of us iOS musicians.

Money makes the world go around….

What I’m getting at here is that, at present, the iOS music production ‘industry’ is still in its infancy but, if it is going to develop and expand, it needs an infrastructure within which to do it. The hardware and software developers need to be able to get a return on their development efforts. That, in turn, requires potential users to be exposed to their products and buy them in suitably large numbers. And that, in turn, requires ‘media’ outlets – whether big, small, commercial, keen amateur, etc. – to provide coverage and the required exposure.

And to make all that happen – and for it to become a viable, sustainable industry – money has to flow. In this context, it means money from the users to the developers and, equally, from the developers to those media outlets (most obviously in terms of advertising). Much as some of us might dislike the concept of mixing money and creativity or perhaps distrust the idea of money passing from manufacturers to the media outlets we hope are giving us objective views on the products made by the same developers, the world doesn’t – yet at least – seem to have developed any other model that actually works and also allows everyone involved to keep a little food on the table.

Feeling fragile

These three story threads – for me personally anyway – demonstrate that we still have a long way to go in the ‘industry’ of iOS music production. We have some great products and it has massive potential. Over the next few years mobile computing technology – phones and tablets – will, I suspect, gradually become the platform where the majority of music technology newbies start their journey.

However, that a big portion of the current die-hard community notices (and it’s brilliant that they do) when a couple of that community’s leading reporters – Alex and Doug – dip out of sight, and when the leading blog – discchord – is perhaps the only specialist site getting close to making itself financially sustainable – does suggest that this is an industry and niche interest that is still somewhat fragile.  As an industry, there is still plenty of ground to be covered.

Of course, bloggers – in all fields and not just iOS music – will come and go. Their interests or circumstances change and they choose to, or are compelled to, spend their time doing other things. Ultimately however, like any activity in our modern world, for iOS music production to flourish, money has to be involved. Whether iOS will ever become a mainstream (or even dominant) component in the wider field of music technology I’ve no idea (and being a little underground is something that has its appeal to lots of people) but if developers are going to stay interested, like it or not, profits are required… and some of those profits will have to circulate to the other components within the industry – media included – to keep the symbiosis fully functional.

Trust matters

I’ve experienced this process working – and working pretty well – in the freelance writing work I do for Sound On Sound magazine. SOS is a well-establish part of the wider music technology industry and, while some will love it and a few might not, it has produced a professional product for over 25 years that has gained a lot of respect within the industry. But the production process is a big operation that employs a sizable team of permanent staff (as well as freelancers like me); the scale of it is not – unlike much of the iOS music technology coverage at present – one man (or woman) and his blog.

Producing a print magazine like SOS needs a regular and sizeable budget. In the main, that budget comes from two sources; advertising and reader subscriptions. As far as I’m aware, none of the current iOS music blogs asks its readers to pay a subscription :-) so that leaves advertising/affiliate links as the obvious source of earning a crust as an online media outlet (or selling your own products but I’ll leave that topic for another time).

And that, of course, leaves us with the obvious question; can we trust the reviews/opinions to be unbiased when the manufacturers – through their advertising – are keeping the reviewers in business?

That trust matters. It matters to the readers because they want to believe that they are getting honest opinions of a product. It matters to the bloggers (and the print magazines such as SOS) because they need to maintain that trust so that readers keep coming. And it ought to matter to the manufacturers themselves. They need good places to advertise their products and where readers (potential purchasers) feel the opinions expressed are given honestly and fairly. Both manufacturers and readers might not always agree with those opinions – they are, after all, just opinions of an individual and their take on a particular product, and their needs or expectations of it might be different from those of individual readers – but those readers need to be comfortable in their belief that the reviewers opinions are made in good faith.

The bottom line here is that it really is in everyone’s best interest that this circle of trust exists….  but it has to exist alongside a parallel acceptance that money may well change hands between the various parties involved.

Lucky us?

Your mileage may vary but, in my experience at least, I think we are currently pretty lucky in this regard in iOS music production land. I think all of the iOS music related websites that I regularly drop into are pretty ethical places to be. No hard sell or obvious marketing; just a bunch of very enthusiastic and dedicated folks doing their best to spread the word and keep everyone informed. It certainly applies in the case of Alex, Doug and Tim.

Maybe that’s only possible because of the still-niche nature of our interest? Maybe if iOS music technology does evolve into the mainstream that might – in some dark and murky places – change a little? Who knows……?  Let’s hope not and that the positive community spirit can be maintained. I suspect that readers – who are generally pretty sensitive to these issues – would soon sort the good from the bad for themselves anyway.

