After last week’s release of Finale 2014.5, I had a chance to catch up by phone with Gear Fisher, CEO of MakeMusic. Gear assumed leadership of MakeMusic last August when Peaksware, the company he co-founded in 2000, became the corporate parent of MakeMusic.
Gear’s immediate challenge at the time was overseeing a move from MakeMusic’s Minnesota home to Boulder, Colorado, where Peaksware is based. It was a bittersweet transition: Many MakeMusic employees did not join the company in its westward journey and left the company. But those who did make the move found themselves working for a company that Outside Magazine named the 24th best place to work in the country in 2015, citing that its “lunchtime bike rides have been known to spontaneously brake for push-up contests” along with “less strenuous events, like food truck lunches, concert raffles, cookouts, and beer Fridays.” (A little caveat: Outside‘s digital department is based in Boulder, and 15 of the 100 best places were located there…maybe a slight local bias?)
I asked Gear how this was going, now that the move to Boulder had been completed. “The Best Places to Work survey speaks to what we’ve been up to as a company,” he said. “That survey was conducted in June 2015, which the MakeMusic staff participated in, and it was from their results combined with TrainingPeaks that we received the award. That’s something which I think shows how much care and enthusiasm the new MakeMusic team has for our mission.
“It’s unbelievable, the similarities among the three business that we run,” he continued. “I get asked this question a lot, and what I always say is that you have to focus not on the domain, but the process behind the domain. TrainingPeaks and TrainHeroic exist to connect coaches to athletes in order to learn and develop a skill. MakeMusic exists to connect students to teachers to learn a different skill, but the process is the same.”
Gear anticipated my next question. “So you might wonder — OK, that analogy works for SmartMusic, with its interactive music teaching and practicing elements,” he said. “But where does Finale fit in? You know, one of the most surprisingly persistent rumors I heard when I took on this new role was that we weren’t going to support Finale anymore. I have no idea why or how that began, but it makes absolutely no sense. See, Finale is a creators’ tool. Creators work with educators and performers to provide tools — the music — for them to do their job. Without Finale, the core element — music creation — wouldn’t exist. So it’s vital for us to continue to innovate and develop Finale.”
Was it difficult to manage these different businesses? “There’s a tight thread which makes it easy to flow among them,” Gear said. “We’re able to learn and share knowledge, whether it’s marketing, development, software platforms that scale, or how we collect data and what we do with the data to enhance learning and the community.”
Speaking of software platforms that scale, Gear said that “the next step for us is to make our products get in the hands of a wider audience. There’s an ecosystem that consumes as well as creates content. SmartMusic is thriving, and we need to be able to anticipate those users’ needs. Weezic [French start-up] was an important acquisition for us,” alluding to the plan to use its technology to offer a web-based version of SmartMusic that will work on any device.
We talked about my tests that showed that while Finale 2014.5 improved reliability and performance in certain areas, it actually performed worse in many other respects than other recent versions. “Speed, reliability and ease of use are the three key areas we need to continue to improve,” Gear acknowledged. “We have a sizable development team that is working very hard on this. Making Finale 64-bit is long overdue, and once we do that next year, I do think you’re going to see dramatic improvements, with the program being able to access much more memory, audio devices, and plug-ins than is currently possible.”
Finale 2014.5 was a free upgrade for existing Finale 2014 users. It’s good for consumers for which a paid update might rankle, but at some point, MakeMusic will have to start charging money for its updates. I brought up the trend towards subscription pricing, not just with Sibelius, but with other popular software like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite.
“What you’re really talking about here is continuous delivery,” Gear said. “I have to give Avid kudos for leading the way on the subscription model. It helps us learn from what went well for them and what could have been done better. That said, TrainingPeaks has been a subscription since October 2000, so we have a lot of experience of our own with that model. TrainingPeaks releases new content every week.”
Gear continued, “There’s a lot of incremental value in continuous delivery. I like the challenge of a contract with the customer — as long as we keep earning the customer’s trust, you maintain your subscription with us. It keeps us motivated and focused to create the best product. Still, we have a large installed base that likes to decide when to pay, so we’ll continue to offer ‘the box’ alongside the subscription.”
I mentioned that, with all the doom and gloom we always hear about lack of support for the arts and arts education, that there seemed to be as much activity as ever in the music notation software space, with new products, platforms and standards being released or in development. “Music is an enduring domain,” Gear said. “You’re never going to take music out of people. It’s too fundamental to human nature. It’s not surprising that there is a lot of innovation here. I’m excited to be a part of it. We’re a healthy organization with a whole lot of talented, motivated people doing things at the cutting edge. It’s fun!”