A Primer on Spitfire Audio

How to build an aspirational music technology company

Hi! I’m Maxime, and you’re reading Recreations, a (still desperately infrequent) newsletter about the intersection of media, technology, and culture.

Today, we're diving deep into the coolest music technology company you've never heard of.

Enter Spitfire Audio

Spitfire Audio is a British music technology company producing high quality virtual instruments and sample libraries for the world's most demanding composers.

Like any exciting company, it has an interesting origin story. In the company's own words:

Spitfire Audio was founded by two award-winning composers: Christian Henson and Paul Thomson. Born out of their shared dissatisfaction for string sample libraries, they pooled their resources and decided to record their own string samples at the legendary Air Studios in London. Initially, they invited a limited number of friends and associates to own copies of their samples, but whispers of this private sample club soon started to echo across the Atlantic Ocean throughout the composer community. Within a year, some of the most renowned composers in film and television signed up, so Paul and Christian decided to take their samples public.

This was back in 2007. Fast forward 13 years, and this "private sample club" is now a company of 70+, recognized as one of the best sound providers in the world. It has collaborated on exclusive products with musicians and composers like Hans Zimmer and Ólafur Arnalds. Its tools and instruments are used for scoring movies, TV shows, and video games across all genres.

Spitfire's perhaps most impressive accomplishment, however, is how it's made the whole world of scoring more accessible and lowered the barriers to entry and creation for aspiring composers. All these years, Spitfire has stayed true to its original mission: "to inspire a generation of composers."

Let’s see how it does it.

Content as Worldbuilding

Spitfire has mastered content creation across multiple platforms and media, delivering the same production values in its ancillary content as it does in its main, paid products. Its approach from the start has been to engage its consumers - and music fans at large - with quality, evergreen content whose value has only accrued with time.

Supporting that stellar strategy are two main properties: its YouTube channel, and Composer, its online magazine.

YouTube: Content extravaganza

Launched in March 2010, Spitfire's YouTube channel has since grown into a key asset for the company, allowing it to consistently educate, excite, and inspire viewers. It features a variety of playlists that not only provide practical guidance on the company's products, but dive deep into the lives and minds of the artists that create and use it. To name but a few:

  • Creative Cribs, an insider look into the studios and mindsets of some of the world's best composers.

  • Inside the Score, "a never-before-seen vlog style online series, documenting the entire process of composing original music for a feature- length horror film."

  • In Action, a series of demos of the company's sound packs.

Of course, Spitfire isn't a video production company - not primarily, that is. Its business is in digital products, not in content, and all those videos ultimately should contribute to sales.

But the company has built the ultimate content flywheel. It goes something like this:

  1. Product releases feed new content - teasers, launch party replays, walkthroughs, in-depth tutorials, and user-generated demos;

  2. New content (both proprietary and user-generated) generates new sales from existing and new customers;

  3. Revenue funds new product releases.

Whether you're considering the playlist level or the channel level, Spitfire's content strategy on YouTube answers some important questions about the company's products and mission.

  • What: the actual product, i.e. a virtual instrument or music library;

  • Why: the inspiration behind each release;

  • Who: the people who record, engineer, and use that content;

  • How: the way the audio is recorded and engineered;

  • Where: the recording halls and producers' studios where the magic happens.

Answering those questions in depth supports the company's ultimate business goals, helping it engage both existing and potential consumers at every step of the purchase decision. Enhanced by dedicated quality content, what Spitfire is selling is no longer just a product: it's a toolkit, a mindset, and a shot of inspiration.

To guide consumers on their journey, Spitfire calls on a diverse palette of content lengths and formats. Videos on its channel today range from 2 minute-long product teasers to an astonishing two-and-a-half-hour "Fly On The Wall Film Of A Large Orchestral Session."

With a passionate user base, the company has the latitude to expand on a library's raison d'être or a composer's vision, without fearing that this type of content might bore viewers. Every one of its sound packs is a world in its own right and can be derived into dozens of videos; in turn, every additional piece of content adds an extra layer to Spitfire's worldbuilding.

Composer: Deluxe inspiration

Composer, Spitfire's online magazine, offers a mix of written interviews and profiles of some of the artists the company collaborates with - as well as the occasional miscellanea. Like Spitfire's YouTube channel, it evidences the company's ambitions in creating quality content.

Most of it touches on rather specific aspects of an artist's work, focusing on their creative process, influences, or favorite tools. From building your own recording studio to writing music for LEGO’s mobile game, every issue is packed with both practical knowledge and inspirational insights.

