Interview with Christopher Sutton of Easy Ear Training

How to Make an App

In this Episode – Chris & David are joined by Christopher Sutton – Musician, App Developer and Reluctant Businessman

The App Business Podcast often discusses Mobile Apps as if they are developed in a vacuum  – so we felt it was time to add some context to who is building mobile apps and why. Christopher founded and manages a music theory and ear training program including lessons and other fun ways to learn – available on both the web and on mobile apps.

We discuss:

  • why he has focused his offering on mobile,
  • how investing in mobile supports his overall business strategy and
  • where and how it extends his brand and offering

Resources and Linked Mentioned in this Episode


Chris: All right, and welcome to the App Business Podcast. We’re here, episode number 20. ABP number 20. Joined by David, as always. Hey, David.


David:             Hey, guys.


Chris: I have a special guest, it’s interview time. We’ve got Christopher Sutton of easy ear training with us today out of London, England.


Christopher:    Hi, guys. Happy to be here.


Chris: Christopher is in our mastermind. He’s part of Mobile TenX community, so we talk every Monday. But he’s one of the guys that isn’t 100% mobile. He’s developing mobile apps and really . . . no, he’s using mobile. And it’s almost like a marketing tool to drive business to his existing business, which is a music business and he’ll talk all about that.


But we thought it’d be fun to talk to someone who’s not totally knee-deep in mobile like, I think a lot of the audience members are. But it’s good to get this outside perspective and just talk about your business.


But before we dig into that, we promise we’re going to read reviews. So, we have two more five-star review. We have an intro to music, we’re not cool enough to have an audience clapping yet. There we go.


All right. “Love the show, A+, five stars. When I hear this podcast, I am drinking a cup of coffee at my kitchen counter with note paper and pen in hand. It’s one of the top podcasts that I have as they get right to the point and start talking about this item. I do wish it was about an hour long, so I could get more tips and tricks.” So, thank you for that review.


David:             Thank you very much.


Chris: That was my Lee. Oh, we know Lee. Thanks, Lee. And another one, another five-star review. “Solid addition to the app business genre” by Oh, we need to look them up and thank them for that.


“Chris and David each bring a unique perspective to the podcast, given their respective backgrounds in app business and app development. Having listened to several other app business shows, it’s clear that they’re bringing fresh content. I’m looking forward to future guests and topics.”


So, here we go, a future guest and a future topic right now. All right, man, let’s dig in. So, we did a little introduction to Christopher. Christopher, do you want to introduce yourself a little bit more?


Christopher:    Sure. So, I’m a Londoner born and raised. I live here with my wife. And I tend to describe myself as a geek first, musician second and a businessman a late and a somewhat reluctant third.


It’s interesting you say that what distinguishes me is that apps are really a part of what I do. I guess that’s true. But when I was thinking about it, I think it’s more, for me, apps are a means to an end. Like, there are definitely times in my business where apps are my total priority and focus. But when I think about who’s in our mastermind, for example, the guys have different things going on. Some of it is apps, some of it is Web, some of it is sales.


I think what sets me apart is I have a particular niche that I’m really psyched about and passionate about this topic and this audience and customer base. And apps, for me, are one way to help them with what I can help them with.


Chris: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s totally true. That is really what sets you apart. Not so much that you’re not 100% focused in mobile, but it’s that you are 100% focused on this niche . . . it’s music, but it’s more than specific than music.


The one app that you released recently–and I might be getting this wrong–is the “Are You Tone-Deaf,” is that it?


Christopher:    Yes. The company generally is about helping musicians develop their ear for music. So, it’s called “Easy Ear Training” where ear training is basically anything you do to help you understand what you hear in music.


And it’s something I’m really passionate about because music was always a hobby for me, but it was generally a pretty frustrating one. Because if you take guitar lessons or you learn piano, you get taught how to play the instrument. And you get pretty good at playing the right notes at the right time.