Whether we like it or not, most of us need money to make our individual world’s go around; the iOS music technology industry – small and niche though it is – is no different. And, in my opinion anyway (and feel free to disagree with me if you wish), if that means some marketing – ads or affiliate links on YouTube videos or on your favourite blogs/website – in order to get our ‘free’ fix of iOS music technology news, views, reviews and tutorials, then it is something we will have to learn to live with (and perhaps even encourage?) if we ultimately want the platform to succeed.

Until then….  if you haven’t already, check out the list of iOS music technology resources on the Links page. It includes those resources provided by Alex, Doug, Tim and a number of others run by equally enthusiastic and committed fans of our niche. Alex, we enjoyed what you did and we will miss you. Doug, we all hope you can be back making videos soon. Tim, here’s hoping your hard work brings a suitable return so you can keep doing what you do.

To all those on this list of iOS resources… whether you do it for love, for fun or for money (alongside the love and fun)… your ‘industry’ needs you….

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    1. Patrick/Secret Base Design says:


    2. Thanks for this thought-provoking article. I have thought since the beginning of this journey that the iOS music microeconomy has been operating in a surrealistic bubble that defies the laws of supply and demand, and have been wondering when it will burst, and when it does, what the fallout will look like.

      It’s interesting (but makes perfect sense) that your article focuses on the journalistic and marketing aspect of the industry, which seems to be the natural extension of the core of this market: the apps, and (to a lesser extent) the supporting hardware. For me, the story starts with Apple, and with the GarageBand app. For those of us who are really dedicated hobbyists, GarageBand might seem a bit lightweight or limited. In some ways it is, but in many ways it’s quite an amazing piece of software offering, even from its early versions, tons of DAW features, virtual ‘made for touch’ instruments, built in effects, and even some editing capacity. You can create a pretty polished sounding complete song with this app. Apple set a difficult bar at $5 US. Presumably, they could afford to do so because really GarageBand is a sales tool for a much more expensive iDevice.

      Enter other developers who want to compete in this space, and let’s start with the devs themselves. If you have never developed software for iOS using Cocoa Touch and Objective-C, let me tell you, learning it can be humbling even for a seasoned developer. A lot of these devs are one man shops, and to create a music app requires understanding computer programming concepts, the Apple-specific stuff, and also in most cases a solid understanding of DSP and probably at least some music theory. And they have to be competent graphics designers on top of it. What I’m getting at is that our devs are some pretty darned sharp cookies, and could surely command some pretty great salaries. If they choose to spend their time creating an iOS music app, not only is their potential customer base small (compare to say, creating an iOS game which has a market of 10s or 100s of millions), but the price they can charge is capped. Look at the amount of controversy created by Different Drummer’s initial price tag. I would say the current ceiling for iOS music app software is $US 50. And your app better be nothing short of amazing to ask that.

      The majority of the musical gear I’ve accumulated can be expressed in the hundreds and in a few cases even thousands of US dollars that I’ve paid for it. Most of the iOS “gear” (apps) I’ve accumulated can be expressed comprehensibly in the number of cents. Given that the margins on iOS synths, DAWs, FX, etc. are upside down to start with, it only seems natural that the journalism and other supporting industries surrounding the products are going to follow. How much can you charge for a preset bank for a $5 synth? How much can you charge for quality reviews and tutorials for a product? The answer in general seems to be: less than the product itself.

      I’m sure enjoying it while it lasts, but I just can’t foresee the iOS music economy continuing forever as it is today. Like you say, the exchange of an adequate money for products and services rendered is necessary to keep the world spinning. I predict that this industry will either change to reflect that reality or will disappear. Until then, lucky consumers, enjoy!

      • Hi Joe, thanks for this thoughtful response. I’ve commented before that I don’t understand how some (many, any?) iOS music app developers make a return given the pricing structure of the App Store and I agree with your analysis here. It is a pricing model that works for Apple (as you say, Garageband is brilliant and serves pretty much as a loss leader for the hardware) and, if you are a developer of something like Angry Birds (where you measure your app sales in millions) but, otherwise, I suspect it is a challenging and unpredictable place to be.
        There may be a bit of a circle to break out of here somehow…. and whether that’s higher app prices to the existing user base or – and this would be the one I suspect most of us would prefer – higher sales numbers to a rapidly expanding user base, in terms of longer-term sustainability, change may have to come…. Again, thanks for your input…. Always appreciated… best wishes, John

      • Great original post John, and great response from Joe. This is a market that offers tremendous value to its users, truly tremendous, yet that value comes at a very low cost. That’s a volume game to be sustainable yet probably the scene doesn’t have the volume yet. So maybe it’s a matter of waiting for the scene to grow, and hopefully the early champions (looks at John) will benefit later if they don’t fully now.

