The world of digital sheet music (revisited)

In regards to technology integration in music education, I continually find myself at the same starting point: the logical “jump in” point for nearly all teachers is digital curriculum–music or general music books on a tablet device.

Although there are certainly uses for “traditional” computers in music education, there are only a few courses where those computers can be used at all times (for example, a music technology course, using Garage Band, Logic Pro, or similar software).  But that same computer can’t be used throughout a choir, band, or orchestra rehearsal–nor will you want them on the ground in a general music course.

You can also make the point that the computer could be used by the teacher (e.g. SMARTBoard) or by one student at a time–but if we’re honest, that really isn’t 21st century learning.  The goal should be for every student to have a device that can be used in every class, throughout the day.

In music–like many elective subjects–the tablet is the only option.  At the moment, that tablet is the iPad, and all signs point to it remaining the iPad for some time.  There are good tablets from other companies–but nearly all those tablets aren’t geared towards educational deployment, and they often lack the excellent programs that exist for the iPad.  This is particularly true in music.  Fraser Speirs, the IT leader in Scotland who had the first deployment of iPads in a school, often declares, “Show me a tablet with an app as good as GarageBand, and then we’ll talk about tablets being equal.”  We can add to that comparison in music education: show us an app that compares with forScore, or Notion, and we’ll talk.  Specialists in every education field can say the same thing about the iPad versus any Android or Windows tablet.

At any rate, the point that I’m trying to get to is that most teachers need a way to simply start using technology.  They need it to act as a substitute for something they are doing–and hopefully, for that substitution to be fail-safe and easier than using a non-technical solution. For just about every discipline in music, the starting point is sheet music.  The first time you can jump to a D.S. with a touch, or turn pages with a pedal, you’ll never want to go back.  Expect to see tablets that are lighter each year.  The 3rd/4th Generation iPad was an anomaly (heavier than the 2nd Generation) due to the new Retina screen and larger battery to power that screen.  Expect the weight and size to decrease annually from this point forward.

I don’t know how lucrative the sheet music industry is.  The major publishers (Hal Leonard and Alfred) have absorbed many smaller companies, but there are always new publishers to take the place of absorbed publishers.  I’ve been told that it is standard to pay a composer 10% of the price of each copy of sheet music.  We have a local music store that gives us a 20% discount on published music at certain points of the year, so I’d guess there is only another 5% margin on top of that.  I’d imagine another 20% goes for licensing, meaning that 45% of the cost of a piece of music goes towards salaries, facilities, printing, and shipping.

Right now, the average choral octavo costs $1.95.  That means that $0.87 for each piece of music stays with the publishing company.

Paper music is a hassle.  You have to catalog it; stamp it, store it, hand it out, and collect it back again.  Musicians write on it, use it, sometimes abuse it, and sometimes lose it.  We have giant Wenger shelves to hold our music…what an overall waste of space and paper!  The end result is that you eventually have to buy more copies of music to replace worn or lost copies–if the publisher still sells that music.   The same is true for general music books.  It is inexcusable for pieces to go “permanently out of print” in this day and age…simply keep a PDF stored on your servers.

Here’s the truly insidious piece: digital music costs as much as (or more) than printed music.  So…if the music publisher sells a PDF (or Scorch, or Finale Viewer) file, you’ll pay as much for that digital copy as a paper copy.  In the process, you’ll eliminate your local music company from the equation, and the publisher doesn’t have to pay to print, bind, or ship the music.  They may have to pay for web hosting, but that’s a minimal cost in the long run.  Therefore, if you buy a piece of digital music for $1.95, the music company keeps 90% of that sale.  I’m hoping they still pay the composers…in the book industry, several publishers were not paying authors for digital copies of their books that were sold, as their contracts did not say that they had to.  Today’s authors have to be very careful about the agreements they sign.

I understand that music publishers are hesitant to go to PDF, fearing copyright infringement.  There will probably be some teachers who will abuse the system.  I’d argue that they already are (photocopiers).  Most teachers, however, will do their best to buy legal copies of music, understanding that other people’s lives are affected by copyright infringement.

Chromatik has a new solution, offering many selections from Alfred on their website.  If you are an orchestra or band director, there is an additional bonus that you can buy only as many copies as you need for your group: smaller group, smaller cost.  Choral music remains full price.  I love the convenience of this, but I have two issues with it: first, I can still buy music cheaper from my local music store.  Second, the music remains on Chromatik, so if something happens to the company–we lose our music.  I’d be so much happier with a master PDF that we could store and use as we need.

Copyright law indicates that it is illegal for you to convert your paper music to digital resources, except to make an archive copy for your personal use.  My only suggestion is that if you do covert your music to a digital format, make sure that you have a legal paper copy for each digital copy–giving the music publisher and composer their “due.”  And don’t share those digital copies with other directors/schools.

I hope copyright law changes in the future, because schools are going digital now.  Music budgets are on the decline, and schools simply will not be able to afford to repurchase music they already own in another format.  Publishers could do the “right” thing by offering clean master copies (a chart generated directly to PDF from a music notation program is always going to be cleaner and smaller in storage size than a scanned piece of music) to schools and churches for an extremely discounted price which would include a license to use as many copies as the school had already purchased.  And the price of new digital music, purchased directly from the publisher, should reflect the lower cost to the publisher, too.

Clearly, the issue isn’t if schools will go 100% digital and 100% tablet…it’s a matter of when.  I’m not saying that schools won’t have desktop computers…those will be specialized in specific labs.  I think Steve Jobs said it correctly in 2010 when he stated:

When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that’s what you needed on the farms. But cars eventually became more prevalent is people moved to cities. PCs will be like trucks…they are still going to be around, but there is a transformation coming, and it will make some people uneasy. Is it the iPad? Who knows? Will it be next year or five years from now?

I don’t know how we get music publishers to move to offering fairly priced digital copies (and site licenses for those copies) as well as inexpensive digital replacements.  There are a number of smaller music publishers out there who are selling digital music (PDF Based), such as Graphite Publishing and BandWorks Publications.  Support their efforts!

I will be sending a tweet asking for the names of other music publishers who sell PDF-based music at fair prices compared to the major publishers.  Please feel free to e-mail me the names of those companies, and I’ll start a blog roll in that category as well.


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