NPR tackles the plight of those who write music for a living and distribute it via sheet music. File sharing doesn’t apply just to audio recordings – something that’s drilled in to me every time I get a Google new alert detailing all the sites torrenting my assorted books. Same thing happens with sheet music, and the NPR story considers how new technology makes the traditional publishing process obsolete. Who needs the publishing companies when you can take Sibelius or Finale (preferably Sibelius, for my money) and sell it via any number of online marketplaces. You don’t even have to pay for studio time. The piracy may still exist, but at least you’re getting the money directly instead of filtering it through middlemen.
But that also just accounts for the actual sheet music, and not the performance rights. Currently, when I perform in the pit for a musical, the director or theater buys the rights for the performance and awaits the delivery of well-worn paper scores and parts. These things have been abused, and most of the time they’re just photocopies of hand-written sheet music (or some crappy handwriting-like font). Then I end up using Sibelius to copy and transpose some of the numbers for the sake of the singers, toss together the whole conglomeration, and hope for the best. Since the performance costs are for the rights to the show and not the books themselves, why not distribute them digitally via computers or other devices (like Kindles, iPads, or other eReaders). The backlit screens mean we could even dispatch with the stand lights!
But wait, it gets better. Since these are digitally distributed, why couldn’t they also go into a program that automatically transposes the songs according to the needs of the performers? Or remove measures or sections as needed as well (another common occurrence, at least in the theaters I’ve worked in)? Even the iPhone can already do the transposition for lead sheets in the Real Book, although I don’t think it can handle written parts and the removal of measures. The initial buy-in for the eReaders of choice might be a little much, but paper copies could also be printed from the computer. Remember, the money is for the performance rights, not the books themselves.
So now we have the electronic sheet music available either in printable form (which, admittedly, is available right now at several different online locations) or to eReaders with additional abilities for modification. Money is saved in the transport and return of the books, and those responsible for the creation of the music still get paid for the performance rights as well. The tools are there, we just have to make it work, write the software, and use the new tools available to us.