        The low costs are partially due to a competitive environment thanks to a democratization of technology with a relatively easy platform to develop on compared with PCs 5-10 years ago, but probably more, as Joe says, due to artificial market pricing put in place by companies who make their money in different markets. Apple for iDevices principally.

        I personally think there is potential for higher priced apps as iDevices become more powerful. For example, although we have many great synth apps we do not have a similar selection for orchestral sounds. If someone were to bring out a brilliant solo cello, nothing else, with the standard articulations, I would be willing to pay a lot of money than that, albeit relative to current app pricing. Between £50-£100 for that alone, perhaps a bit more if it was really good. Of course, that is much less than for a Vienna Symphoic Library sample, but more than current app pricing. Maybe we will see a gradual increase of pricing as iDevices get more powerful?

        After all, Garageband and other cheap/free DAWs are available on PCs/laptops and that does not prevent more expensive DAWs and other software. Maybe for iOS we are simply at the start.

        With regards media, I think eventually quality wins out. As the iOS music scene grows, quality sites such as this one I hope will grow with it, with their owners benefitting as a result. I guess my conclusion to this post is we are still in the early days, and the pricing/value balance may change or converge with that in more traditional areas over time.

        • Hi Martin, thanks for this. I suspect you might be right in terms of what more powerful hardware might bring…. It ought to attract an additional layer of users that, for now, don’t think iOS really has something to offer them (I’m thinking music tech folk who are desktop users and might see the current iOS hardware as underpowered for their needs) and that, in turn, might bring some more sophisticated (complex rather than ‘better’ if that makes sense?) software from developers? Anyway, yes, we are still at the start of the journey…. what I’m less sure about is the best way we can all encourage the infant to move from ‘crawl’ to ‘toddle’ without there being too many tears…. :-) best wishes, John

    3. Thank you very much for this, John. I think you’ve summed it all up quite well. I try to answer your questions about the financial stability/status of discchord in an article about this article:

      The short answer is: I’m making less than a teacher (the lowest paid profession in the US), and if I can get there I’ll be very happy. As it stands though, I’m pretty content with where I’m at now.

      • Hi Tim…. thanks for your response – and the post back on discchord. I’m glad it’s coming together for you in terms of making it work financially. Fingers crossed you can keep it growing and get the car fixed up a bit :-) However, having done some teaching myself here in the UK, I’m still getting over the statement that teaching is the lowest paid profession in the US… That’s kind of scary. Very best wishes, John

    4. Martin Craig says:

      Your article & Joe’s response cover most of the bases very well, so I’ll just add a couple of points. In terms of trust & balance between readers, advertisers and magazines such as SOS, I think it’s usually possible for regular readers to spot when a reviewer is cautious about a product – phrases such as ‘…if you’re looking for an xyz then this is certainly worth auditioning’ don’t come across as strongly as some of their more ringing endorsements. ‘Mix rescue’ often features free plugins and is regularly carried out using Reaper; a hint that you don’t necessarily need to spend a fortune on your DAW and premium plugins to get a good sound. The Preamp Shootout from a while back, ‘won’ by a budget model, is another good example of the magazine’s fairness & support for its readers. Their constant reminder that sound dampening material can make a much bigger improvement to a home studio than an expensive mic – and so on. So when SOS endorses or is cautious about a product I trust them, and I think they set a good example for bloggers and future iOS music-related publications to follow.

      Making a living from app development, or from writing about iOS recording, is fraught with the same problems as making a living as a musician – music itself has been hugely devalued in recent years (the reasons are familiar to most people) and even the quality of music reproduction accessed by the majority of listeners has been on a downward slope that ends with YouTube. In some ways, the relative cheapness of iOS music could be a short-term godsend to some home recordists who earn tiny amounts from Spotify micro-payments (and the odd iTunes download if they’re lucky) but it does have the feel of an unstable and potentially unsustainable business model created by Apple for their own purposes and not necessarily those of their developers. If companies like Slate, UAD or Waves decided to venture into App-land, would they price their products in proportion to their software plugin prices, or try for bigger sales from lower prices? Their hesitation to dip a toe into iOS music may suggest that they don’t think it’s worth the risk to their existing markets. I agree that we may see some steepish price rises as more high quality apps appear, and if buyers shun them I think the world of iOS music could be in trouble. In terms of publications, I would happily subscribe to a good online iOS Music magazine – in fact, I can’t wait!

