Sibelius’ new pricing arrangement – my reaction

UPDATE: Following the publication of this article on Saturday night, Sam Butler (Sibelius product manager) has been good enough to comment regarding the issues raised.  His full comment is below this article, but I would like to draw your attention to this part of his reply, which confirms that part of the post below is actually incorrect:

You mention there’s a decision Sibelius users have to make at the end of this quarter. That isn’t quite right. Of course, they can upgrade to get the latest features for £70, which will include a year of upgrades and support, or they can wait for more features we release over the coming year. When they upgrade then, they will receive a year of upgrades and support from that point on. There’s no hard cut-off date coming at the end of this quarter.

With regard to the potential problem with changes to the file format, we are planning infrastructure that will mean this won’t be a problem and will be completely seamless to the user so anyone can open any version of Sibelius file (after v7.5 of course and we’ll keep in the ‘Export to Previous Version’ for those users).

For major changes to Sibelius to update the core technology we use and to introducing big new features, we are already fluid enough to split the development team so some will work on the next point release and others will work on the next release after that (or even further down the line). We’ve already tried and tested this with splitting the team across our two major projects, Sibelius Cloud Publishing and Sibelius itself.

Thank you to Sam for taking the time to reply to this, and I am grateful for the flexibility being shown here, which wasn’t initially evident from the page on Avid’s website where I took my information from.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE:

It has been announced tonight that a Sibelius update is being released this quarter, alongside a change to the licensing arrangements.  It is a massive change and, in my view, entirely for the negative.

Before I begin, let me state that I have an immense amount of respect for both Sam Butler or Joe Pearson (the main twosome behind Sibelius these days) and I don’t wish for this article to come across as an ad hominem to them.  They are both honourable men with the interests of the product and its community at heart and Sibelius users are fortunate to have them at the helm, following the events of 2012.  But I have no positive words to say about today’s announcement.

In short, Sibelius is moving in line with Avid’s policy (following similar propositions from other software vendors) of offering a subscription licensing option.  That is fine by me – the cost of £23 per month or £190 per year to use the software seems pretty fair (given the £550 price tag for a full license), and users these days welcome this flexibility.  Indeed, far be it from me to decry Avid to give users further licensing options. But the manner in which the ‘perpetual licence’ (i.e. a permanently licensed version of Sibelius, as Sibelius Software and now Avid have sold for the past 16 years) is being treated is, quite frankly, a disgrace. In short, those who own Sibelius will need to make a decision when this new pricing is launched later this quarter:

  • either you elect there and then to pay an annual support and maintenance fee of £70 per annum (which will entitle you to all updates)
  • or you choose not to and never have the right to an upgrade again, without either buying a new subscription outright or paying the full £550 again for a perpetual licence.

If the user ever chooses not to pay the annual fee then they never have that option again – they are either obliged to go down the subscription route (paying £190 per annum for use of the software and the right to use the software expires at the end of that year) or buy an entirely new licence outright. Frankly, this is incredible.  After the 2012 debacle, Avid have just about managed to keep users on-side, largely owing to the good natured manner of the Sibelius community.  Sibelius 7.5 has been a stable and successful release (bearing in mind the caveat that the majority of the features were developed by the old team before their dismissal, and were just polished up into a new release by the new team), with few bugs and a good level of support.  But, with this move, Avid are destroying users’ confidence again at a stroke.  They are saying to all users – many of whom have used Sibelius for many, many years – that they don’t care for how long they have held a licence, they don’t care how often they have upgraded to new versions and how much this has cost.  They don’t care – they just want their money.

The Update Paradigm problem

Much of this problem stems not from the introduction of the subscription pricing, but from a new paradigm of managing updates.  Instead of releasing a new, numbered version of Sibelius every other year, which has been the way in which the software has been managed since the release of Sibelius 2 in 2001, Avid now wish to release smaller updates more regularly.  The headline version numbers will become a thing of the past.  Quite aside from any debate about pricing, I am not a fan of this system.

I would far rather have a nice package appear every two years – it has always been the case that some new features within a new version would appeal to some users and others wouldn’t – but the user has known where they stand.  Every odd-numbered summer, Sibelius would release a new version, there would be an element of relearning the program required, and we could expect the world (just about) to move on with us.  Now it is going to be far more haphazard.

