Sheet music scores its own digital cadence

Classical trombonist takes playing to another octave

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As a child, Bart Van der Roost dreamt of following in his father’s footsteps and become a classical musician.

He secured a place to study a masters in music at the Lemmensinstituut conservatory in his native Belgium, in the hope of one day playing his bass trombone with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Yet on his first day, his tutor said that, although Mr Van der Roost had talent, he believed he would quit playing professionally within a year of graduation to set up in business.

In fact it took six months. While working for a Belgium radio station, Mr Van der Roost started a course in music management at his alma mater and co-founded an app business called neoScores, which offers online access to an archive of scores.

“People from the Lemmensinstituut say, you know that guy — he moved over to the dark side,” says Mr Van der Roost. “[But]I am very happy I have taken this path because it is where I feel I belong.”

The key element to taking the step from business to entrepreneurship was an executive MBA at the Ghent campus of Vlerick Business School, Mr Van der Roost claims.

“At Vlerick I discovered I had been yearning to be an entrepreneur all my life,” he says. “I just hadn’t found out what I wanted to be an entrepreneur in.”

He was concerned that the curriculum for his EMBA was not suited to this. He voiced his concerns to his professors and, to his surprise, they adapted much of what he was studying, even tailoring some of the assignments, reading lists and interactions to cater to his ambitions.

This allowed him to put together a business plan and a marketing strategy, which he says came in handy after he launched his company in November 2012. “The real value that they deliver is to help you know yourself, what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are. It gave me the confidence to do it.”

The concept for neoScores, which Mr Van der Roost describes as an “iTunes for sheet music”, came from a conversation about the future of classical music over a post-concert drink with two friends, later his co-founders, in an Antwerp bar.

Mr Van der Roost looked into the market and discovered that 9 per cent of all sheet music produced was available in a digital format. Then the iPad was launched and became the perfect device for viewing digital scores.

The trio raised €400,000 in loans and angel backing to fund development during the first year of operations.

“We saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Mr Van der Roost says, who, with the encouragement of his Vlerick network, felt confident enough to quit his job.

A key requirement included securing the rights to reformat work for the classical compositions that are not yet in the public domain.

Deals with the German publisher Schott Music and Alfred Music of the US, which supplies Warner Brothers with its sheet music archive, as well as three Belgian publishers, initially provided a database of hundreds of thousands of titles, out of which 20,000 are under copyright.

The plan now is to add another 30,000 copyrighted titles by the end of the year, as securing more will be critical to the long-term viability of the neoScores business.

In 2014, its turnover was €50,000 and Mr van der Roost claims that this will rise tenfold to €500,000 this year. A net profit remains a more distant goal.

A crucial moment in the development of the business came when Samsung cited the service provided by neoScores in an advert for its Galaxy tablet and claimed that moving from sheet music to tablet devices saved the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra €25,000.

The next big step will be to penetrate the US market where there is a big potential not just for classical music but for pop and church music also, according to Mr Van der Roost.

“I don’t care what you play, from Bach to Beyoncé, or your level of music, I just want to offer a digital format for [it],”he says.

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