New ideas and invention are wonderful things – so long as you don’t have any illusions about cost and payoff, that is. So, with that cheeky headline, here’s Roger Linn. He writes us:

I thought you might get a kick out of this and maybe some of your DIY readers might find it useful.

Occasionally I get an email from someone who thinks he has a great idea for a music product that will make millions, and asks for advice on how to make a prototype, or wants to tell me his idea so I can make it for him and pay him a big royalty. I finally got tired of rewriting the answer and wrote up a general answer on my FAQ page.

In all seriousness, he offers some great advice; I’ve already had a couple of entrepreneurial music tech folks nod in agreement. And avoiding losing huge amounts of money is probably a good thing for artists and inventors, too. I’ve reproduced in in total here, as I suspect this may generate some comments; many musical inventors, humble and experienced, are lurking out there reading this site.

Q: I have a great idea for a music product and need to make a prototype but I’m not very technical. Can you can me any advice on how to make a prototype or any companies that I could pay to make a prototype for me? Or how can I present my idea to a music products company so they can pay me a royalty and design/manufacture it for me? How do I patent my idea?

A: Of all the ways to lose huge amounts of money, making a prototype of your idea is one of the most effective. First, there’s a very good chance that others (and possibly many others) have thought of your product idea before, and the reason it isn’t already on the market is either 1) others don’t find it as valuable as you do, or 2) the necessary engineering or material costs would make it sufficiently expensive that few would buy it.

The first thing to do is to learn the true value of your product idea in the marketplace. One of the biggest mistakes people make is to thing that everyone will value their idea as much as they do. First document your product idea, including a clear text description, drawings (or 3D renderings using the free Google Sketchup software) and a realistic customer price. To arrive at the realistic customer price, don’t use a price you’d like it to sell for, but rather what it must sell for considering the total parts cost, development cost, manufacturer profit and distributor/retailer profit. Then take an objective survey of people you know and don’t know, asking them not if they like it buy rather would they definitely buy it at the realistic price you’ve given. To insure they aren’t just telling you what you want to hear, tell them it’s someone else’s idea, not yours, and don’t appear to like or dislike it.

If you still want to make a prototype, try to find a way to make it for no more than $1000 and ideally for free. If you’re not technical and you have some friends who are, get them excited about it and ask for free help in exchange for future payment if you make any money later. Important: do everything you can to avoid designing new circuit boards, embedded software (software that runs on the small computers inside self-contained products) and metal/plastic mechanical housings. Very commonly, people start doing this thinking they’ll spend only a few thousand dollars then later find they’ve drained their relatives’ savings only to teach themselves how difficult it is.

For many music product ideas, it’s possible to–by yourself–create a functional prototype by connecting and reconfiguring a variety of existing low-cost hardware and software music/audio products. It won’t be pretty but will be functional and therefore allow you to prove your concept at low cost and therefore give a better demonstration of its usefulness. For hardware and human interface (buttons, knobs, sliders, drum pads, etc.), use existing Midi controllers such as Korg’s inexpensive Nano line. Or design your desired control panel on an iPad using cheap iPad apps like MIDIPad or TouchOSC. For foot control, use a cheap midi foot pedal board like a Behringer FCB1010. For the software, it’s often possible to prototype your product idea by configuring Ableton Live or other music software. If you like Live and want to dig deeper into functionality, use Ableton’s Max For Live add-on. To dig even deeper, learn one of the simple graphical audio/music programming environments like Max/MSP, Max For Live, PD or Reaktor, or learn to program an iPad app.

Regarding presenting your idea to a music products company so they will pay you a royalty and design/manufacturer it for you, this is a highly unlikely scenario. While companies are always interested in their customers’ free suggestions, it’s very unlikely that they will pay anybody for anything unless they absolutely have no choice. Often they will politely decline to hear your idea because 1) customers’ products ideas are rarely unique, and 2) if they were already planning the same idea, they don’t want you to later accuse them of stealing your idea. However, if they truly feel it’s worth spending their money to make your idea into a product and they feel you have the necessary skills to help them, probably the best scenario is that they may offer you a job.

Regarding how to patent your idea, you can’t patent an idea but rather only the implementation of an idea. Getting a patent is another great way to lose lots of money. Plus, having a patent doesn’t prevent anyone from stealing your idea but rather simply gives you a better case for infringement if and when you must hire an expensive lawyer to sue them. Again, don’t spend any money until you’ve objectively proven that lots of people would buy your product at its realistic customer price.

I think what’s great is that there’s a real silver lining in all of this – prototyping now can be cheaper and easier than ever, and for many musicians, while there may not be much of a business opportunity, you can very often build what you want for yourself.

  • From Pd to Max for Live, there are superb software tools for rapidly creating tools. (Add to that, I’d say, things like OpenFrameworks and Processing.)
  • Hardware prototyping is easier than ever, thanks to projects like Arduino. I hope our own MeeBlip will soon be a way for people to learn basic microcontroller programming for synthesis, too, and a platform for these sorts of ideas.

So long as you take a good, strong dose of reality, you can find opportunities.