There are now quite a few apps that help people to learn instruments like the piano and guitar alone. Startup Solfegio is trying to widen out this kind of experience to also include groups and even entire classrooms of students.
Formerly known as SongBand, the company was founded by Toms Rusovs, Lauma Kazaka and Guntis Smaukstelis, who worked together in a music school in their home country of Latvia, where they set up a band for the students.
“At one stage it got quite hard to manage the band, with one teacher and lots of students. And a lot of practice had to be done at home as well. So we made some digital recordings of the songs we were practising, and made the sheet music available to the band members,” Rusovs tells Music Ally.
“I had an idea that this could be an application, combining the sheet music with the sound, and the playing-together experience, and this way facilitate collaboration. This was how the idea for Solfegio started.”
The team built a prototype for an iPad app, then for a web version. Both enable students to listen to recordings of music, while soloing and muting individual instruments; slowing down the speed; looping parts of the song; and viewing digital sheet-music, tabs and lyrics.
The key to Solfegio is that it’s designed to be used by groups in a classroom as much as by individuals at home. As the company tested its app with students, it found that they wanted it to be as simple and accessible as possible.
“The experience that encourages people to learn is when you are playing music together with other people, and you feel like a rock star yourself!” says Rusovs.
“And what schools and students want is more simplicity, so we structured our content to be more about playing chords and learning the melody and rhythm. The three basic components of music education. And people can easily collaborate and hear the band playing together with them, and form their own band.”
Solfegio has been going in to schools to run workshops with its software, where Rusovs says the reaction has been extremely positive. “Up to 90% of students say ‘yes, I want to do this again’ and we see 70% saying they want to also do this at home,” he says.
Those are encouraging stats, since it’s well known that the vast majority of people who start learning an instrument will give it up – Fender claimed in July that 90% of guitar learners give up in the first year, as it launched its own digital service to try to reduce that stat.
“We are trying to help people feel more motivated to practise music. And we do see that it can be hard for teachers to keep the interest up of this younger ‘digital’ generation, with all their chats and mobile devices and games that they have,” says Rusovs.
“But we think music education can combine technology together with this level of fun, and use this as a means of getting their engagement higher. And we think we are unique in trying to create this engagement with a group of people, rather than just someone learning an instrument by themself.”
Solfegio is trying to be guided by teachers and students when it comes to choosing music for its service, although the skew is currently towards popular music – although songs with ‘inappropriate’ lyrical content aren’t included. The startup has also experimented with creating some original classical pieces – “simple classics” – to see if they appeal.
What about licensing? Rusovs admits that Solfegio has found it tough on the publishing side, when it was trying to license official sheet-music for its service.
“There was a resistance: we approached several major companis, but there was a reluctance to give [license] these rights to us. Maybe they don’t see the business in education?” he says.
Solfegio is moving away from the idea of licensing the original sheet-music to songs, now. Instead, it’s going to be focusing more on chords (tabs) and lyrics. While that will still involve licensing conversations with publishers, there may be more open doors at least.
“You can buy the rights to reproduce audio in 10 seconds. If you want to use sheet-music for educational purposes, you struggle for years!” says Rusovs. “It’s a very strange situation, and we don’t understand. There is a lot of business potential in this segment.”
A recent report by IBIS Capital and conference EdTechXGlobal claimed that the global education technology (edtech) market will be worth $252bn by 2020, although it didn’t break music out as a sub-segment of that.
“Currently only 2% of education is digitised, so this is a huge market to be in, if you can get the right product,” says Rusovs. Solfegio is focusing on nailing that down, as well as the best way to charge for it. The company will launch its first subscription plan this month or next, charging around €8-€10 a month for individuals, and charging schools around €5 per pupil per year – so a school with a 50-student subscription would pay around €250 a year.
“Our goal will be to get everyone in a school having access to the software, but we can start smaller with one class, for example, so that teachers can try it out and see whether it works and makes sense for them,” says Rusovs.
It’s early days for Solfegio: it has just made its first sale in Latvia ahead of the official introduction of its subscription plans, and is planning a proper marketing push in September.
The company will also be building its profile by participating in the edtech-focused Bett Show in London next January, and is pitching a music-education workshop in the SXSW 2018 panel-picker.
“Our mission is that we see this huge generation of young people that feel connected to music, but there is this gap to learning to play. We want to use the technology that they love and the music that they love to bridge that gap, and to help the teachers become that link,” says Rusovs.