About the Problems with “Sibelius” Software, and a Real Solution

According to this blog post, developers of the “Sibelius” music notation program have been dismissed, and the software will die over the next few years.

Here are my thoughts on the issue.

Maybe It’s not a Big Deal

First of all, we may be getting worried for no reason. Assuming that what Derek Williams writes is true, Avid has fired the programmers who maintain and write the “Sibelius” software, and has announced nothing else. But Williams uses inflammatory language to encourage us to panic and to get angry at the “golfing buddies on the Avid board [who] have shown themselves time and again to be devoid of vision or proper understanding of the music industry.”

For the sake of argument, let’s assume the members of the Avid board of directors are golfing buddies. What are all the previous situations where they “have shown themselves… to be devoid of vision?” And what have they done that’s shown a lack of “proper understanding of the music industry?”

Avid owns rights for and produces the software and hardware that collectively make up the pinnacle of commercial music equipment. Sibelius is just one of those properties. It seems to me like they have the vision to be industry leaders–because they are. And what is the music industry, anyway? It’s about selling stuff, not about making music. I can understand Mr. Williams’ frustration that Avid doesn’t seeem interested in doing what he wants, but that’s no reason to assert the board of directors is “devoid of… proper understanding of the music industry.” They’re industry leaders. I think they understand it.

Ultimately, because Avid has apparently not announced plans for the future of “Sibelius,” we actually have no reason to believe that development will cease. It’s easy to get whipped up in the “what else are they going to do? They must be killing it!” frenzy, but let’s think about this rationally. If the “Sibelius” software does make money, Avid won’t want to kill it. They may have other plans, like a brand-new notation application, or they’re simply moving development to a new location.

But maybe Avid will kill “Sibelius.” I don’t know. They’re not accountable to the software’s end users–they can do whatever they want, because they own the programming code (called “source code”). When you buy “Sibelius,” you really only buy a licence to use it.

The Real Problem Is Us

The fact of the matter is, we’re all part of the problem that caused this situation. When we buy “Sibelius” software, we actively encourage Avid Technology’s business model. The same is true for any software or hardware or any other thing we buy–even when we don’t know a company’s business practices.

It doesn’t matter whether you grudgingly buy every new release of “Sibelius,” or if you do so enthusiastically. Every software licence they sell is an equal endorsement of Avid’s business practices, where software developers make programs, and we end users pay to use them–as long as we don’t break the restrictions in our licence agreement.

So if you’re sufficiently upset about what Avid is doing to “Sibelius” that you want to do something about it, the only powerful thing is to stop using and especially to stop buying “Sibelius.”

Misguided Effort

Looking at websites like the change.org petition and the sibeliususers.org website is upsetting for me. These groups take the position that we, “Sibelius” users, are the victims, against whom some sort of injustice is being committed. No. Stopping development is perfectly legal and perfectly just. At no point did Avid ever guarantee to anybody that they would continue to actively develop the “Sibelius” software for any length of time.

If Avid caves in and development on “Sibelius” commences again, we would still be the losers, because we would still have no control over the software.

The company is just as likely to stop development at some point in the future. Besides, how will we really know what’s going on? If Avid says they will restart active development, is there some way to measure whether they actually did? Not really. It’s not like we know the list of enhancements they were planning.

But we can break free. We don’t need to let large corporations control our software. We can take control of our own software. This, I believe, is the most useful action.

There Is a Solution

The solution is “free software,” which means “freedom,” not “no cost.” You might know this idea already, under the term “open source software.” They’re not quite the same; let me explain.

“Open source software” (OSS) is when the source code is given away for no money. The source code is the programming language files that are converted into a program you can run. This is good, because you can see how and why your software works. Open source is an important part of free software, but it’s really only interesting for people who understand programming code.

Free software, or “Free and Open Source Software” (FOSS) has an additional benefit: once you obtain a licence (potentially by paying money), you are free to do whatever you wish with the source code. You can modify it and share it as you wish. Basically, once you buy a FOSS program, you actually own a copy of the program–not just a licence to use it for a while.

Maybe you’re thinking that even this is only interesting for people who understand programming code, but I don’t think so. You see, if “Sibelius” were free software, it wouldn’t matter what Avid does. If “Sibelius” were free software, with the momentum the user community has, they would certainly be able to copy the source code and continue to release new versions of “Sibelius.” It’s true that even a community-run effort could fizzle out at any time, but with free software, at least we would have this opportunity. We would have greater control over our own tools, of our productivity, and therefore of our lives.

This leaves a lot of questions open, like “how can a free software company make money?” I don’t have the space to answer those questions, but free software companies do make money, and they’re becoming more successful every day. Red Hat, Inc. is one such company (see here and here).

What to Do Now

Thankfully, we don’t even have to wait for FOSS music notation programs to be written from scratch. There are already many options available. Check out this list.

The one that seems most ready for the big leagues is called “MuseScore.”

I know it’s not as glamourous, and I know it’s lacking features that “Sibelius” and “Finale” both have, and I know there “MuseScore” probably suffers from bugs and problems that “Sibelius” and “Finale” don’t have. But that’s not really the point. The point is that “MuseScore” is free software.

Where to start? Download and start using “MuseScore,” or use it alongside “Sibelius” or “Finale.”

