This is an expanded version of the View from the Top article featured in the October 2015 issue of Pro Sound News highlighting Matt Ward, CEO of Plugin Alliance.
SANTA CRUZ, CA—Some of the most interesting developments in pro audio these days are happening in the world of plug-ins, so it’s only fitting that Plugin Alliance takes an equally interesting approach to making itself known in that corner of the industry. Created as a sister company to Leverkusen, Germany-based Brainworx GmbH, the Santa Cruz, CA-based company is dedicated to the marketing, distribution and support of products from its 12 Alliance partners, which include Brainworx.
Overseeing Plugin Alliance is Matt Ward, who brought a lifetime’s experience to the table when he joined the company in January, 2014. After spending most of the 1980s in retail, Ward spent the ’90s working with pro audio manufacturers such as Studer, Otari and E-MU Systems. After riding the turn-of-the-millennium dotcom bubble at Liquid Audio, Ward returned to pro audio in 2002 at Universal Audio, where he stayed until becoming Plugin Alliance’s CEO.
“The experience at UA taught me a lot about how to grow a company,” he says. “The process of predicting a growth curve and trying to stay ahead of it with how you plan infrastructure is a real challenge—but it’s extremely important because it turns out that waiting for something to break and then doing something about it is not the best strategy. The other things that I’ve learned are the importance of focus, and to figure out what your company is really good at and then put all your energy into doing that.”
That last point informs a lot of how Plugin Alliance works with its Alliance Partners, as the company helps them focus on what they’re good at: creating software. “The native plug-in world is a crowded and crazy space with competitors ranging from large companies with big marketing budgets to a guy developing shareware plugs in his bedroom—and pretty much everything in between,” says Ward. “There are many smaller developers who are really good at developing great sounding plug-ins but really don’t have the budget, experience or in some cases, the inclination to do effective marketing, distribution and support. By coming together under the Plugin Alliance banner, these companies can concentrate on what they do best and we take care of the rest. It’s very gratifying that we can empower smaller developers to compete with the big boys. In general, I’ll say that while you have to be aware of what other companies are doing, we’re more focused on what our customers want and expect from us, and then striving to deliver that.”
Aiming to keep customers “happy campers,” he says, means doing three things: “One: Start with the highest-quality, rigorously-tested products that make their music sound better; Two: Provide on-going advice through our website’s ‘Learn’ blog on how to use DAW-based systems more effectively; and Three: Consistently deliver responsive and effective customer support.” The real-world application of those concepts range from having Grammy-winning producers, industry veterans and noted audio instructors contribute on the ‘Learn’ blog, to aspects that customers barely see, such as improving the software authorization process: “Moving to our own software authorization system significantly reduced the number of support issues we had. Our previous authorization system—a popular, commercially available system—was responsible for 90 percent of our support tickets. Although we do still have customers with authorization issues, they are far fewer.”
The result is that Plugin Alliance has been growing, and perhaps surprisingly, it sees the U.S. as a growth market because it currently represents a lower share of the company’s total sales than is typical for the industry. “Part of the idea behind establishing Plugin Alliance in the U.S. was to add a bit more American flavor to marketing,” says Ward, “which has helped us grow in the U.S. As for product development, this takes two forms: the products that Brainworx develops and the additional developer partners we take on. Brainworx is a strong brand in the studio space, developing products with a hardware-like feel and tone, but also modern features you could only get in software. Brainworx has a lot more products that fit this mold which are coming.”
While Ward champions the idea of focusing on what a company does best, he’s not about sticking with the same old thing—just seeing that the next move is justified and well thought-out: “When you feel you’re done with what you can do in that area, move to the next logical step. Don’t jump outside your core competency just because someone else is having success in that area. An analogy I’m fond of using to illustrate this point is asking, if Mike Tyson were to walk into the room and offer to box or play Scrabble, which would you choose? It’s amazing to me how many companies decide it would be so cool to say they whipped Mike Tyson by choosing the boxing option and then, predictably, they get their noses broken.”
Walking that line between tried-and-true and thoughtful expansion, it’s not surprising that when Plugin Alliance considers partnering with companies, Ward is looking for ones that “fit well into our product line and appeal to our customers, while offering something different than what we currently have. Accusonus, a remarkable Greek company which develops amazing new technologies, brought its unique products, including drumatom and ERA-D, to the Alliance. We recently added Lindell Audio to the Alliance, which was a great fit because we really didn’t have much in the way of vintage audio processor emulations. By the time this goes to press, hopefully we’ll have added another partner: Unfiltered Audio, which makes some really forward-thinking plug-ins which are capable of creating some really unique sounds. These are going to appeal to the EDM crowd for sure, and while we have lots of customers in that genre, our current lineup is more based on traditional studio processors, so we’re excited about the relationship with Unfiltered Audio.”
Plugin Alliance’s symbiotic ties with Brainworx are key, too, as the German company employs nearly 20 people who are involved in the development of the Brainworx product line that Plugin Alliance produces. One of his company’s strongest advantages, says Ward, is its plug-in framework which “makes it much easier for us to support all the different formats out there. Recently, we released 18 plug-ins in the AAX DSP format, which makes us the number-one AAX DSP developer in the world in terms of number of titles. This has led to some great partnering opportunities with Avid on its Pro Tools HDX systems as well as consoles. We are also the number-one third-party developer on the UAD platform, and all of this is due to the robust nature of our plug-in framework.” While Plugin Alliance products are available through retailers worldwide, the company only sells downloadable software, eschewing boxed goods, and all those products are downloaded and authorized via plugin-alliance.com—a move that allows the company to build up its own customer base via the web site and its Customer Relationship Management system.
While Plugin Alliance has a lot on its plate, that hasn’t stopped Ward from looking ahead. Asked what’s next on his agenda, he says, “Looking for some new and cool partners and lots of new products! In addition, we’re partnering with Avid to expand our AAX DSP offerings and to fully support both its studio and live consoles. Stop by the Avid booth at AES and you’ll see some cool new stuff from us.”