Forty years ago, you could buy classical sheet music by driving into the nearest large city and browsing in the bins at a large specialty store. Byron Hoyt in San Francisco was a regular stop for musicians when they were in SF, and was often worth a special trip.
This type of store no longer exists. You can blame rock and roll if you like, or the changing economics of publishing. A lot of the sheet music is still in print. A small local store will be happy to order it for you (there being little in their display racks beyond Harry Potter songbooks), or you can buy it online. But … what will you be buying? The advantage of a big sheet music store is that you can browse. Oh, here’s a sonata by a composer I’ve never even heard of. Hmm, looks interesting, and it’s not too difficult for me. I think I’ll buy it.
That experience of sheet music is no longer available. Today, if you go to a website (such as cellos2go.com, a very nice site where I buy lots of sheet music for my students), you’ll see a scan of the cover and maybe a sentence or two about what’s inside. You certainly won’t be able to tell whether the music is at the right level of difficulty for you, nor whether it’s in a style that you’ll like.
But musicians adapt. This week a friend gave me almost a gigabyte of scanned sheet music in PDF format. I now have, for instance, some Boccherini sonatas for cello and piano. I’ve got a Dohnanyi sonata, a couple of Grieg sonatas, a terrifying-looking sonata by Janacek (in six flats), incidental music for cello and piano (probably arrangements) by Mozart and Schubert, plus the popular concertos, dozens of orchestral cello parts — all sorts of fascinating stuff.
The legal status of this material is a bit hazy. The music itself is public domain in most cases, though I’m not too sure about the Milhaud and the Vaughan Williams. The published pages, for the most part, are clearly not public domain, no more than a recording of the music would be. So what I have here are pirated copies.
Some of the published editions may be out of print, however. They might even be from publishers that no longer exist. In that case, there’s nobody to object if I pick up a free digital copy somewhere. And some of the files seem to be newly created sheet music, which anyone can crank out using Sibelius (the software) or Finale without incurring any legal difficulties, after which they can share their files legally.
The point I want to make, however, is this: If I’m pirating this sheet music (and I am), the publishers have only themselves to blame. They need to come up with a retail model that addresses musicians’ actual needs. I’d be happy to buy these three Boccherini sonatas, for instance; they’re going to be fun to learn. But I would absolutely never buy them unless I could flip through page after page of the sheet music first. Unless someone you trust recommends a piece (and maybe even then), you’d have to be an idiot to buy sheet music sight unseen.
Given the choice between very possibly wasting my money buying sheet music online and accepting free files from a friend … hey, hand me that eye patch and put a parrot on my shoulder. Arrrrr.