At first glance, Jellynote may just look like the latest, polished app to help people learn to play guitar, piano and other instruments.
Yet there is more to the company than meets the eye, from its use of machine-learning technology to its plans to evolve into a fully-fledged social platform for musicians.
Its CEO Martijn Tjho is no stranger to the music industry either: he co-founded Independent IP, the company behind digital music distribution firm FUGA.
His appointment as Jellynote boss was officially announced in May, although he had already invested in the company as part of an $800k funding round in March.
“Going from a B2B environment to B2C has been a nice switch. I love to see my product being used by consumers and getting direct feedback, instead of being somewhere in the back-end of it. But it has been a big learning curve getting my head around how you get a business like this going,” Tjho tells Music Ally.
What is that business? Jellynote has a website and apps that offer digital sheet-music, tabs and chords for a catalogue of music, but also video tutorials and artist-focused ‘masterclasses’ to help people improve their playing.
Its catalogue includes more than 400k songs, with a community of more than one million monthly users. Jellynote uses a freemium model: a certain amount of time for free, but people who want unlimited access pay £9.99 a month.
“The stage we are in right now is finding the right market fit. 90% of our efforts are going in to tweaking the product and making it better. We think we have already come up with a very sticky and meaningful user experience,” says Tjho.
“We want Jellynote to be a platform for a musician to relate to. It’s not just for learning the music: it’s also about meeting likeminded musicians. We want to build an ecosystem with the lifestyle component around that, from a marketplace to sell instruments to becoming a teacher to beginners on the platform.”
“I’m not interested in creating a media platform like a MySpace. I’m interested in helping as many people in the world make music as possible. I want to connect musicians! If someone wants to play ‘Hey Jude’ on guitar and someone else wants to play it on piano, there may be a connection there. It’s not about getting famous, it’s about meaningful connections.”
Technology will underpin all this, with Tjho particularly enthusiastic about the potential that greater use of machine-learning AI has for the edtech sector in general, and Jellynote in particular.
“To share some ideas that we are playing around with a this point: you could have a ‘learning buddy’ which understands what music you are learning, and based on where you are in your progression of mastering a certain song, can motivate you,” he says.
“A high-powered avatar that can help you analyse your musical ability and recommend where you can focus your learning efforts, and encourage you to practise every day.”
Tjho also talks about the idea of using machine-learning to analyse how quickly a Jellynote user is mastering a particular song – he uses ‘Hey Jude’ as the example again – and use that data to ensure the next lesson they start goes at a suitable pace for them.
“Machine learning can really help us personalise the experience and make it something that really fits your profile as a learner,” he says.
Jellynote is also thinking hard about the best pricing model for all this, with Tjho well aware that the company’s main competition isn’t just other music-learning apps – which also tend to use freemium/subscription models – but is also completely free music-tuition videos on YouTube.
“We still think that users will pay for something that has exclusive and meaningful content, and a user experience that is actually solving the problem they have or the opportunity they want to take advantage of,” he says.
“That’s why all our efforts are going into the product, and then people will pay. Right now it’s 9.99 per user: that’s our starting point.”
“I believe that in the journey to really find that product fit, we might want to raise the price, and we might want to lower the price. We might want to charge by the day or by the year. These are all the thing that we’re trying to figure out.”
Like many music edtech startups, licensing partnerships – particularly with music publishers – are a hugely important part of Jellynote’s business. And like many startups, the company reports mixed fortunes in its efforts to forge those partnerships.
“The mindset of music publishers is not always a very innovative mindset. At the end of the day, they have to look after their bottom line. I understand that,” he says diplomatically.
“But the way things have evolved, it can sometimes make it challenging. For example, some music publishers have licensed their catalogue of sheet-music exclusively to a sheet-music provider that will try to sell paper copies. And then we have to deal with those providers, who see us as a threat!”
Tjho hopes that headaches like this will ease, as the music edtech sector itself matures, and as publishers begin to see greater income streams from partnerships with its startups.
“There is always a little bit of tension, but I feel we are heading in the right direction,” he says. “We are dealing still with a very conservative industry that is often very focused on their bottom line and getting minimum guarantees.”
“But it is going in a direction where we can be innovative and collaborative at the same time. And it is on a case-by-case basis: some publishers you can really work with, and others are impossible to work with! We focus on the ones that do want to work with us.”
Tjho returns to the importance of focusing on product improvements, which he hopes will help Jellynote’s publishing relationships just as it helps it attract and retain users. And all the while, keeping a keen eye on new technologies that may be part of this in the future.
Like augmented and virtual reality, for example. Tjho is a VR sceptic – “when I use those headsets, I get disoriented after a couple of minutes” – but he is intrigued by the potential that AR has for musical education.
“Imagine taking an original artist masterclass where we work together with a big pop-star explaining how to play their song on guitar, and making that an AR experience,” he says.
“That’s kinda cool: you can really come close to the artist and see how their body language and body movement is. I believe there is a big future in this, although for us as a small startup, the [AR/VR] market is still so small, so it is not viable for us to focus on that right now.”
Jellynote is eyeing potential partnerships with companies in that world, though, while retaining its focus on the current core product, and a philosophy that should be music to those publishers’ ears.
“No matter what angle you take on the music business, everything revolves around the song. I can understand the challenges that publishers have with, with the speed that innovation goes at the moment, but everything revolves around the song,” says Tjho.
“And for us, that means how to play that song as good as possible, and creating around that an experience that makes the user feel part of a community of musicians where all kinds of things can happen, and all kinds of problems can be solved together.”