Take the file format with regard to version numbers.  If they go down the road of Chrome and Firefox, moving up a whole version for a tiny change, who will know when the file format will change with it?  At the moment it’s straight forward – the version number is part of the brand of the product, so everyone knows which Sibelius version they have.  “Are you on 7, yet?”  can be met with a knowing reply of “Nope, I’m still on 6” or “No, I’m lagging behind on 5”.  You could easily ask a colleague or collaborator, and – boom – one export later you were sorted out.  How will it work now?  “Ooh, I’ll just need to check my software package – where will it tell me, again?” Plus, the proposed steady drip of features suggests that game changing features, the type for which Sibelius was once known, will be few and far between.  Take Dynamic Parts – a key innovation that revolutionised scoring software – you can’t really imagine that just dribbling down in an update one day, can you?  Or Magnetic Layout?  Or a massive UI change and full rewrite, like Sibelius 7 was.  Although the reaction to 7 has been mixed, it was entirely necessary to rewrite the entire software package for the early 2010s.  Another rewrite like that will be necessary one day.  And it will be really hard to achieve if the objective is to push out small updates every few months.  Such a model works with a web browser or small app.  It (in my view) does not for serious productivity software. I would prefer the developers to work on a new ‘package’ and release it that way with a major version number.  Although perhaps I am just stuck in the noughties with my update preferences.

If today’s pricing announcement had come along with a killer update, then I might be more amenable to it.  Had twe seen something that could be reasonably called a major update, including widely-requested notation and workflow features (features such as better tuplet integration, tidying up of lines, more flexibility when it comes to staff sizes, smart dynamic parts) and released that alongside a new pricing structure then, you know, I might have jumped in feet first.  But what do we have.  Some cool touchscreen and tablet stuff, sure.  But I will never own a Surface, so all those features (although they do look flashy) are useless to me.  New updates from the Neurotron team – well, I’ve never used either of those products, so those are useless to me.  I’m on Mac, so the Windows DPI scaling feature doesn’t affect me. What will I be getting? Just multi-touch gestures and slightly redesigned UI elements (the keypad and transport panels, specifically) for my troubles.  We used to get more than this in a .1 update from the old team! I remember Sibelius 6.2 that brought in a whole host of features – none of them headline, all tweaks – but loads of things that were really useful.  And the only feature I am getting with a new pricing package is a new keypad view?!  It doesn’t bode well, does it?

The Pricing problem

It is this new approach to updating that has caused the licensing options to go awry.  For, if there is no longer going to be a major update that one would purchase outright (whether that be as a new licence, or as an upgrade), how do you monetise a series of smaller updates?  This is where the subscription package comes in.  Plus, if one were to cancel their annual updates fee (following the purchase of a perpetual licence) and only re-purchase once an update they wants comes along, this would hardly be fair to other users who pay the bill annually whatever. It needs to be said that the addition of the subscription model does not significantly change the perpetual license model that we have had for many years.  It would be perfectly possible to come up with a price point whereby the users who elected to pay a monthly or yearly subscription would be paying more overall than those who purchased a perpetual license and then purchased the upgrade licence for new versions. No, it is this new ‘accelerated update’ paradigm that is driving this pricing change.

What offends me is the two-fingers up to users who have used the software for many years.  If we elect not to pay £70 in June (or whenever this change will be made) then the only option to upgrade to a new Sibelius version is to either buy the product again from scratch or effectively do the same via the subscription model. I have already stated that I will be a day one purchaser of the new Steinberg application (being worked on by Daniel Spreadbury and the rest of the team that used to make Sibelius, before Avid let them go in 2012) and this has just made me more determined to do so.  Having said that, however little I want to, it is financially prudent for me to pay the £70 per annum fee, just in case Sibelius 7.5 is one day broken by a Mac OS update or similar.  Or to keep up with file format changes.  Or, you never know, there might be a killer feature turn up one day. But I am sorely tempted not to and to refuse to upgrade Sibelius again.  Frankly, I think that’s what Avid deserve from this.

It could be argued that Sibelius died in 2012.  It has been kept on life support since then.  Today might just be the day when the ventilator was turned off.