Cakewalk is one of the original companies in the music recording software market, and this interview been a long time coming. I first approached Greg Hendershott several years ago with the idea of doing a piece about his experience founding a company that develops products for the PC in a professional recording world that, unlike other computer segments, is somewhat dominated by the Macintosh. Greg agreed, but the timing was never quite right, and since then there have been several serious changes at Cakewalk.
In 2012 Cakewalk was acquired by the Roland Corporation, Hendershott left the company (he is now busy helping to educate current and future software developers), and his colleague and friend Michael Hoover took over. The a couple of years ago Cakewalk was merged with Gibson Brands, Inc.
Not a company to stand still Cakewalk has been very busy in both DAW and software plug-in development. Michael took the time talk about some of the things that are going on with the company, including their new membership model for distribution.
What is your background?
I've been lucky enough to spend the past 20 years working with people who love music and software. I have a degree in audio engineering, used to play in bands and do a little live sound here and there. I love listening to all kinds of music. I play a little guitar and started to learn drums a few times. I'm a DIY-er at heart and like to build stuff. I'll never forget how cool it was to be able to compose and record a song on my own; the freedom to spend as much time as you like trying out new song ideas. Being involved in developing the tools and environment that musicians need to express themselves through music and sound is incredibly rewarding.
How difficult was it replacing the founder of the company?
Well, I can safely say it's harder than its looks (grin). Greg founded the company in 1987 and had been at the helm for about 25 years. And many of the team members, including myself, have been here for years.
I enjoyed working for Greg and have deep respect for what he accomplished. Being totally frank, knowing what to hang on to, what to change has been challenging at times. While some management consultants might say that entering into this high-profile role as an outsider might have helped create positive change more quickly, I happen to believe there was a lot of benefit to me having already been in a leadership position leading up to Greg's departure.
Did you make any drastic changes at the time you took over?
When Greg left, Roland owned the company. I helped us find a new home at Gibson. Roland had distributed us worldwide and we transitioned that to Gibson, TEAC and others. We finally joined the rest of the software community by starting to sell direct to end-users but did so in a way that allows retailers to share in our success. We moved offices and launched our first iOS products. We introduced a completely new method to release software updates through our new membership program, and product quality has never been higher.
We have a long way to go, but I'm proud of what the team has accomplished so far. There's a very energetic spirit at the company, much greater than it ever was before.
Tell me about the experience of being primarily a PC developer when so much attention in the press was focused on the Mac platform in the US?
These days there is definitely a bias towards Macs in our community, which adds to our challenge. I hear many musicians say that Macs are just more creative. Is it the OS that makes us more creative? Not necessarily. Of course you need a solid, reliable and fast computer, but what makes the real difference are the tools and software you are using. Is it easy to use? What limits does it place on your creativity? Does it sound good? Is it flexible? Does it get the job done faster? These are the questions that I wish our potential customers would focus on instead of what operating system the computer is running. There are millions of customers, capturing their hearts and souls on thousands of tracks on software running on PCs.
I'm always amazed watching our demo team show off SONAR to Mac users. Once they get into our product and are thinking about music production, they are blown away with what SONAR can do for them. So, being a PC-only software company, we have to work extra hard to open their minds to that.
What's the best thing about using a PC for music?
If you know what you want and need for your studio, going with a PC gives you more flexibility to find exactly the hardware configuration that you want/need. The new "R2D2" Mac Pros are beautiful to look at and are very quiet, but they might limit the peripherals you choose to use. Ultimately, though, it's about what the customer feels more comfortable using. The same rationale can be applied to almost anything from smart phones to cars. What I can say is that we have a very successful history with SONAR and Windows. Because we only develop SONAR for Windows, it allows us to dedicate more time and effort in ensuring that the program is rock solid. We enjoy a great relationship with Microsoft and Intel, and we are often first to adopt new technologies on the Windows platform. That should give musicians peace of mind when they choose SONAR as their DAW.
What's the worst thing about it?
On first glance, more choices are usually better, but for some musicians starting out, choosing the PC-based system that is right for them can be challenging. Fortunately, there's a lot of information out there, with communities like KVR, that can help people find what they are looking for. Aside from that, I can't think of anything. Like I said before, it's really about how the software helps you capture your ideas.
What inspired you to adopt the membership model?
It was something that we had been considering for a long while. Changing your business model can be very difficult. Being a part of Gibson allowed us to take the time we needed to find a better way to develop and release software. We considered a lot of options, including subscription, but we kept coming back to the concept of "continuous innovations." What if we could release a feature when it was ready rather than waiting to release it annually? And what if we issued releases on a more frequent basis, based on immediate customer feedback? This methodology sounded good for both Cakewalk and the customer.
Then we discussed reducing the barrier of entry into SONAR by offering monthly payment options. Some people think monthly payments are equivalent to a rental agreement, in which the customers would lose it once they stopped paying. In our model, we strongly believed that customers should be able to keep the software they paid for, so we opted for more of a "rent to own" approach with our Membership model. We wanted to create a better way to update SONAR while still making it more affordable to buy in to the program and own it permanently.
What will be the primary benefits for your customers?
Continuous innovations. Every month, we are releasing improvements to the software, addressing issues, introducing new features and thoughtful content to help users be more creative. The software will be a lot easier to learn, because you only have to learn a few things each month. And it will be more stable because we are focusing on fewer features at any given time. Once customers have purchased the product, it will never stop working. This is not a rental or subscription model.
Ultimately, we think it's a better value. Before the membership model, a new SONAR customer would purchase the software and then may or may not have qualified for an update to the latest version. Then, those customers could expect maintenance releases or patches to fix issues and sometimes a few, smaller feature enhancements.
But to get new features, customers would have to purchase an upgrade. Under the Membership model, a first-time customer will receive the latest version of the software. Then, for the next 12 months, the customer will receive new features, fixes, enhancements and exclusive content monthly, free of charge. And, should the membership be cancelled at any point in time after the upfront or completed monthly payments, customers keep the software and all upgrades that were received up until the point of cancellation. It's like getting two free upgrades, so it's a much better value.
How will it change the way Cakewalk operates as it moves from traditional product delivery?
It will allow us to be more agile and respond to customers more quickly. For example, we released a new feature, Mix Recall, which allows customers to quickly A/B and save various mix scenes for alternate mixes. Since its release, we received a lot of valuable feedback from customers and have developed and released multiple refinements to the Mix Recall feature. In the past, some of these refinements might not have been introduced until the next version. The biggest change, though, is it puts our team's focus on making customers happy everyday, rather than on next year's upgrade.
What do you think will be the keys for success for this kind of model for Cakewalk?
Well, three things: We will need to demonstrate to customers that continuous innovation is better than annual upgrades. We need to convince customers that this is about continually and incrementally improving their software and not about getting a monthly subscription fee. And we need to show customers that we are committed to delivering genuine value all year long. I think we are off to a fantastic start, and it's only going to get better.
Cakewalk is one of the original companies in the music recording software market. They continue to be aggressive in their approach.