How I Built An App in 4 Weeks

I think it’s easier to make money on music when it is bundled with something else.

To me, these are all examples of musicians who make money selling or playing music that accompanies some other activity or product:

  • The composer who writes music for film
  • The band that lands a placement in a TV ad
  • The composer who partners with a playwright and writes a musical
  • The cocktail pianist who plays while customers eat dinner

It seems clear to me that the best strategy to making money with music is to try to bundle that music with another product and to sell that product – not the music.

The problem is that I’m not somebody who knows much about making anything other than music. I don’t make movies, TV ads or fancy dinners. What can I do?

Build an App

In July I read an article that said that App Store sales had actually eclipsed iTunes sales, even though iTunes had a 4 year head start. Consumers seem reluctant to buy music – especially with so many free or nearly-free services that will provide them with the music. But apps are selling.

So I decided to build an app. I went in to more detail on the idea about a month ago in the article Why You Should Build An App.

I think there were some people who misinterpreted my idea when I wrote that article, though, so I want to clarify.

I’m not suggesting that musicians should create apps about their band, or music, or songs, or whatever. We have to acknowledge the realities of the time we live in, and again, consumers seem to be reluctant to pay for music. So you have to offer them something else. I’m not suggesting we should make music apps – I’m suggesting that we should make apps.

At the end of the article I told you I’d update you on my progress: my first app is now available.

My App

The app I built is called WinterSpark.

The idea is very simple – it’s a modernized, sup’d up, mobile Yule Log. It shows a cool fireplace video and plays my Christmas album in the background. WinterSpark is available for iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch and AirPlay compatible devices (like AppleTV).

With a tap, snazzy controls fly in and out that include rewind/play/forward, details about the recording and historical information about each song. If the user is interested in more historical info about the song, a provided link takes the user to the Wikipedia entry for the song.

The emphasis, though, is on the fire. The user can turn off the music if they’d like. No problem. When I talk about the app, I pitch it as a fireplace app – not a music app.

I had a designer friend of mine help me with the details of the app function. I don’t know a thing about coding for Apple devices, so I went to Elance.com – a great website where you can find iPhone developers – and posted the project. I received 5 bids and I chose the best combination of lowest price and best quality.

The project took 2 weeks to code, revise and complete. They created two versions, a $0.99 version and a free, banner-ad-supported Lite version. Once submitted to the App Store it took 6 business days for both versions to be accepted and have the app available for sale.

From the time I thought up the app to the time it was ready in the App Store was exactly 4 weeks.

How much did it cost? I’ll say this – less than an order of digipaks from DiscMakers.

What Now?

In the first 6 days, WinterSpark and it’s Lite version have been downloaded 436 times. Not bad, but it’s already clear to me that an app won’t sell itself. Without a concerted marketing strategy behind the app, it’ll never be noticed in the App Store. So that’s the next step that I’m working on now.

It’s early in the process, so it’s hard to know how things will go this holiday season. More info to follow.

What’s this about a MusicianWages app?

Yes, the rumors are true – Cameron and I are in the process of developing an app for MusicianWages.com readers. It’s not a content app – meaning, it’s not a mobile version of our site. It’s a helpful app for working freelancers that we are very, very excited about. It will be ready for testing at the end of this month.

We’re really looking forward to telling you about it!

Why You Should Build An App

I went to a dinner party the other night. At the table were a whole collection of fascinating people. One person had helped build Facebook, two worked at Goldman Sachs, one lady worked in environmental conservation at the Bronx Zoo.

There was one guy there who worked for Bloomberg.

Bloomberg is the namesake of our billionaire mayor here in NYC, Michael Bloomberg. He founded the company with a few of his friends in 1981 and it’s now worth an estimated $6.9 billion.

Bloomberg’s main business is selling big, expensive terminals to financial companies and organizations. The terminals show the traders information about the market and if the traders know how to interpret the information correctly they can use it to make a lot of money. It costs about $1,500 a month to have a terminal.

But, actually, I didn’t know about the terminals. I know Bloomberg as a news organization. They provide financial news through their TV station, radio station, website and newspaper.

