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Inside Ableton, the Music Software Company Everyone Wants to Buy

Gerhard Behles, a founder of the music-production software company Ableton, had a polite answer to the venture capital power players on the Zoom: No.

It was July 2020, and Behles and another Ableton executive were on the call with an unlikely group of potential investors: Diplo, the DJ-producer; Scooter Braun, the entrepreneur who manages Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, among others; and Joshua Kushner, brother of Jared, husband of model Karlie Kloss and head of Thrive Capital.

At one point, as Diplo recalls, one of the investors asked the two men from Ableton, “What do you guys think about us being part of you?” They proposed an investment that Diplo said would have been a “significant payday” for Ableton, which sells software that changed the way recordings are produced, then how DJs performed, and finally the sound of pop.

Behles didn’t budge. “We don’t have any investments in our company,” he replied.

“These tech investors never heard anything like that,” Diplo remembers. “Everybody was like, ‘What?’ It was very anarchic and punk.”

Ableton’s Berlin headquarters is in Prenzlauer Berg, a gentrified neighborhood in what was once East Berlin, and sitting in a ground-floor conference room today — across an outdoor courtyard from an entry area and a coffee bar — Behles, 52, looks anything but anarchic and punk. His straight hair is perfectly combed into a new wave curl, he’s wearing a suit — which he does every day to avoid thinking about how to dress — and he says his life is “probably very boring.” But he is the driving force behind Ableton’s refusal to sell at a time when the growth of the digital music business would make it a tempting, and very valuable, acquisition.

“We’re not into it,” he says. “It has popped up on the radar of Wall Street — huge valuations tossed around. We get a lot of inquiries, and we turn them all down.”

The company certainly has financial potential: “If Ableton was to put itself into the market, there would be a feeding frenzy,” says music industry analyst Mark Mulligan of MIDiA Research. Investors see possible synergies, but Ableton’s founders are happy where they are. Behles is an electronic musician — he still uses their company’s marquee product, Ableton Live — and his co-founder Bernd Roggendorf left the executive team years ago to “devote his whole life to altruism,” according to Behles. They want to give away Ableton Live to schools so students can learn to make music.

Yet even when discussing something he feels passionately about, Behles barely raises his voice above a cordial German monotone. Ableton’s future? “We have this oath that we will never talk about what we will do next.” Software? “Beautiful properties. Scales well,” he says. “You could do a lot of positive work without putting things in the world — without worrying about the environmental impact.” His 11-year-old son? “Drummer,” he says. “A heavy metal drummer. Different. Different place.”

ableton gerhard behles berlin
Gerhard Behles photographed Nov. 5, 2021 in Berlin. Photographed by Urban Zintel

Behles created Ableton Live with Robert Henke, his partner since the 1990s in the ambient duo Monolake, whose music — then and now — sounds like keyboard players tinkering with didgeridoos in the jungle. They did it to solve a musician’s problem: Existing production programs like Pro Tools and Logic were designed to record and edit sounds after musicians had already played them. Behles and Henke wanted to write music in real time on laptops as they grew more portable. In Monolake (which signed to a German independent record label but never found a mass audience), they first used a music-focused programming language called Max, then began to write the software that became Ableton Live. Once they realized that it could be a viable product, they brought in Roggendorf, a more experienced programmer. (Henke is still involved in Ableton, but only Behles and Roggendorf are considered founders; Jan Bohl, the CFO and the company’s fourth partner, joined later.)

The first version of Ableton Live, released in 2001, presented users with an onscreen grid of sound waves, arranged like tiny swim lanes. Running on both Macs and PCs, the software made it easy for users without much recording know-how to manipulate snippets of music — changing pitches, transitioning between passages, cutting and pasting tracks, and even building beats, or for that matter entire songs, from scratch. Subsequent versions allowed users to hook up their instruments with MIDI to record their own sounds. “You could bring together all these different materials and make them play in time together without having to do a lot of handiwork,” says Behles.