      • Hi Martin, thanks for this… I think this is a pretty good analysis…. And maybe that last sentiment is one that Clif over at Apptronica needs to hear from a few ‘000 potential punters? Best wishes, John

    5. Some excellent points above! Martin’s response made me think about one other artificially imposed economic limitation that exists in this marketplace, and it is in the App Store model itself. It is really not designed for a higher end (and higher cost) long term development cycle. The reason is that there’s really no paid upgrade model available. Sure, there are IAPs, but these are more conducive to adding individual or bundled features. In terms of a fundamental overhaul (version 1.0 to 2.0), it’s really challenging for a developer to make money here. They either have to give it away for free to existing customers, or abandon the current software and create a new app. If they choose the latter, there is really no mechanism for them to offer it at a discount to existing customers without also discounting for new customers.

      And this (in the desktop world) seems to be the method of choice for big players. I’ll use Native Instruments as an example, but there are plenty more. Some years ago I bought into Komplete – a pretty big investment (for me anyway). Each year or so, they release a new version and offer steeply discounted upgrade pricing to existing customers, while new customers still have to buy in at full price. It allows them to continue to get paid for work (including the less marketable work like making it compatible with recent OS’s) while not creating resentment with their existing customer base.

      This paradigm just isn’t possible in the App Store model, and I wonder if that also is keeping some bigger players out of the game.

      Well, I do hope we see the industry continue along thanks to a rapidly growing market rather than increased prices. I guess the moral is – get a friend into iOS music! :-)

    6. The percentage that Apple takes from every App Store, and indeed iTunes, sale probably doesn’t encourage engagement with the scene for high-end developers either. I don’t mean to sound critical of Apple here, I love their products and especially my iPad which has enabled me to get back into composing and recording despite having two kids under four years of age. But John’s point, I think, was eventually for the scene to reach maturity a decent flow of money needs to flow to those that create more value than others. (John, please correct me if I’ve paraphrased you incorrectly here.) But at the moment if 20% or 30% of that is going to Apple that is a large disincentive for high-end developers to get involved. And if the scene as a whole is low cost/low margin you might argue it will stay a hobbyist one, even if those involved are fantastically talented and doing some really great work. And if the the scene stays that way then most likely the related media will too, with lower ad spend etc.

      I personally do not want that to happen. I want a mix of developers, price points, features etc. etc. but with all the great mobile functionality a tablet brings. So following Joe’s advice, I’m off to get a friend into iOS music, and while I am it, I’m going to click on all the referral ads on this site as well!

    7. Maybe a future article/discussion around what we each want the future of iOS music making to look like might be interesting also.

      • Hi Martin…. ooh… that’s an interesting idea…. I’ll give my crystal ball a rub when I get a chance and give it some thought :-) but feel free to volunteer some thoughts of your own here if you wish. Best wishes, John

    8. Patrick/Secret Base Design says:

      To expand on the “amen” a little bit — for iOS music making to become a bigger area, we need coverage in the press (both main-stream and blogging). For that to happen, developers have to put a little money into advertising, so that journalists can afford to do their thing. I’ve been advertising on Discchord for about three years now, I had two years on iDesignSound before they folded, and I’ve done ads in a few other places as well. I suspect that I’m ever-so-slightly revenue positive from the ad investment (hard to say for sure), but more importantly, it’s helping build a bigger community, which means more customers, and that’s a win for everyone.

      This is a new area; iOS, and iOS music apps, are only a few years old. There’s hundreds of millions of people who have no idea what you can do on an iPhone, and once they find out, they’ll line up around the block. Case in point would be Loopy appearing on Jimmy Fallon — huge numbers of people who likely never thought about looping at all were suddenly wanting to give it a go.

      All things considered, this is a great time and a great position to be in. The field is wide open, not overrun by big corporations who can muscle the little guy out. The cost to do development is minimal (a laptop, developer license, and some coffee), and it’s possible to get a lot of coding done in the evenings. But for things to really grow, we need visibility. And visibility means the press is involved. I’m glad to see more developers advertising. I’m not worried about having another developer take a slice of my pie; the more visibility the field has, the more pie there is to go around.

