Users petition Avid to sell Sibelius music software arm

Users petition Avid to sell Sibelius music software arm

Summary: SOS: Save Our Sibelius. Users of the popular British music notation program are trying to get its US-based owner, Avid Technology, to sell it to another company following the closure of the London development studio.


Sibelius software users have launched a petition asking Avid Technology to sell the music publishing program to another company. Avid closed Sibelius's development studio in Finsbury Park, London, at the end of last month, and users are concerned about its future. They are conducting a campaign via a Sibelius Users website, a SaveSibelius Facebook page, and a petition, among other things.

Sibelius is a musical notation program widely used by composers, professional musicians and students. The latest 64-bit version, published in 2011, features a ribbon-style interface. Its main rival is Make Music's Finale, which dominated the US market before Sibelius was launched there.

Avid is going through a difficult period, and is retrenching to limit its operating losses. It has sold off some of the more consumer-oriented offerings -- including M-Audio accessories, acquired in 2004, and Pinnacle video editing software, acquired in 2005 -- to concentrate on its core professional products. These include the Pro Tools audio workstation software, acquired in 1994.

In a letter addressed to the Sibelius Community, Avid audio vice president Martin Kloiber wrote: "It’s important to note, music notation software is firmly seated among those areas of concentration at Avid. That’s why the Sibelius brand and product family remains with Avid."

The response from the community, expressed in 200 comments, appears to be that without Daniel Spreadbury and his British development team, Sibelius is doomed.

Following what he called "the outpouring of concern on forums and social media," Kloiber followed up by saying: "I want to personally give my assurance that Avid is deeply committed to developing Sibelius moving forward. Our plan is to integrate Sibelius development more closely with the rest of Avid's audio development teams in California, and I’m confident we can leverage our innovative development teams and continue to raise the bar in the future."

To which John Murdoch responded in a comment: "Who among your audio development teams in California has experience generating PostScript Level 3 code? Don't know what that is? Sibelius is far more of a desktop publishing application than an audio application."

At Slipped Disc, composer and anti-Avid campaigner Derek Williams wrote: "Sibelius is currently we believe turning over $18 million a year. So now, with no overheads of development team and offices, for Avid that becomes clean profit as Sibelius is slowly killed off over the next 3-4 years. To Avid’s Wall St mentality, that is smart business. Run on empty, make your fortune, then leave the carcass behind to hunt for the next pot of gold."

Sibelius was developed by British university students Ben and Jonathan Finn for the Acorn Archimedes computer running RISC OS, and released in 1993. With the Archimedes failing, the twins released versions for Microsoft Windows (1998) and the Apple Macintosh (1999), reaching an international audience.

In 2006, between Sibelius getting a Queen’s Award for Innovation and the two Finns getting OBEs for services to software technology, they sold the company to Avid Technology.

When Sibelius 5 was launched in 2007, there were still only seven developers. Spreadbury said: "They do amazing things, they are really a wonderful team. Other programmes of similar complexity have hundreds of developers. It's extraordinary how our team works and produces these features."

While the final size remains unknown, it seems equally extraordinary that a company the size of Avid, with a 2011 turnover of $678 million, couldn't sustain such a tiny operation.

Following the closure announcement, the Finns said in a comment at "we have been quietly trying to do everything we can to change this situation, including twice offering to buy Sibelius back from Avid. However, Avid has declined. While they haven't given a reason, we assume that Sibelius is a substantial source of profits to them, so they don't want to sell it to anyone."

Avid Technology has been making operating losses -- $70m in 2009, $36m in 2010 and $21m in 2011 -- and bleeding cash. However, in its latest financial results, published on 30 July, Gary Greenfield, Avid's chairman and CEO, said: "Our results for the second quarter were encouraging with 5% year-on-year revenue growth for our ongoing business and a $10 million sequential increase in our cash balance. This performance reinforced the strategic direction we took earlier this month and we are excited about our prospects for the second half of the year."

Avid's share price peaked at $66 in 2005 but has since fallen by almost 80 percent to $8.63 today.

Sibelius 6 First Screenshot
Sibelius 6 Screenshot from Avid Technology

Topics: Software Development, Software

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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  • PostScript Level 3 code

    "Who among your audio development teams in California has experience generating PostScript Level 3 code?" This phrase says a lot. Developers are digging too deep, working at level that is too low and wasting their time on stuff they do not need to. Printer driver developers should be concerned about postscript. Everybody else can work at higher level, i.e. cheaper and do more stuff faster.
    • It says exactly what it should

      PostScript, like Western Notation, is a language that has been explicitly developed and is designed to be read by a wide audience. Notated music gets printed on any number of things, at plenty of resolutions, sizes, and with all different kinds of equipment. Additionally, Western Notation has its own completely different character set from what printers generally produce, making PostScript the perfect output format for notated music.

      Low level development means a tightly coded platform. It is not a waste of time to ensure that notated music does not end up like Powerpoint, where timings are never consistent, resolutions widely vary, fonts are a train wreck, the output format requires Powerpoint to read, and the file sizes are pointlessly huge.

    • How to talk to the printer driver then?

      You need *some* way to talk to the printer driver. If you want to support a wide range of devices, your choices are limited to (some variation of) PostScript, bitmaps.

      Of the two, I'm convinced PS will be the easiest way to do it, because you can specify your page symbolically and you don't have to do the conversion to bitmap. That's exactly what printers/printer drivers are good at, and basically a science on its own. Not to mention PS will be more portable - you can print the same file at devices with different DPI etcetera and they'll all look good. That's just not possible by scaling a bitmap.

      So next thing you'll say is: OK, PS is the way to go for communication, but developers shouldn't have to worry about it and use some kind of intermediate tool - just like you use a compiler instead of directly writing assembly code'. This is certainly true. And I'm pretty sure Sibelius does use some kind of intermediate format when rendering a score to PS. However, music engraving being such a specialized and deeply typographic subject, this is most likely a custom component.

      So while Sibelius developers will not be directly generating PS code on a day-to-day basis, yes, I do think it's likely you will need someone that deeply understands PS on the team.
      Arnout Engelen
  • Sibelius is not primarily an audio application but music notation software

    Good article. An important point here is that developing a music software notation program isn't just technical coding, you need people who are both (a) technically good coders and (b) musically trained with a great affinity for music performance and understanding of its theory. Music notation rules are highly complex, have been developed over hundreds of years and vary for the different genres; jazz customs are different from those for classical music. You need people who understand that and have an overview of the 'big picture' to keep making sense of it all without the software program becoming bloatware. Senior product developers Daniel Spreadbury and his team have done an exemplary job of that. Right now the future development is up in the air. Avid wants to integrate Sibelius with its 'other professional audio products' but that is really missing the point; Sibelius is primarily a graphical notation program, not an audio or a sequencing program. They really don't seem to understand that, or choose to ignore it.
    Peter Roos
  • Yet Another Lesson In Why Proprietary Software Is A Dead-End

    Might I suggest that all this effort going into flogging a dead horse might be better spent improving an already-useful piece of Free Software like Lilypond?
  • Any ARM coders in Daniel Spreadbury's team?

    Did the Finns retain the rights to the original RISC OS version? This should be able to run on the Raspberry Pi (using 26-bit emulation).

    And does the rewritten C++ code compile under Acorn C/C++?