Etude on the iPad—A Young Boston Developer Follows the Music to San Francisco

6/23/10Follow @wroush

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you still have pretty easy access to the city,” he says. “But San Francisco is surrounded on three sides by water and you have mountains below. If you’re going to live anywhere else you kind of need to have a car. And there’s a huge difference between driving into San Francisco from Oakland or Daly City and driving into Boston from Cambridge or Somerville.”)

Etude had gotten its start back in Boston one night in 2008 when Grover was taking a break from ShoveBox and started to write a MIDI synthesizer for the iPhone. But he didn’t get far, and left the code sitting on his hard drive. After leaving Tapulous in April 2009, he decided to revive the project. “I’d seen some of the apps that people were getting excited about with music on the iPhone, and I started thinking, ‘What if there were some fun, engaging music apps that actually taught you something about music?’”

For a few months, Grover also worked on a customer relationship management tool for the Mac, but found Etude taking up more and more of his thoughts. “I got hooked on working on it, and it was pretty much my full-time project from September to March.” The iPad version followed this month.

There are more than 100 piano-related apps for the iPad, and untold hundreds for the iPhone. Most are purely for fun, such as Smule’s Magic Piano; Etude is one of the only apps that aspires mainly to be a sheet music reader. The idea is to let piano students (or advanced musicians, for that matter) download tunes from the in-app store. They can then set their iPads on their pianos, and play along as the app plays through a score.

So far, all of the songs in the Etude store are free, public-domain works. Grover says getting traditional sheet-music publishers to open up their archives of more modern music has been a slow process. Part of the problem is that digital sheet music has never been a lucrative business, so the publishers don’t see much of a percentage in sharing their copyrighted works with Grover. In other words, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation.

Etude on the iPadBut the iPad is such a perfect device for reading music, Grover believes, that he expects to gain some momentum on this front soon. “Part of the bet that I’m making with Etude is that I can deliver a significantly more compelling experience that will make it easier to buy and easier to access and more fun to engage with than what is out there,” he says. “The bet is if I do that, the revenues will go up compared with what’s out there.”

But for Grover, as for so many of his peers in the Bay Area developer community, building a revenue-producing app isn’t necessarily the end goal. After all, in-app sales of new sheet music isn’t likely to be a source of vast returns, even if Grover does engineer the most compelling sheet-music experience around.

“When you’re doing normal iPhone apps, you are just hoping to sell enough copies directly to customers to support the continued development,” Grover says. “And that is kind of where Etude is now. But once we get in with the publishers, this becomes more ambitious, and starts to look like the Silicon Valley thing where you are trying to get an exit. I used to think that was a crazy proposition—you’re building something that is not inherently profitable so you can get an exit. But it actually turns out to be a reasonable way to do business out here.”

Given that Etude was “supposed to be a kind of sideline,” Grover says the best option “would be to have this be acquired by a larger company that has the resources to make it go where I want it.” He says he’s seen quite a few of his friends go this route. “There are two- or three-person teams where they will develop a project that is likely to be acquired by Facebook, and then Facebook acquires it, and those guys get to work at Facebook.”

Grover says he’s talking with a number of potential suitors about acquiring Etude. And while he continues that search, Grover is also working to add more features to Etude, including an interactive keyboard. (Because there isn’t room on the iPad’s screen to play with two hands, he says the software will probably be set up for duets, with the user’s hand playing one part and the software handling the rest.)

And all of that means he’s working pretty much around the clock—just like everyone else he knows in San Francisco. “There is a progressive attitude of wanting to change the world,” he says. “But it gets pretty draining. People are just really busy around here. Nobody has time to waste time and hang out. They go to bars, but even then they’re networking.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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