As other industries have gone digital in new, interactive ways, the sheet music business--despite publishers' attempts to sell digitized products--has remained relatively static. One startup, Chromatik, is trying to change that, by creating a Spotify of sheet music. The Santa Monica, California-based company's free app gives musicians access to a vast library of published music, and lets them annotate songs, practice along with music videos, and share videos of themselves playing.

Founder Matt Sandler, 26, a UCLA-educated saxophone player, came up with the idea after making websites for his friends' bands and working at internships in the music industry. Since the Santa Monica-based company launched in 2011, the app has been used by numerous musicians, ranging from Los Angeles public-school students to the "American Idol" pit band. And Chromatik has raised more than $7 million from investors that include celebrity pop star Bruno Mars and actor Will Smith. Sandler recently spoke with Inc. about how he got started.

Spotting an Opportunity

I got the idea for Chromatik in college. It started as website that provided sheet music, tabs, chord changes, direct from artists--friends that were high profile in their spaces. I had a couple thousand signups to that crappy web app. 

Then I saw the iPad coming out, and I put together a couple designs with a friend. I started building the mobile app in the fall of 2010. Then I put up a post on Facebook, and few friends responded and said, "Hey, I have a friend at Apple Education." 

In the Classroom

We decided to do a pilot at a high school in Orange County, California, where they were giving iPads to every student. They had math and science, but they didn't have anything that worked for music classrooms, bands, orchestras. If you were ever in band class, you'd know that you come in and they give you a folder of music. Instead of doing that, we just synced a digital folder to student email addresses, and then the music was on the iPads. 

Students could also use the app to share performances with their teacher. This was helpful to the teachers, because student-to-teacher ratios in music are the worst in any subject area. Secondly, you can't quantitatively grade music; it's not like a multiple-choice test. It's much more qualitative. So if you can record and share your recordings with an instructor, he or she can give some time to you on a weekly, monthly basis, without having to sit in front of you physically. 

The First Hard Sell

Selling to schools was actually very difficult, especially when you're talking about music classrooms where they are cutting arts budgets. The process was also a lot more bureaucratic than we expected. We also overestimated our ability to create products for a school space. We didn't anticipate Wi-Fi issues, app crashes. What we were doing was quite complex, and we also didn't anticipate audio-processing issues we'd have when we went from mobile to desktop. Basically, a lot of technology-specific problems that we eventually fixed. 

Room for Innovation

If you think about the world of mobile music, there's been a lot of value creation--financially, socially, and community-wise--in one half of the equation: how people listen to music. You see Spotify, Beats, Rdio, Soundcloud. Listening is a passive experience. We're focused on how people practice, perform, and learn music using a mobile device. Our niche is using sheet music, lyrics, tablature, chord changes. So everybody in the world playing Bruno Mars's "Grenade" can do so on any device. 

Singing a New Tune

A lot of people who play an instrument often say, "I used to play piano when I was younger, I've always wanted to pick it back up." Or, "Oh, my daughter sings in the church choir. I'd love to figure out how to have her play more, because she enjoys it so much." If you poll most Americans who have touched a musical instrument in their lives, the majority will say that they wish they had more time to play. Most people find it hard to carve out the time necessary. People don't understand that 10, 15 minutes a day is possible and fulfills that need. It doesn't need to be this elaborate thing, where you have to sit down for two hours and play a Bach concerto. It can be as simple as: "I heard that new Sam Smith tune on the radio, I'd love to be able to play that."  If we can facilitate a behavior pattern around that, I think we've done our job.

Making Music Free

A lot of sheet-music-focused apps do one of two things. One is a PDF-viewer that lets you upload your own music with annotation tools and file systems to keep your music organized on your mobile device. You use it like you would with a pencil and paper. Another approach is: "Hey, we're going to do some fancy auto-play with midi audio [bleepy computer sounds] that looks great--but for every song you'll need to spend $3.99 to $5.99." Our approach is similar that of Spotify. Content is largely for free, supported by functional advertising. Nobody's taken that model in the sheet music world. I'd rather call sheet music "music performance content"--anything you read to play music. With Chromatik, you can access any piece of music you like and the song's music video on YouTube syncs along with the actual sheet music itself. We have deals with the publishers, and we offer access for 25 instruments, at a few different skill levels, guitar tablature, the works. 

No Room for Error

We have encountered some challenges--making sure we're taking a different spin on what any publisher has seen in the music space, and getting them over the hump in terms of: "Can they generate real revenue for us?" It's taken time, effort, and discipline to prove we can do something incredible with their content. A massive challenge for us is designing usability. We're working in a space that I would call "mission-critical." People are either using the app on stage, using it to record, using it to jam with friends. They don't want to be frustrated or they will just go back to pencil and paper. We do a lot of testing with musicians and usability experts. 

Going Pro

Our biggest learning experience was when the app was deployed on "American Idol." The entire backing band was using the app on iPads on live TV in front of 16 million people every week. Anything in that environment is very difficult--it's technology and budgets on extreme scales, so introducing something new like a beta product is even more difficult. The music director said, "We have all this effing music flying around, can someone put that all on an iPad?" My friend was assistant music director, and she raised her hand, said, "Yes someone can."

We had a solution that worked like magic, but it wasn't without tremendous effort. They create their arrangements, and it's like a band class in high school. They had certain feature requests that we didn't end up doing, and we had some features that they did not like. We were building a consumer app not a custom app for them. They wanted simple things like reordering playlists, different colored pens to annotate the music. A great idea, but this is used in classrooms too, and students would create coloring books on their sheet music. So we weighed the pros and cons and said that wasn't going to fly.