In both its content matter and its format, Composer seems tailored to the personality types you’d expect of the “professional composer” crowd. Deep content (as discussed above) and great design (more on this later) is exactly what you’d think Spitfire’s user base craves for.

Right now, however - and despite the care that goes into it - the magazine seems noticeably underexploited in Spitfire's broader content strategy. That's because Spitfire is careful not to be too pushy in marketing its own products: Composer is about the craft of scoring professionals more than it is about the company. While some of these composers do use its products, there is no obvious plug, no in-your-face call-to-action. Even those articles that are, in fact, centered on paid products, make it seem only secondary. It's like you need to beg Spitfire to take your money.

From a marketing perspective, there's a lot of untapped potential here. Composer could very well be used more aggressively to channel potential customers toward Spitfire's offering - turning readers into buyers. Even the magazine's visibility could be improved: besides social media, the only access point to it is via a discrete menu at the top of the company's website.

But Composer, like the company's YouTube channel, doesn't exist only as a marketing tool: it's a pillar of Spitfire's inspiration engine.

Inspiration as a product

From inspiration to aspiration

Spitfire's playlists on YouTube or articles on Composer have a lot to offer. The tutorials and walkthroughs are instructions; Spitfire's cofounder Christian Henson's vlogs are both education and entertainment. But the most important content of all is here for the viewer's inspiration and aspiration. Spitfire's content and products have one single goal: to empower users, give them models to look up to, and unleash their creativity.

This can be felt everywhere in the company's messaging, from its mission statement ("to inspire a generation of musicians") to the copy on its website.

Besides the inevitable technical specs, each product page conjures up a sense of beauty or mystery. The eDNA library opens up "an uncharted territory of new sonic experimentations," while the London Contemporary Orchestra Textures offer "multifaceted, otherworldly textures" and "indefinable, fascinating sounds." The Angular Strings Evolutions library lets you "create spellbinding, award-winning material from the moment your fingers hit the keyboard." Spitfire takes you - a potential customer, but an artist first and foremost - on a creative journey: “spell-binding” conjures up the emotional aspiration; “award-winning,” the status aspiration; finally, the “fingers hitting the keyboard,” bring you back to the practical action, the necessary first step. It's inspiration turned into words.

Knowing how important role models are to aspiring artists, Spitfire also draws the figures of professional composers and musicians as inspirational nudges. No matter your level of mastery as a composer, seeing other, more established professionals talk about their craft, tools, studios, and creative vision is sure to uplift you - to drive you to create more, to do better. In that spirit, the Creative Cribs and Interviews & Features playlists present viewers with models to not just admire, but emulate.

But this goes even further. Spitfire releases not just artist-focused content but artist-driven products, too, working with the best composers to release libraries of their sounds - it has six of Hans Zimmer alone. The producers who get these packs aren't buying a bunch of sounds, really: they're buying into an artist's vision. They're using these sounds as a way to instil a little bit of that artist's talent and unique touch into their own work. With these packs, inspiration becomes aspiration.

This seems to be a growing trend in the music monetization space, with examples like Splice Originals as well as individual creators releasing their own branded sound packs and plugins.

The LABS strategy

Within Spitfire's entire library, there's one product in particular that embodies that growth mindset: LABS, its renowned library of free virtual instruments. Here's how Spitfire describes it:

The Spitfire Audio LABS programme is an infinite series of software instruments, free to install and easy to use. Made by musicians in London for anyone anywhere.

Launched in 2018, the programme today includes 27 instruments - with new libraries released every month. The instruments in the series had been downloaded over 3 million times as of April 28, 2020.

While not as comprehensive as the company's paid libraries, LABS instruments can stand on their own. And because they're free, they’ve spread widely among scoring aficionados, propelled by trade blogs and user-generated demos on YouTube.

For consumers, LABS is a perfect entry point into the world of scoring. Highly versatile, it's accessible to beginners who don't want to shell out, yet good enough that veteran composers will use it too. Two years after inception, it has remained true to Spitfire's ambitions to lower the barriers to creation - LABS aptly stands for "Let's All Become Something."

From a business perspective, LABS is a loss leader. That it remains available for free, even though it could bring in considerable revenue every year, is astonishing, and proof that Spitfire stills treats it as a labor of love. It’s Spitfire’s own “0 price product,” whose very existence is being subsidized by other product lines, and made possible only because of high conversion rates from free to paid.

This has proved a working strategy. As you grow more confident in your craft, you'll want to add to your stack, experiment with new sounds and more complete libraries. If you've been happy with the instruments in the LABS programme, you're likely to trust Spitfire again when you're ready to open your wallet. The company's premium products will be waiting for you with open arms.

