Pass It Along

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, 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.

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2 Responses to Pass It Along

  1. Robert Murphy says:

    I thought you brought up many great thoughts in your blog. The demise of multiple sheet dealers in the last 15 years has been great. Everyone from Onedaga, Patelsons, CFN (chigago), Mannerino’s, and the acquisitions by the Wall-mart of the Industry, JW Pepper, taking over Ted Browns, Wingert Jones, Malecki Music and a few others, have not helped local music stores stay in business. Then add in all the new “pop up” internet websites, which have a decent ideas and designs, but become invisible for personal service. Brick & Mortar stores like Bryon Hoyt still exist, but are being squeezed by the new shifting market. Companies like Penders, Stanton’s Sheet Music, Popplers, Shattingers are still brick and mortar stores, trying to service music educators. These companies offer personal service that Internet websites can never offer. If you talk to a true sheet music dealer you’ll probably speak with someone in either their band/instrumental, choral or pop departments, who are most likely former directors or experienced people in the sheet music world that can help.

    As far as your friend passing you a couple of PDF’s. Even though it may not be a big deal, it kinda is, because as the music stores fall, the publishers are next, once they start losing their revenue stream. And every little penny counts and means a lot to a small publisher. I have a large library of music, all purchased legally. I feel that by compensating the publishers, I’m showing my support that I wish for them to be around for years to come. I also like to buy from a true brick and mortar store, it’s just like you said, “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.”

    I worked at one of the fallen stores and have talked to many former customers and they never knew how lucky they had it until we closed. I now live in Columbus where Stanton’s resides. They have a staff that communicates very well, back-orders come in quickly, and they focus on music teachers and young/professional musicians. They also have a huge Solo & Ensemble inventory. I love hanging out with them, they are a fun group of people. Majority of their staff have been working for them for 15 years or more and I always find something new when I visit. Can’t get that feeling/service from SheetMusicPlus. But just like other businesses, they need every little scrap they can get so that their doors continue to be open for us. Unfortunately, the internet websites who really have no knowledge of the sheet music world, but can build a heck-of-a database and design, in my opinion pilfer off the backs of the industry.

    Loved your blog and appreciate your circumstance…just my $.02

  2. midiguru says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Robert. I agree with you that it’s important to support both publishers and brick-and-mortar retailers. Before purchasing an item at Amazon, I will always phone around and ask three or four local retailers if they stock it. If the answer is “No,” I buy at Amazon.

    At the risk of sounding like an economist (which I’m not), it seems to me that sheet music publishers face a classic marketing problem: People would like to purchase their products, but potential customers have a need — essentially, to “kick the tires” before buying — that publishers haven’t yet figured out how to fulfill.

    If I print out six of the sonatas I was given and decide I want to spend time learning one of them, I should really be honest enough to buy a legal copy of that one. I should. Maybe I will. But I don’t think publishers can rely on the good will and ethical uprightness of their customer base in order to stay in business. They have to figure out a way to make it work.

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