Now We Are Six

Founder and President Joe Berkovitz reflects on Noteflight, past, present and future.

It’s been about six years since Noteflight was first launched in the fall of 2008. Now is as good a time as ever to ruminate about the past, the present, and the future of our service. We’ve seen enormous changes take place during that time: in our product, our team, our community and in the industry.

When I was One,
I had just begun.

– A. A. Milne

I’ll start with the past. At its inception, Noteflight was an experiment built on a set of related hunches and observations that went something like this:

  • Music notation was designed for the sharing, collaboration, distribution and learning of music. Music, in turn, is usually not a solo pursuit: it’s a social and cultural activity.
  • The Internet and the Web were revolutionizing the way we share, collaborate, distribute and learn about the stuff we make. People were congregating and socializing online wherever these activities took place.
  • Applications on the Web had reached a tipping point: their quality, power and beauty could now rival a traditional “install from a box” application at a fraction of the cost. (I’m not mentioning mobile only because mobile devices weren’t quite at that point in 2008.)
  • If we were to put a high-quality music notation editor on the web and situate it in an online musical community, it could catch the collective imagination of musicians and take off.
  • If we were able to find the time to build it, it wouldn’t cost too much to take it live thanks to the advent of cloud infrastructure services such as Amazon.

Nate Abramson and I built the first version of Noteflight in six months of feverish work and took it live, nervously. The product was incomplete and immature. Releasing that initial version was scary, but the first version did convey a clear vision of what would be possible. We hoped that people would see the vision and forgive the warts and gaps that we hoped to fix later.

After the launch, we quickly knew we weren’t completely off base: there was an enthusiastic response from musicians and we saw immediate, explosive growth in signups. We began to make plans to grow the company, and to think about how we might eventually make money from the business to keep it going – we knew it wasn’t viable as a hobby!

When I was Three
I was hardly me.

Off we went, and others joined the company, seeing that we had a great thing going. Noteflight was up and running, on a shoestring. Despite the twists and turns, we began to build a viable service. We added many standard features that had been missing, and invented some cool new ones like video syncing. We added more features for social activity, and for education.

Even with the continuing growth of our membership, the business took a while to gain momentum. We had to learn what worked and what our users wanted. It wasn’t until 2010 that we had such a thing as a paycheck at Noteflight.

In the meantime, the world was changing around us, maybe a little more rapidly than usual. Smartphones and then tablets took off. The Web matured, but more slowly than we wanted. Adobe’s Flash Player began to show its limits. Long-successful vendors of traditional desktop software (both inside and outside the musical realm) experienced huge changes and some reversals of fortune. New kinds of partners like MusicFirst appeared, driven by new opportunities such as music education in the cloud.

Noteflight appeared to have made a good bet about how people wanted to create, work with and consume notated music, and established companies began to express interest in partnering with us and, in some cases, contemplated purchasing us. We held out, because we loved our work at Noteflight, loved our connection with our users and loved our way of working with each other. Any deal that would wreck all this love was not a deal worth considering.

…But now I am Six.

Fast forward to the present. Noteflight is serving an ever-wider circle of users (with over 1.2 million registered) and partners. This fall, as every fall, we’ve seen record numbers for our service.

But it’s more than just business being good. That in itself wouldn’t really do it for us. Some really good things have happened this year, of which the biggest is undeniably our new role as a part of the Hal Leonard family. We have a new measure of solidity and stability, a new base of knowledge, people and resources to draw on. Best of all, we have a parent company that understands us and gives us the freedom to do what we do best, in the way that we can do it best.

From this new vantage point, what do I see as some of the biggest opportunities and challenges?

We want to Noteflight to be part of the economy of music making. We’ve built a great tool, and a great community has formed around it. With our service, people can easily compose or arrange music and make their work available to the entire planet. What’s missing today is a set of ways for Noteflight to help musicians and educators directly benefit from the consumption of their work. I want Noteflight to be a useful part – indeed, an essential part – of the music economy. This will require our service to grow in new and exciting ways, which I know will draw on the strengths of our partnership with Hal Leonard.

We want to Noteflight to power more “first-person experiences” of music. In the coming years, I want to involve Noteflight in more physical, non-virtual events where the power of the online world is harnessed to the real world. I’m talking about events in which people are making and listening to musical sound waves traveling through the air, in a physical space somewhere on Earth. For me, Noteflight is partly about enabling more music to be created offline. Every time we find a way to do that, we’re renewing the energy source that powers our company.

We want Noteflight to be a delightful experience for mobile users. With Noteflight actually running on mobile devices, we’ve still got additional distance to travel. While the functionality is complete, the product can be better adapted to touchscreen devices and to the real estate constraints of tablet and phone displays. And Noteflight, originally designed for desktops and laptops, must become an effective music reading vehicle for mobile.

We want to help the Web adapt to musical applications. Noteflight has been a browser-based product for its entire life so far. Of course we’re not ruling out building special versions of Noteflight that run offline or are custom-designed for particular devices, but the Web is still central to the idea of the Noteflight community. So, in conjunction with Hal Leonard, Noteflight is going to play a bigger role in helping define and promote web standards that relate to music. As some of you know, I have been active first as a member and more recently as co-chair of the W3C Web Audio Working Group, whose work defines how sound (including but not limited to music) can be created by a web-based application. Entering the picture more recently is a new specification for Web MIDI, and other possibilities beckon beyond this. At Noteflight, we’re going to do our best to make the Web an exciting and fertile place for musical creativity.

This is not a complete list; there are oodles of things more to do, of course. If I didn’t mention your favorite thing that Noteflight should do, become, or pay attention to, it’s not because we don’t care (and please write to us to make sure we know about it). I simply hope you share my excitement about where Noteflight has come since its birth, and where it can go as it heads into the future.