But for me and for many others, what they don’t teach you is how to feel like a natural musician. How to play expressively, how to create your own songs, how to improvise, how to play music by ear. That’s all the stuff that’s really fun in music and that’s often the reason people get into music in the first place. But it doesn’t get taught.


And it took me a long time. It wasn’t until my mid-20’s that I found out that there was whole area of ear training, as they call it. Which is about giving you that instinctive understanding of music. And that’s really what makes music fun.


So, my mission with Easy Ear Training is trying to bring that to musicians and fill in that missing piece that many people are frustrated by.


Chris: What did mobile provide that you couldn’t do on your website?


Christopher:    It’s an interesting way of phrasing it. It was kind of the other way around in terms of my company. Because the company span out of a hobby project making iPhone apps, really. So, mid-2009, I was working in a job where I was doing ear training for quality of the audio. So, stuff like hearing MP3 artifacts and that kind of thing. Training your ear to pick those up. And as a hobby, I was doing kind of the musical side of ear training.


Anyway, I got excited about the iPhone. I started making apps in my spare time. And so, the apps were really the genesis of the company in the first place. And the website came later.


So, for me, at the time, I was thinking “iPhone apps are cool. This ear training thing seems to be pretty cool. How can I put the two together?”


Chris: Got it. Okay. Clearly, the mobile . . . you could just define a very specific application like that ear training. Whereas if you had a website, you’d have like “Hey, click here for ear training.” “Click here to see if you can sing.” There’s just so many things that you’re wanting to do.


Christopher:    Absolutely.


Chris:  Individual applications is probably the best way to present them to the market, right?


Christopher:    Absolutely. Apps have always been a big part of what my company does because they’re a great match for ear training. It’s about learning a bunch of different skills and having little interactive exercises you can do on your phone, wherever you are, whenever you have a moment. It’s just perfect for this kind of skill development. So, apps are great for that.


But as you say, there are times when you want the bigger picture. So, our website, for example, it’s a lot more about explaining the overall process and giving you kind of planning resources to help make sure that when you use those apps, they fit into your overall life as a musician and give you the best bang for your buck.


Chris: Yeah. This is why I thought you’d be a good guest. Because you’re not a mobile developer 100%, right? You don’t take on clients. Or you do, sometimes. But that’s not the goal of what you’re doing now. And you’re not necessarily a 100% content marketer. But you do that, too. Because it’s the tools that we have to get our services or our businesses out there, right?


Christopher:    That’s absolutely right, yeah. So, I do sometimes collaborate or do consultancy and it tends to be where the project fits in with what I’m doing anyways. So, I’ll do the project if it’s a music education project. Not just general app development consultancy.


And like you said, content marketing, similarly part of the reason we write articles and publish every week on the website is to just help spread the word about ear training and help get our apps and our eBooks in front of more people. So, yeah, they’re all kind of tools in the kit I use to try and reach this audience and give them what they need to develop their ears.


Chris: Right. So, this is the App Business Podcast. But in the off chance we have developers first, musicians second, a distant third, businessmen listening, what is the URL for your website? And what are some of the other things that you’re offering and doing?


Christopher:    Sure. So, the main website is at And there, you’ll find all kinds of articles and resources to help you explore the different things you can do in ear training.


There’s a lot of people that write in to say “What’s your best course?” or “What’s the best way to do ear training?” And there’s never one answer because every musician is different.


If you’re a jazz saxophone player, you’re going to want to do different ear training to a rock guitarist or a classical violinist. And so, our website tries to kind of lay out for you, all the different topics in ear training and then give you some tools, whether that’s downloadable MP3s or an audio-enhanced eBook or an online training course that can help you explore that topic and really get involved in the active training.


David:             So, let me ask you a specific question, then, Christopher. Because I remember that on the mastermind, where you maybe first or at least, in-depth, talked about that concept, I was randomly pulling up a book from my bookshelf, which is called “Play Piano By Ear” by Simon Schott.