Design as a manifesto

Visualizing sound

What should sound look like?

Mostly, what you expect from virtual instruments is that they sound good - that they sound true-to-life. A virtual violin should sound like an actual one, with its timbre, dynamics, and pitch. Music is a matter of sound - the fact that you're using a computer to create it doesn't change that fact.

Yet computer-powered music is also visual. Design has long been a key element of digital audio workstations and plays a huge role in which software composers settle on. It's all the more important that these are interfaces users are going to spend a lot of time with. Where bad interfaces can make composers dread their time in front of the computer, good ones make these sessions both more enjoyable and more productive.

Knowing this, Spitfire has put product design front and center. For Spitfire, it isn't just about visuals, it's also about accessibility. The company sees and treats design the way it does pricing: as a means for lowering the barriers to creation.

Simplicity has its drawbacks, too. Some interfaces are so clinically clean that you might have a hard time understanding what it is that the few knobs and sliders actually do. Spitfire's sleekness leans on the abstract end of the spectrum, and mastering the company's tools is likely to require some experimentation. Still, its intentions are clear: design should empower, not deter, creators - no matter their skill level.

Making sound cool

More generally, it's also about making things look good. If intuitive interfaces speak to a customer's practical sense, beautiful ones speak to their aesthetic sense. Good design helps tell a story: it's another instance of Spitfire's obsession with worldbuilding.

This makes sense. For all their artistic potential, sound libraries only come as a bunch of files. You download them - all hundreds of gigabytes of them -, install them, load them up in your preferred audio workstation, and only then does the magic happen. With thousands of professional plug-ins and libraries available, composers sometimes need a little push before they decide to take all these steps for one additional piece of software.

For Spitfire, design is that push. The company works hard on giving each pack a distinct visual identity that echoes the idea, work, or creator that inspired it. Not only does this help convey the story behind one particular library, it's also indicative of the sounds you'll be able to create with it: from that perspective, the visual layer becomes as important as the sounds themselves.

It also needs to be consistent. Design flows down from a product's artwork to the wider marketing material, informing every piece of content along the way. It's visible everywhere from a library's product page to a customer's screenshare on YouTube. Because it's what users will know that product as for years to come, it needs to be true to a product's overall aesthetic and mission. Making the design compelling enough can, in turn, help the products spread across the community by prompting curiosity from one composer to the next.

Ultimately, Spitfire uses design as a way to instill emotion and soul, creating soulful interfaces. This helps differentiate the products from one another, as well as the company from its competitors. Even without an overarching identity, Spitfire's branding sensibility and acumen are a competitive advantage in a marketplace riddled with lookalikes.

The missing link: Community

Great products. Engaging content. Impeccable design. By now, you must be thinking: Spitfire is doing everything right. There's just one thing missing: community. Filling that void would enable the company to engage composers of all levels, spread the word about its product offering, and upsell existing users. Spitfire should make it a priority.

Spitfire's community today lives across a nebula of formats in comment sections, video reviews, and specialist forums - a small, non-official subreddit was created in... 2013!

In other words, this community is active everywhere but on Spitfire's properties. Positioned as a sleek magazine rather than an informal blog, Composer doesn't enable comments. The only sign of customer reviews you'll find on Spitfire's website is pulled from Trustpilot. There is no forum to be found either - only a Zendesk-powered Help Centre for requesting features and sharing "tips & tricks." Most of the posts in the Community section, have to do with troubleshooting. There is room for improvement.

Spitfire isn't blind to the opportunity. It has started engaging its fans more, for instance through scoring competitions that encourage users of its products to submit their own creations. One example was how it recently teamed up with HBO to organize a competition around the network's series Westworld. In addition to winning various prizes, the event gave fans a chance to "showcase [their] work to the best in the business" - a panel comprising Westworld's creators, composer, and executive director. The results were then announced on the company's YouTube Channel.

Competitions like this one are a great way to spread awareness about the company's products. YouTube results for the Westworld competition, for example, show hundreds of entries - some of them with tens of thousands of views, others with only a few dozens. Every additional entry makes the tail of content a little longer, which increases the visibility not just of Spitfire but of its content partners as well. We're likely to see more of these operations in the future.

Beyond one-off competitions, Spitfire has a clear opportunity to aggregate its spread-out community and empower it for the long-run.