 


 

Over the next decade, musicians gravitated to Ableton Live through word-of-mouth. DJs soon realized they could use the software to create live mixes onstage, eliminating the need for turntables and other cumbersome equipment. Überzone, a California electronica DJ, was an early adopter who used Ableton Live to perform full DJ sets, then spread the word to his contemporaries. Longtime DJ Gary Richards, who is known as Destructo and would go on to create popular dance events like HARD, was accustomed to DJ’ing with vinyl when Überzone told him about Ableton Live. He soon discovered that it was good for more than live sets. “I was like, ‘Wow, you could do all these other things with it’ — making beats, using different processors and presets,” he says. “It’s just having everything in one place.”

To spread the word, Ableton hired a salesperson who eventually asked the founders, “What is it that we’re actually making?” Behles compares Ableton’s cultural arc to that of Auto-Tune. “I’m sure they could give you a nice answer to ‘What is the product for?’ ” says Behles. “It was made to correct an out-of-tune singer, but now you can’t imagine pop music without it, for reasons that have nothing to do with correction.”

Girl Talk used Ableton Live to edit familiar songs together into mashups and turned that into a career as a live DJ; David Guetta used Ableton Live to create “Titanium” (which helped introduce pop star Sia to the world); as Jack Ü, Diplo and Skrillex used it to Ableton-ize their 2015 smash with Justin Bieber, “Where Are Ü Now”; Childish Gambino and producer Ludwig Goransson used it to layer and loop guitars and keyboards for their 2016 hit “Redbone.”

“Many massive artists, producers, songs and albums wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for this program,” says Adam Alpert, The Chainsmokers’ manager and CEO of Sony Music joint venture Disruptor Records. “I could safely say The Chainsmokers wouldn’t be The Chainsmokers without Ableton.”

Before Ableton Live, dance music pioneers like Richie Hawtin had to build up what Detroit electronic music festival promoter Jason Huvaere calls “a spaceship of gear,” from samplers to drum machines. After the software started to catch on, though, Huvaere recalls taking Hawtin to visit Skrillex, who blew his mind when he told him, “Yeah, I’m pretty much using Ableton.”

The software allowed DJs to use their laptops to load into Ableton Live samples, snippets of original music or effects, then manipulate them live while performing. They could speed up or slow down a track, or add buzzing effects or bass drops, all with a few clicks. This audio manipulation congealed into a new sound that Michaelangelo Matos described as “a crisp, computery flutter — the seemingly true voice of the tinny, bright machines making it,” in his 2015 history of electronic music, The Underground Is Massive. Matos says this latest generation of EDM stars, who improvise with Ableton Live, create “laptop music.”

By making it easier to manipulate music, Ableton Live also freed a new generation of DJs — Skrillex, deadmau5, Steve Aoki — from behind their decks to dance, jump and, in Aoki’s case, smash cakes into the faces of their fans. Skrillex emerged as the “f–king Herbie Hancock of Ableton,” as Diplo calls him, reimagining the potential of Ableton Live the way Jimi Hendrix reinvented the electric guitar. As with Auto-Tune, the impact of Ableton Live goes far beyond DJs and even electronic music.

“It created a completely new type of producer,” says Huvaere. “It gave access to a versatile tool that would do what people want without spending thousands and thousands of dollars and training.” In recent years, Ableton’s reach has grown beyond DJs and other electronic-music tinkerers to the entire community of artists and songwriters.

Seventeen years ago, Diplo was starting out as a producer, splicing beats and songs together using cumbersome samplers and struggling with Pro Tools and Logic. “It just wasn’t fun — it was like something you needed to learn in engineering class,” he says. “I couldn’t get it to make things I enjoyed. Going to produce music was like work.” Ableton Live was intuitive, and one of the first tracks Diplo made with it, M.I.A.’s 2007 hit “Paper Planes,” put both the Sri Lankan rapper and Diplo on the pop world’s radar.

“At the beginning, it was like working with a piece of clay you could mold or shape,” recalls Diplo. “It was like a guitar, as opposed to playing piano — I was good at the instrument. That was why I gravitated toward it.”

Nic Offer, singer for !!!, discovered Ableton Live about seven years ago and used it to create the punk band’s 2015 album, As If. “People ask me what I play when I write — piano or guitar? I play Ableton,” says Offer. “When I work with someone who uses Pro Tools or Logic, it always stops me up. Pro Tools is like a regular recording studio; Ableton has taken the vision of Lee Perry and Brian Eno, where the studio is the instrument. There are no boundaries. It’s just kind of endless.”