And I bought this book because I learned to play piano as a kid. And I wanted to do exactly what you just described. Just playing by ear, playing a song that I heard on the radio or something like that. That was the idea.


And I started reading that book, maybe the first couple pages, first 20 pages. Put it down, never picked up again. It was exactly the factor you described.


Now, for something like this, playing the piano, I don’t even know if you have an app for that or if you have a concept for that. But just maybe using this example, how would an app be better at teaching me how to play the piano by ear than the book?


Christopher:    Sure. So, that book, I like to call the “hardcore book” because the author . . . he takes a brutal approach to teaching you to play piano by ear. He goes straight into “Look, here are 11 different ways to play a C chord” and half of them are crazy jazz chords you’d never use in real life.


And I have no doubt it worked for him, but it’s a brutal way to try and teach people how to play by ear. And it really stems from the fact that a lot of what you find out there for playing by ear is very instrument-specific.


And so, they’re starting from “How do you teach someone to play the piano” or the guitar. And then throwing in a little bit of “How do you do it by ear”?


And that can be a good way to get started in this stuff. But really, for me, I see it as a kind of trifecta of instrument skills, music theory and ear training. And most people focus on the instrument skills and maybe learn a bit of the theory.


But, really, you need all three of them. And the best musicians have all three of them. And the way somebody like you could go about learning to play piano by ear, if you already play a decent level of piano.


It’s about learning a little bit of the theory, so that you understand which notes go together and what a scale is and what chords are. And then, bringing the theory to life with ear training that tells you what a major chord sounds like and why you should use the 1-4-5 progression if you want to write a pop song.


And then, you probably already have the instrument skills to immediately apply that. So, our apps, for example, they’re quite different from a lot of the “Play Piano By Ear” books or courses. In that they really focus on the abstract listening skills. It’s not “How do you play piano?” It’s “Listen to this chord, can you recognize this type of chord by ear?”


And in business terms, it’s quite a different spin on the same market. You’re targeting the same customer, but it’s coming at it from a very different angle. And it’s been a really interesting learning curve for me over the last few years figuring out “How do you do the marketing” and “How do you do the messaging around a product like that” when you’re coming at it from that different angle.


David:             Sorry, if I dumb it down a little. But basically, the book can’t sing or the book can’t produce music for me to recognize. And more importantly, it can’t interact with me. I could maybe listen to an audio course or a DVD. I don’t know what’s out there in terms of courses.


But they can’t interact with me. I can’t say “Yeah, I did recognize this correctly. Now, give me something more, something harder or something different.” They can only do one course that fits everybody. Where the app could be judging whether I was actually correct and giving me different exercises. A different response to that, right?


Christopher:    Absolutely. You know, I think those two factors you’ve hit on there are key to why apps are so powerful for this stuff. I guess education, in general, but particularly, music education. It’s that they’re interactive, so you know immediately, have you got it right or wrong? That kind of feedback is really powerful for developing these skills that can otherwise stay fuzzy.


And the other thing is, it can be personalized. Like I said, there’s no one musician that you can design one course for. And so, the best teaching is going to be adaptive. It’s going to be responding to what’s the student is interested in and the skills they already have and the progress they make. And it’s very hard to do that in a book, but relatively easy to do in an app.


David:So, the last episode we did was connected to content or it was about content businesses, in general. And how you could integrate your content that you already have, be it for traditional business or be it for content-based business. Or business that uses content marketing. How you could integrate that into your mobile strategy or into your mobile app.


You are also using a lot of content marketing, probably. But I think you have also, like, really, just sold content in the past. I’m not sure if you still do that. Can you just give us a quick summary of how your overall strategy works together with the mobile apps?


Christopher:    Sure. So, the first two or three years, I guess, it was quite simple. So, we had interactive apps that were iOS only. And we had a website that was publishing text articles. I guess they had illustrations and they had some audio clips to bring it to life. But it was essentially static content on the website.