My dinner party friend told me an interesting anecdote about Bloomberg. When they first built the terminals they found that the traders needed not just financial information about the market – they also needed to know about what was happening in the world that might affect the markets. Bloomberg originally outsourced it’s reporting to the Associated Press, but eventually the news feature of their terminal became so important that the prospect of a strike or other disruption from the AP became too much of a risk to their business. So they decided to do the reporting themselves – and Bloomberg’s media empire began.

Here’s the thing, though – the Bloomberg media outlets actually lose money for the company. The TV station, the newspaper – they’ve never made any money. It’s a kind of symbiotic relationship between the two sectors of the company – the terminals need a reliable news source and the news source needs money.

The Future of Journalism

That’s a remarkable model for monetizing content, isn’t it? Both elements are central to the product – the terminal and the content – but they aren’t valuable unless they are combined together.

I think this is the model for the future of journalism. Companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook increasingly need a steady flow of news, human interest stories, investigative reporting, reviews and other kinds of old-fashioned journalism to feed the huge numbers of people that voraciously eat this content on their sites every day.

Google, Facebook and Twitter, however, don’t pay for this content. Google finds it and reposts it on their news feed, users post it themselves on Twitter and Facebook. Google and Facebook, if not Twitter, are making a lot of money off this kind of content usage, and none of it is finding it’s way back to the newspaper’s where the content originated. It’s not the case that news doesn’t make money today – it’s just that the money is being rapidly redistributed away from the news companies that make it.

So eventually the newspapers will go out of business. But then Twitter, Google and Facebook won’t have the same quality of content. Then they’ll have to start creating it themselves – just like Bloomberg had to do.

Sure, you could argue that this content can all be crowd-sourced from people’s blogs, celebrity tweets and iPhone videos. I think there will be some of that, but you’ll never convince me that all of our news and content will be entirely crowd-sourced in the future. There will always be an educated, professional group of content-creators that run the highest levels of the business.

This same phenomenon is already happening in the music business. Apple’s best revenue-producing product isn’t music in the iTunes store – it’s the products that play that music, like the iPhone, the iPod, the iPad, etc.

But you and I can’t make our own iPod and sell it to fans. So what’s the indie artist to do?

Bundling in the Music Business

Embedding your music in another product – a mobile app, for example – is going to be the way to sell music in the future.

Consider this article, published just 5 months ago in the New York Times. It highlights the major labels’ mad dash to get into the mobile app market. Bjork new album will be a collection of apps rather than a list of songs. UMG is creating an app for Nirvana’s “Nevermind”.

They aren’t the first – this has been happening for several years. Mobbase.com is a company based on (nearly) this business model.

And it makes sense. Just last month news surfaced that Apple has now sold more apps than song downloads – even though iTunes had a nearly 4 year head start on the App Store.

But major labels are as greedy today as they were 20 years ago. I’ll believe they’ll create bloated apps that require too much of their users – apps loaded with Facebook “Likes”, “Tweet this” buttons and “Sign up for our spamletter” prompts. They’ll track users clicks, analyze their preferences and deliver personalized and invasive advertising.

Forget the major labels – we should all be doing this in the indie market for our own music. Remember? We don’t need the major labels anymore – isn’t that what the interet gave us?

Make Your Own App

Think about it – let’s say you record your new album on your own computer at home. Let’s even say that you have the album professionally mastered and that costs you $1,500.

See also: Creating a Budget for Your New Album

According to OSXDaily.com, a simple iPhone app probably costs between $3,000 and $8,000 to develop. Let’s pretend you go on Elance or Odesk and you get someone to do it for $3,500. Add that to the cost of the mastering and you’ve spent $5,000.

$5k isn’t that bad. It’s used to cost more than $5k just to make an album. (And, actually, if you were creative I don’t think you’d have to spend that much.)

Let’s say your music is totally great and the app is really fun and you have average success selling your app in the App Store. According to a 2010 article in TechCrunch, even average selling apps were moving 44 units every day. If you made $1 on every sale – you could break even in 4 months and bring in an extra $1,320 a month thereafter. Not terrible for an indie release – and imagine the potential revenue if you were lucky enough that your app became popular.

My App

I’ve always said that I never give theoretical advice on this site. I never tell people to do things that didn’t work for me personally or that I would never try myself.

I started developing my app yesterday. If it’s a failure and I lose a bunch of money I’ll take down this article. If it works I’ll tell you about it.

So you can wait to hear from me or you can get started. Which will you do?