Its products are now well-known enough that dozens of individual composers will create dedicated demos online for each new release. What would it be like for the company to offer an actual forum, rather than letting the community gather resources from elsewhere? Users of its products could collaborate more efficiently, sharing sound stems and iterating on each other's work.

Meanwhile, top users - who already act as unofficial advocates for the company - could be better rewarded for contributing to the community. Spitfire would also have a direct channel to announce new product launches or sell merch, one whose reach doesn't depend on the whims of algorithms.

Looking forward

Spitfire has built something that’s adored the world over by scoring enthusiasts. I’m excited to see where the company decides to go next - and I have a few suggestions myself.

Education

This seems like an easy one. The company is already well-known for unpacking the technical aspects of scoring through quality walkthroughs and tutorials. Meanwhile, its cofounder Christian for years has been passing along valuable knowledge on the ins and outs of the scoring industry. Combine the two and you get hours upon hours of instructional and educational content that’s suited for composers of all levels and career stages.

There are a few caveats, though.

For one, Spitfire has already put out so much educational content for free that it may find it challenging to have people pay for it in the future. With so many resources available, going paid would take some serious repackaging if the company is to add value to what's already out there.

Adding a paywall would also mean losing out on the marketing opportunities that have done so much for Spitfire’s success. It would drastically narrow its current sales funnel and hinder its ability to generate repeat purchases from its customers as they outgrow their initial stack. If Spitfire is to keep the content flywheel rolling, it needs to make sure the content itself is broadly accessible.

There’s also the matter of size: how big is Spitfire’s total addressable market, and is it big enough that launching a paid educational product would be worth the effort? Orchestral instruments still make up most of Spitfire’s library, and orchestral composers arguably make up most of the company’s market, too. At the same time, LABS as well as individual packs have broadened its appeal and expanded its addressable market. Spitfire’s success in education would require solid positioning.

In the meantime, there are easier options. A low-hanging fruit could be to release working material alongside the video content. Spitfire could start sharing with students the audio stems created during its tutorials, to let viewers manipulate the sounds on their own. Every product release would become an opportunity for the company's customers to learn by doing and to share their progress - leading to ever more user-generated content.


Content

One area I'd love to see Spitfire expand into is in original content.

The company is famous for a culture that encourages everyone to create and experiment more - many among its employees are hobbyist or professional musicians, composers, singers, or sound engineers. Additionally, Spitfire itself already produces music, although as a byproduct: its videos often have the company's staff compose a short piece to demonstrate the software's capabilities. The company even has an in-house composer.

Fans have taken notice - many on YouTube comment not just on the products, but on the music created with them. At the moment, these tracks are dispersed across dozens of videos.

Spitfire could instead compile them into yearly or even quarterly releases - either for free for marketing purposes, or packaging them into exclusive physical products. Or it could showcase them via a dedicated, “orchestral ambient music” app, alongside the work of its most active users and community members.

The company has already taken steps in that direction, launching in 2018 SA Recordings, "a record label dedicated to sounds and recordings by contemporary composers." SA Recordings, the company states on its website, "is committed to releasing digital and physical works, commissioning creative projects, producing limited-edition merchandise and developing bespoke, artist-led sample libraries in collaboration with Spitfire Audio."

The relationship between Spitfire and SA Recordings is organic and has already led to several such collaborations: several of the label's artists have worked with Spitfire to release the sounds they used to produce their own work. We'll see way a lot more of these in the future.


The Medley

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🤓 Transcending Heidegger – The Cinema Of Terrence Malick (video) | Like Stories of Old

Like Stories of Old is my favorite YouTube channel, and Malick is among my favorite filmmakers. This video is a great explainer on Malick’s cinema and its relation to concepts like time or, yes, the meaning of being. Not your everyday film review.

The Garden of Forking Memes: How Social Media Distorts our Sense of Time | Aaron Z. Lewis

Aaron is a media ecologist and a must-read on anything Internet, and his latest essay is another banger. It’s about how the subjective time zones of internet subcultures have thrown us - as users, and as a society - into “a state of atemporal confusion,” and made us unable to form shared narratives.

🎥 Documentaries are making big money - with Bryn Mooser, CEO of XTR (podcast) | Eric Peckham | Monetizing Media

Documentaries are having a moment. The rise of streaming platforms, increasing consumer interest for non-fiction content, and the mass availability of smartphones have unlocked new cultural and economic opportunities. I shared my notes on the conversation here.


Many thanks to Neer for reviewing this piece and throwing in valuable ideas and resources. If you don't already, you should subscribe to aha, his newsletter about product and community.

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Thanks for reading!

Maxime