      • Hi Patrick… thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights from the developers perspective. It’s great to hear your positive take on the current situation. I sure the technology is on the cusp and has the potential for considerable growth…. providing we can all nurture it to move it in the right direction. Best wishes, John

    9. Great points above – I will only add to the pricing debate that while the price points are low relative to the product itself – an iOS consumer also shoulders more risk that an iOS app may become completely obsolete or unusable. Some apps fail to work once they are abandoned by developers and new versions of iOS come along. And the ecosystem is so inter-dependent (look at pre-AudioBus apps that failed to adapt), that changes in how your other apps work can bring the functionality of your favorite app crashing down in a hurry.

    10. Something is only worth what someone will pay for it.

      Like it or not everyone is responsible for this situation, I’ve read countless statements like “It’s not worth $1.99” or “how dare they charge for an IAP” and “Hey this one is free today” even “Why should I have to pay?” and they all keep the developer down way more than Apple’s pricing policy or store structure. This attitude problem stems from way before apps existed and is endemic in all retail systems. As an example, of which there are countless, think back 40 years, a washing machine would cost an entire months wage, now you can buy one for not much more than a days earnings. Basically the market has created a problem for itself whereby no one wants to pay anything for anything anymore. It takes a very strong stance, exceedingly high standards and an unshakable pricing policy with absolutely no sales ever to combat this disease.

      The upgrade path _is_ there as we have seen recently with the release of AudioBus 2 – this worked perfectly, a free upgrade for everyone and the option to access the new features via IAP.

      I read somewhere that Guitarism reached a million downloads – the market is there but essentially (no offence intended as I include my own site in this) everyone who does a website for iOS music is on some level doing it as a part-time endeavour and the outputs while sometimes really great, are still a long way away from professional products like the recent Computer Music Special on the iPad for example.

      I do have to say John that yours is by far the most professional site for iOS music, well managed and regularly updated with truly useful, great content.

      Patrick, if your advertiser isn’t giving you very clear stats and click paths that can be followed through to know 100% if a sale is made or not, then well, lets just say that’s really, really not good dude!

      • Hi Baddcr… thanks for the kind words about the site – as ever, much appreciated. I’m pretty much with you all the way in the comment that we all, essentially, want something for nothing…. The interesting thing is the context of iOS music making is that the hardware itself is not cheap. I’m an Apple user and fan… I think the products are the best in their class and, as a result, I’m prepared to pay for what I perceive as a quality product (maybe even pay a premium for that product). Lots of other iOS using musicians have obviously ended up at the same conclusion as there is a massive Apple user base out there…. but then, because of the overall pricing structure in the App Store, there can be an attitude that an app priced at anything above UK£5.00 is perhaps considered at the ‘expensive’ end of the spectrum…. All a bit odd…. Indeed, as others have commented here, the whole app pricing model is just a bit odd…. Fingers crossed that the better developers within the iOS music app community can work their way to making a profit and keeping themselves in business over the medium/long term…. Best wishes, John

        • Cheers John,

          I’m not sure, a iPad mini currently costs £319, I think this is extraordinary value for money, the full size iPad starts at £399, which I again think is a very small sum of money to pay for what you get. Essentially a couple of days wages or perhaps a week if you are low paid.

          The sense of value is all mixed up, we pay £4.50 for a pint of beer in cities in the UK, so an average night out where you drink a modest 4 pints, maybe have a reasonably priced meal somewhere and a taxi home would easily cost £40 – so 10 modest nights out pay for an iPad which will last years. Some people even pay £1.75 or more for a 0.5l bottle of coke at a service station (that’s more than TWICE the cost of a litre of petrol!), £3 for an average sandwich and don’t blink an eye. We often talk about things being for the price of a coffee, which currently in the UK is between £2 and £3.

          I do like the idea of increasing the market and ‘getting a friend into iOS music’ but I’m not sure this is really going to change things that much either. I think a decent developer with a good app should be able to make a decent living (1 million Guitarisms?) and a decent website should be able to generate a reasonable supplementary income but this is probably never going to be the proverbial cash cow! Making money is absolutely not why I started SynthPatcher, we’re just about covering costs now and a long way from making any kind of profit but I don’t care about that one little bit – that’s totally missing the point. I think this is a fundamental mistake of many businesses, in short: following the money is just a bad idea – it looks bad!

          Basically if you love iOS music and making apps then all is really really good at the moment, but if you want to make loads of money right now, sell out and make a silly game or run a different kind of website :)

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