 


 

Behles grew up in Munich, the son of an auto engineer father and homemaker mother. Like many Germans of their era, his parents were damaged by the fallout of World War II and the Nazi regime. He calls his relationship with them “conflicted.”

A self-described “shy teenager with skin problems,” Behles immersed himself in Germany’s ’80s electronic scene, then taught himself computer programming as a way of realizing his ideas. Henke has said he studied computer science and engineering to find “the gray zone between technology and art.” In early photos (of Monolake and then Ableton), Henke is the bald guy with earrings; Behles sports shoulder-length hair and, even then, a suit and tie.

By the ’90s, Behles and Henke landed in Berlin, where the Wall had come down and a techno scene was emerging amid the industrial landscape of the former East Berlin. The city was “dirt cheap,” and the empty buildings were full of possibility. “A lot of vacant buildings you could pop up a club in, without asking anybody for permission,” remembers Behles. “It was an extremely fruitful period for many artists.”

Ableton started doing business in 1999, and at first, the software was a niche product. In 2000, the founders presented a prerelease version of Ableton Live at a Los Angeles trade show. As Henke once recalled, people said, “A laptop onstage? You guys are insane!”

Now it’s hard to imagine pop music without it. The popularity of software like Ableton Live only grew during the pandemic, when most musicians worked remotely. It’s bridging the gap between professional musicians and hobbyists, and the ableton.com homepage name-checks prominent users (Imagine Dragons) but also includes a video of an unknown musician playing cello. “I can teach Ableton to anybody in five minutes,” says Diplo.

 

Years ago, when schools told Ableton that students enjoyed using the software to learn how to record their own tracks, Behles sat in on some music courses — which he remembers as a “pivotal moment.” In 2016, the company began giving away its software for classroom use. Today, 350 Ableton trainers work with schools in 51 countries, including the New York electronic music education program 343 Labs.

“We’ve had a couple conversations about helping — if they wanted to connect with G-Eazy or E-40 in Oakland [Calif.], we could connect them with those guys,” says Andrew McInnes, CEO of TMWRK Management, who handles Diplo. “It’s rare you see people in that position do something that makes the world a better place rather than make themselves very rich.”

Ableton is so interesting to investors because music production software could be integrated with streaming services, allowing creators to make and distribute music with the same software. But Ableton’s focus lies in improving its software to stay current with music production technology, plus guarding its independence. “That feels very important to the culture of the place,” says Behles. “It’s not motivated by profit, basically.”

Ableton also has plenty of room to grow on its own. Worldwide, 500 million people either play an instrument or plan to learn, according to MIDiA Research; 50 million make or record music, and 25 million upload that music to streaming services. “It’s way bigger than what might be a couple of million DJs in the world,” says MIDiA’s Mulligan.

Ableton will be able to sell them other products: In addition to the latest version of its software, Live 11, which arrived in February, Ableton also sells add-on “packs” (like Big Band Sounds 2 or Drone Lab, ranging from $50 to $100).

The challenge for Ableton will be competing with Logic and Pro Tools while also contending with piracy, according to Matt Pincus, co-founder/CEO of MUSIC, an investment company that has a stake in the sample-pack company Splice. Ableton’s solution has been to release new updates and stay innovative. But it must do so without the financial backing of private equity money or a deep-pocketed parent company like Apple, which owns Logic.

“They’re telling everybody to f–k off — I think it’s great,” says Pincus, who, as a former hardcore rocker, appreciates the founders’ determination to stay independent. “It’s not a sleepy, lazy product — it’s arguably the most dynamic of the three of them.” Still, “it’s certainly not the easiest way to do it.”

For Behles, that independence isn’t just for now. Sitting in the Ableton office, he elaborates on the company’s vision to never sell out — even after he and the other partners are no longer with us. “The desire to preserve the company’s independence also makes us look for solutions that guarantee beyond our own tenured lifetime,” he says, then looks up with a smile, acknowledging his lapse into corporate speak.

Which means? “That’s going to have to be a cliffhanger.”

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 20, 2021, issue of Billboard.