A recent ChoralBlog post by Philip Copeland discussed the changes to the publishing industry brought about by technology and accused music publishers of sticking with a 20th-century model. Many of the commenters to that thread suggested that the best solution would be self-publishing.
Without taking a stand on Philip's main point for the moment, I'd like to point out some of the difficulties with the self-publishing model. While I'm sympathetic to composers who want to cut out the middleman and evade the bureaucracy, from a consumer perspective it's kind of impractical: there are a million composer websites, they're all different, lots of them are filled with crap (or with music unsuitable for my group for one reason or another), and it just takes forever to look for music in them. So while the self-publishing and electronic-delivery model has great potential for ordering music, it makes it much more difficult to choose music.
When I go to an ACDA convention, I riffle through the racks at music store booths such as Music Mart*. There are many things which speed up this process, but one of the principal ones is publisher identification. I've learned that there are some publishers whose music I never like (or is at the wrong level for my group) and I can quickly skip over those. Those which might be of interest I can quickly glance at the first page of; this allows me to eliminate 90% of the other stuff. Then I buy a single copy of the interesting ones so I can file them at home for future use.
Compare this to the process of using the web to look through composer websites.
- Start with a directory of such websites, such as ChoralNet's, and go to a composer's site.
- Figure out the navigation of that site so you can get to the listing of titles (which is often surprisingly difficult to find).
- Click on each title one at a time and see if there's a sample page, usually in PDF format, and see if it looks interesting.
Once you've spent a long time doing this, move to the next composer's site and start over.
The problems are manifold: it takes a long time, the navigation is different on every site, only some sites provide sample pages, each site only has a small number of pieces, and most of the stuff is junk.
There are online storefronts such as Sibelius, which is kind of a vanity press, or rather a flea market, for self-published music. It provides a consistent interface for listening and viewing samples, along with handy tools such as the ability to transpose. But there's too much junk. It's like trying to get your choir outfits by browsing garage sales. Publishers provide a valuable service: using their editorial discretion to filter for quality.
Sure, these sites could allow users to rate pieces, the way Amazon or Netflix does. But the small number of likely users allows the subjects to game the system; just like on Yelp, the person whose item is being evaluated can get a bunch of his friends to go on and rate everything five stars, thus boosting his overall rating.
There are also exclusively-online publishers such as Graphite (which Philip described in his subsequent post) or Handlo. These publishers provide some of the quality control while keeping a consistent user interface. But still, it's only one publisher; it would be like going to Hal Leonard's site, and then to ECS's site, and then to Oxford's site, and then to SBMP's site; still much more work than browsing through Music Mart's stacks. We need to get to the stage where sites like JWPepper aggregate sales of works published by online publishers.
In short, I don't think self-publishing is the answer; the drawbacks far outweigh the advantages. There's not going to be any quick and easy answer.
One plea: for composers and publishers who provide previews (which should be all of them): please consider creating your previews in GIF format rather than PDF; they download MUCH faster, print much faster, and the slightly lower resolution is sufficient for those of us who want to print them out and plunk through them on the piano, without being good enough to tempt people to try to copy them for choir use.
*Thank you, Music Mart, for preparing the reading-session packets for ACDA conventions for so many years.