And in the last year or two, I’ve been looking a lot more at how you can combine those two and as you say, kind of leverage your content in your apps. I’ve tried this, I guess, from both sides. Both trying to pull our content into native mobile apps. And trying to bring app interactivity to our content on the Web.


So, examples of that would be iOS apps link out to content on the website where it can provide extra information along the way. So, the student’s training interactively with the app. But actually, sometimes, you just need them to read an explanation and understand the process. So, we link out to the website more kind of fully-fledged.


We did an app using a platform called Mobiloud which is one of a few technologies that let you take a WordPress blog and turn it into a native app. And so, that’s literally packaging up our static content as an app. Which I think is an interesting kind of bridge between the two worlds.


And then, I’ve approached it the other direction, too. Kind of doing collaborations or short projects where we develop a little Web app that can live on our website at alongside an article.


So, when the article is teaching you, for example, how to put chords to a melody you’ve just made up, there’s a little interactive widget that lets you kind of drag and drop chords around and see how they sound and get the hang of it that way.


Chris: That’s cool.


David:             Okay, so what are these mobile apps or generally, mobile experiences, that you have designed and created for your business, has given you the most bang for your buck or has given you the best results. What do you feel? What works best for you at the moment?


Christopher:    In my developer heart of hearts, I would love to say Web apps are the be all and end all and it’s all Web apps from here on out. And I’ve tried essentially every year for the last few years except make that true.


Unfortunately, for us, there’s always a big sticking point. Which is audio is not great with pure Web technology. And so, if I had to say what’s given us the best bang for the buck, it’s generally the native apps, to be honest. Our iOS apps, which we do as kind of a free app and a paid premium version. They’ve probably been the most successful app development projects for the company.


David:             Interesting.


Christopher:    I know, David, I think with your company and your projects, [inaudible 00:17:14] for example, you’d probably take the opposite answer and say “Web apps are the future.” Is that right?


David:             It really depends on what you define as a “Web app.” So, I can understand that if you really don’t want to deploy it on an app store, you actually want to ship it via a Web server, then yes, the audio is a pretty big problem. Especially in the mobile platforms. I don’t think you could do a lot of the stuff you are doing right now with native apps as good. I should say “As well,” I guess. As well as you think the native apps.


But I think that if you are using the right technology like PhoneGap and using good plugins, you could maybe achieve the same result. But I would have to look into it, to be honest.


Christopher:    And do you see those two worlds merging or Web apps taking over in the future? Because it feels like the debate of Web apps versus native apps has been raging for years now with no end in sight.


And it’s tough. With a business of easy ear training, it’s tough to know where to put your eggs. Because you don’t know which strategy is going to pay off in the long term. And scaling up in both technologies and exploring each along the way can come at quite a high cost.


David:             Yeah, that is really interesting because we have actually never really talked about that as a full topic on the podcast, yet. We are assuming that most people are still looking at native and not really considering the Web technology too much. There is certainly a minority of hardcore developers, especially Web developers, who are looking into this a lot. And we know that are a ton of apps being created with something like PhoneGap. And also deployed to the app stores.


But usually, there’s no Flappy Bird in PhoneGap. Although that would be very possible. We just haven’t seen either the most successful or the most complex apps being done with Web.


But obviously, as my company is very focused on that and invests a lot in that, I do believe that the Web will eventually be a very viable alternative. If not, the majority of apps will be made with Web technology.


It’s a question of time, absolutely. We see that time is on our side and things are getting better. But they’re not getting better at the rate that we would like to get them better. So, we are trying to do our best here at excellenteasy to fuel that and make it faster. And for certain, I think, for a lot of apps that are currently in the app store, Web technology is absolutely ready. But there are some [edge] cases, still, like with high-performance audio, where you cannot use it out of the box. You would have to invest a little bit of time and effort in it, absolutely.


Christopher:    That definitely matches up with my experience. It is definitely getting better. You can write a much niftier Web app now than you could a few years back. And we did a PhoneGap app last year, for example, for the London A Cappella festival. Where I knew it wasn’t going to need particularly sophisticated audio support. And so, I was delighted to be able to just do it as a Web app and know I could apply it to iOS and Android with little development overhead.


