By Elizabeth Alexander, guest blogger
When I was growing up, my house was filled with sheet music, with everything from Mozart piano sonatas to Broadway songbooks. My family bought most of it from Childers Music Center, a small storefront run by Dan Childers, also known as “Dandy Dan the Music Man.” In addition to running the music store, he supported the county 4-H program and the Civic Forum Spelling Bee.
Every so often we would make a special trip to Stanton’s Music in Columbus, which was a two hour drive each way. This much larger store was run by former band director John Stanton, who specialized in running choral reading sessions and helping teachers find educational materials.
Those were our only choices. It was either Childers or Stanton’s.
These days there are innumerable sources for sheet music, and deciding where to buy it can be a head-scratcher.
As someone who loves not only music but the people who compose, sell, and perform it, I thought it might be useful to take a look at the big picture, pulling together a list of various sources. I’ve been a composer-publisher for 23 years, so I’ve built many relationships and witnessed a lot of change:
• As the face of retail has evolved over the years, many family-owned brick and mortar music stores (including Childers) have closed their doors. Those that remain (like Stanton’s) have added online stores that supplement traditional sales. They still typically hire well-trained musicians, and they still support local and regional reading sessions, clinics, and other musical activities.
• The family-owned music dealer with the largest national presence is J. W. Pepper & Son, founded in 1893 by James Welsh Pepper, who among other things built John Phillip Sousa’s first sousaphone. Because of its strong online offerings and knowledgeable employees, J. W. Pepper is in a position to support the music community in more robust ways, including promoting new titles selected through their editorial review process, as well as sponsoring reading sessions at the largest music conferences.
• And then there are independent composer-publishers (like me), who compose, edit, produce, market, and sell under our own publishing labels. Customers who buy music directly from us get to share information with us about their programming choices and events, and ask questions about the music. Kind of like shopping at the farmer’s market!
• Several collaborative initiatives have grown out of the composer-publisher model. One outstanding example is Graphite Publishing/Graphite Marketplace, the brainchild of two award-winning composers, Jocelyn Hagen and Tim Takach. With an intimate knowledge of all the composers represented in their catalog, they have spent the past decade putting together a meticulously curated, high-quality online collection of digital editions (PDFs).
• Some other online marketplaces offer a wider array of composer-publishers a platform for promoting and selling their music, including MusicSpoke (a for-profit business funded significantly by grants) and MyScore(a platform operated by J. W. Pepper).
Of the five sources listed above, what’s the BEST place to buy music? The answer is ALL OF THEM. Each source has its place in a vibrant ecosystem of composers, publishers, dealers, and musicians, providing a valuable and unique service.
But does this mean that all sources of sheet music are equally terrific?
Other than websites that sell or give away pirated sheet music – and they certainly exist – there’s no truly bad place to buy sheet music. But I do have mixed feelings about a couple of things:
• Some ginormous online sheet music clearinghouses offer discounted prices but do little else for the music community. You won’t find them sponsoring music conferences, clinics, or reading sessions. Their sales staff may not even be knowledgeable about music. It’s fine to get a bargain on music sometimes but if we only buy from these discount houses we may eventually lose some of our more responsive and engaged music dealers.
• I’m a strong supporter of composers finding ways to connect with buyers of their music, but I’m distressed by any defamation of traditional music publishers and dealers. In a field with this many players, it’s easy for composers to start feeling like we’re at the bottom of the food chain. We start asking ourselves why a music dealer or traditional publisher should make any significant amount of money by reselling music that we worked hard to compose. This kind of us-versus-them thinking leads some composer-focused initiatives to characterize dealers and traditional publishers as lazy or greedy. Not only is this rhetoric a poor business strategy, it simply isn’t true. Everyone who works to get music into the hands of musicians works hard, and few (if any) are getting rich doing it. Personally, I have no full-time employees depending on me for their livelihoods, so I have no business second-guessing the financial realities of those who do.
Whenever a music dealer makes a commission from selling some of my music, I try to remember that my music is helping someone else have job security.
Personally, I love being part of this ecosystem, and I believe there’s room for many business models to be vital and healthy. I’ve chosen to make my own music available through many sources, including brick-and-mortar stores, J. W. Pepper, Graphite Marketplace, my own website, and yes, a few ginormous online clearing houses.
Whenever I get the opportunity, I ask other composers, publishers, and dealers what new possibilities most excite them, what challenges they are facing, and what concerns keep them up at night. I see many of these people at music conferences, and when I travel I often visit the stores and warehouses of music dealers or publishers! Getting to know these people’s stories helps me be more knowledgeable, as well as more compassionate.
What changes and challenges do you see, or face yourself? What creativity and innovation are you most excited about right now? Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments – and if I overlooked a source of music that you think highly of, feel free to mention that as well.