You can also contribute to “MuseScore.” The easiest way is to donate money (see the link on their website that says “Donate.”) “MuseScore” costs no money, but think about how much you pay for “Sibelius,” and think what would happen if you and your friends all donated even a fraction of that amount to the “MuseScore” developers. On their donation page, it says they’re looking for only $7500 this year in total compensation for all the developers. (The “MuseScore” developers currently donate their time to the project–they work for no money). Imagine what they could do if they suddenly ended up with $100,000 in donations… they’d be able to hire full-time developers, maybe even some of those who used to work on “Sibelius.”
But more importantly than that, you can contribute to “MuseScore” by participating. You can become a software developer too! There are many things you can do to help develop “MuseScore”:

  1. Write programming code (obviously).
  2. Report problems and work with programmers to verify they’re fixed.
  3. Write documentation to help new users learn the software.
  4. Translate documentation and the user interface itself.
  5. Tell your friends about “MuseScore.”
  6. Participate in a marketing campaign.

You don’t need to be a programmer to be a software developer! You don’t even have to spend a lot of time to contribute something useful. Every bug report that’s fixed removes an obstacle for hundreds or thousands of other users!

Final Comments

I tried to make this article both accurate and accessible to non-experts. If you have any comments, questions, corrections, or suggestions, please leave a comment below so I can improve this article for future readers.

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4 Comments

  1. While I agree in principle with your argument, I am a bit surprised that you would fall prey to the same tactics that you accuse someone else of. For example, you call out Derek Williams for using “inflammatory language to encourage us to panic and to get angry at the “golfing buddies on the Avid board [who] have shown themselves time and again to be devoid of vision or proper understanding of the music industry.”

    Then five paragraphs later you state: “When we buy an “iPhone” device, for instance, we send the message to Apple Computers that we consent to and support their way of doing business, even though we probably don’t agree with their rumoured practice of using child labour.” Now as I see it, your use of the highly volatile veiled accusation, “their rumoured practice of using child labour,” is nothing more than the “inflammatory language” and fear mongering much the same as you accuse Mr. Williams of! If you have proof of Apple using child labour, then by all means present it here to back up your statement with proof. If not, then leave rumour to the tabloids. There really was no need to bring up a “rumour” to make your point. In fact, your argument would be much better served if it were backed up by facts, instead of rumors!

    Also, your argument that “if “Sibelius” were free software, it wouldn’t matter what Avid does. If “Sibelius” were free software, every “Sibelius” user would own their copy of the software, and could use it to start another organization to actively develop and improve the software.” is rather ridiculous. By using your logic, then if I had the plans & schematics for any sort of electronic device made years ago, say a black & white television, then I could keep it going indefinitely despite the manufacturer moving on to more modern technology. Times change, even software changes. Yes, there is no guarantee that Avid will keep Sibelius around for 1, 5, 10, or more years. But there is also no guarantee that any “Free and Open Source Software,” like MuseScore, will be around 1, 5, 10, or more years from now. Just because something is free today doesn’t mean that it will still be here tomorrow.

  2. I’ve been using MuseScore for several years now, and it has become the best option if you can’t afford commercial software. Also, keep in mind that they have two websites; one that is commercial and one that is not. musescore.com is the commercial wing, where they charge an annual fee to upload and share your work. some upload services there are free depending on how many uploads you use. Any more than five and they charge. I believe it’s now around $50.00/year.

    musescore.org is the non-commercial wing where you can download the software for free and participate in forums. It also contains the user handbooks and other information.

    The main developers of musescore are some of the best online personalities I’ve ever dealt with. They are very professional, and they answer pretty much every question and suggestion. They want the software to succeed, so they’re very open to suggestions for improvement. Most of their improvements are based on input from users, so they consider it very valuable.

    musescore has limits, but over the years I’ve seen some phenomenal improvements. Every week or so I meet people who are new to using musescore, and its use is not likely to diminish any time soon. There are of course no guarantees, but musescore is probably a safer bet for longevity than commercial formats.

    Thanks for a great article.

  3. Lilypond is also free and open source, and I’ve not seen anything (including Finale and Sibelius) that can touch its output quality. Most will not switch to it because its interface and workflow are radically different from the point and click solutions (and as we all know, point and click is the best possible interface for every job *groan*), but it’s been around for years and the results are gorgeous (and continuing to improve with every release).

    I’m a convert from Finale, myself.

  4. Ictus75:
    Thank you for your comments, and especially for explaining why you think what you do.

    For my accusation against Apple, I didn’t cite anything because there have been lots of reports in mainstream media recently, so I assumed everybody would know what I’m talking about. In retrospect, that’s obviously a bad assumption. Furthermore, it’s not relevant to my argument; as you note, removing the “Apple” reference would strengthen it. So I’ll remove this passage.

    As for your next point, I feel I didn’t make my argument clearly enough. It’s certainly true that a free software project can be cancelled, or that development can cease, at any moment. My argument is that–unlike for free software–proprietary software dies when the manufacturer says so. If “Sibelius” were free software, the amount of support over the past few days would certainly be sufficient to start a spin-off project.

    This has happened recently to the “Mandriva” Linux-based Operating System. When the Mandriva company wanted to fire many of the core developers, the developers revolted, many of them quit, and they copied “Mandriva” to start the “Mageia” Operating System. Substitute “Mandriva” for “Sibelius,” and you have the situation that could be going on right now.

    Brandon:
    Thanks for your additional information about MuseScore. I’ve never used the software myself, so it’s good to hear that the community has established itself in interesting ways!

    James:
    I’m actually a LilyPond user. For people like myself who are more read-write inclined, LilyPond is perfect. However, it seems like most people are visually oriented, and they will not even consider a text-based interface. Plus, there are admittedly large problems with the input syntax, and it’s still very difficult for me to guess which command to use. Thankfully, the developers are planning a significant overhaul in the near future!

Comments are closed.