So, I think you’re right that there’s an increasing number of cases where you can go Web and it really pays off.


David:             I think we just to do an entire episode about this whole problem, Chris.


Christopher:    I think so.


Chris: I think we need to invite Christopher to [inaudible 00:20:45] with us, because he’s smarter than I am about this stuff.


Christopher:    We can do a dev-only episode.


Chris: I just want to say that there were some dogs barking in the back, so hit mute. And do you know how hard it is for me to be quiet for ten minutes? I think that’s a podcast record right there.


But, yeah. Christopher, that’s awesome that you can ask David questions. The last episode, I was asking questions. He’d be like “Oh, that’s not really how it works” and correcting my questions.


David:             The question was, “What’s the difference between HTML5 and Responsive Design?” I was like “I don’t know how to answer that question.”


Christopher:    I guess it depends who you’re talking to and what you can assume they already know.


Chris: They [inaudible 00:21:24] nothing, Chris.


David:             I think that’s just the really interesting thing about this podcast, why I love doing episodes. Especially with guests is that you get to see so many different perspectives on marketing, on development, on even technology discussions like we just had five to ten minutes of.


That’s what I really love about this podcast. Because otherwise, you wouldn’t ever get the chance to talk to these interesting people about this because nobody has time, right? So, you need to start a podcast to actually get these people to talk to you about these things. I think it’s absolutely exciting.


One more question I have on my list here, what do you think is, maybe that’s connected to the Web app versus native question. But what do you think is most exciting coming up the next couple of months or even the next 12 months in the mobile space? Is there anything you’re really excited about you think will take off and maybe connect it to your business?


Christopher:    So, I guess, for me, they’re two slightly different questions. For my business, I’m most excited about our big project for the year, which is tackling a very specific topic of tone deafness.


So, Chris, the website you mentioned before, is our first kind of public step in this direction. But we’re really trying to tackle this issue that whether you’re a musician or not, there’s way too many people that are nervous about singing and worried that they sing out of tune and they think they’re tone deaf.


The reality is very few people actually are. And I’m really excited this year to be digging into that issue and helping people see that A, they’re not tone deaf and B, they can learn to sing in tune. So, in my business, that’s what I’m most excited about.


In the apps world, I think it’s going to be really fascinating over the next year or two to see how wearable tech affects apps. I think we’ve already seen weird merging of mobile and desktop with Apple bringing out the Mac App Store and starting to refer to Mac software as “apps.” And obviously, tablet devices coming in-between mobile and desktop, too.


That’s already all really blurry. But when you start getting people talking about an Apple watch or Google Glass, for example, I find it really hard to predict what impact that’s going to have on the idea of an app. Are we going to expect software to just run on every device? Or is it going to push us back towards people making software that’s very well-matched to the hardware that it runs on.


Chris: I think the latter, because that’s just my perspective. I think the watch is going to kick off this whole new quantified self series of apps. Who knows what’s going to happen with Google Glass.


But I think I just read yesterday that Ray Ban was partnering with Google Glass and they’re going to have Ray Ban-styled Google Glasses. So, it’s almost like Google says they’re going to do something to people like “Okay, I’m in.” Because they just do stuff well.


But, yeah. I’m with you, Christopher. The TV stuff is going to change. Google and Apple TV stuff is going to impact apps and how we use our devices to interact with apps and the availability in cars. This stuff is moving so fast and it’s really fun to be somewhat of a part of it, building apps and knowing that we could build apps for TV and Google Glass and all this kind of stuff. It’s really exciting to be a part of and watch.


Christopher:    I actually came along armed with a question for Chris, too, if you’ll indulge me.


David:             Okay, sure.


Christopher:    I decided I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. Chris, obviously, your specialty is kind of ASO and App Store marketing. I think if you’re starting from scratch with a new app, it’s relatively easy to say “I’ll do the ASO well,” put in some effort and launch the app with good ASO.


For someone like me who has a portfolio of apps that maybe hasn’t had the ASO attention they need, I’d be really curious to know how would you look at a portfolio like that and decide if it’s worth the effort?


Chris: I think ASO isn’t that hard once you get going. But I think what a lot of people do . . . in fact, [App Jetpack], the company we talked about on the mastermind, is addressing this issue where people put apps out on the store–and this is your thing, too. You did it two years ago.


And you forget about them. And it’s like there’s no optimization or testing what words work best or what buttons work best. Anything like what we do with websites with the AB testing or what we should be doing, right?


So, ASO isn’t hard. And you can get a free 14-day trial at Sensor Tower. I think a little bit of effort on ASO, where you put some new keywords in there. We’re using ASO, but we really mean keywords, I think. Throw some keywords in your title and that keyword space in iTunes and submit. And then, see where you’re at in a month.


And try it again. And maybe go through one or two iterations of that and see if it’s made an impact. But I mean, when we first started the second round of the mastermind that you were a part of, I think we all recognized “Gosh, keywords need to be addressed and the icons probably need to be refreshed.”


Then you can really see “Then, is it worth doing or not?” I think it’s a pretty minimal investment to get that information, get that data. What do you think?


Christopher:    Yep, that makes a lot of sense. I think it can be a bit overwhelming when you have . . . like, for me, my attention has been 100% focused on my company year after year. But my attention has not been 100% focused on my apps. Which means I now look at them and I see there’s a few bugs that need to be fixed, the icons need a refresh, the UI updates.


And ASO is part of that. If I knew it was going to return on investment, I would definitely put in the time. But it seems like something you could spend a lot of time on. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t really help your apps. So, it’s really interesting to hear that you think that it’s worth just kind of giving it a shot.


Chris: What I’d actually say because I think I’m so used to outsourcing everything that I just have a different perspective on it. But you know what you might do is if these apps are something that are still a key part of your offering or portfolio. You know how you have kind of like the different applications that are part of your solution for musicians, then I think it’s absolutely worth a refresh.


Because this isn’t like a dated offering. It’s not like people aren’t going to be needing this in six months, it’s not Flappy Bird. So, I think, just for that reason, it’s probably worth . . . if the app is still something that you want to stay behind, the content of the app, I think it’s absolutely worth a little bit of an investment in ASO.


And dude, I’ll say it on the podcast but I hope I’m not opening up a can of worms here. Dude, I’ll be happy to help you with getting some keywords. Because I think, for that kind of stuff, where it’s probably not super-competitive because it’s so specific, it’s so niche, I think you could get a really good start with . . . 30 minutes to an hour of us working together and talking.


So, maybe we can revisit this in two months after we’ve worked on it a little and see what happened.


Christopher:    That sounds great.


David:             And also, it’s a perfect use case for App Jetpack, right?


Chris: Well, it could be. Except so many guys are doing ASO so well, that App Jetpack is really like the next thing. Like, “Okay, you’ve solved downloads. How do you solve retention?”


Like, I don’t want to compete with Sensor Tower. I think what they’re doing is pretty rad. But of course, I’m going to be using Sensor Tower to help Christopher with his ASO.


I mean, it definitely reinforces the idea of “Hey, don’t just submit and forget.” If it’s worth spending $2,000 and three weeks developing, it’s worth spending another $200 and taking it to that next level, you know?


David:             Absolutely.


Chris: Christopher, this was fun.


David:             Yeah, we made it over a half an hour, actually. That’s quite some time. It was a great conversation. I think we’ll have to get you back on the show, at least in a couple of months. See where we’ve gone and how your ASO has come with Chris’ help, right?


It was a great conversation. Thank you very much for being on the show.


Christopher:    Cool. Thanks so much having me, guys. And yeah, I’d be delighted to come back any time. Keep up the good work, cheers.


Chris: Thanks, Christopher. All right, thanks guys.


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