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Sheet Music File-Sharing - Make It Legally Available!

The people who use sheet music the most are musicians. One listener says composers and publishers need to make it much easier for musicians to find the music they use in their jobs. Paul Evans/flickr hide caption

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Paul Evans/flickr

The people who use sheet music the most are musicians. One listener says composers and publishers need to make it much easier for musicians to find the music they use in their jobs.

Paul Evans/flickr

NPR's story on one composer's problems with people sharing his sheet music online without compensating him drew one very interesting response last week. Here's how the email began:

Dear ATC,

When I heard the teaser for Jeff Lunden's story about sheet music piracy, I stopped everything, sat down, and turned up the radio. I am a professional musician, vocalist, actor and teacher, and this issue is something I deal with every day.

The listener is Thomas Larson, from Minneapolis, Minn. He recounted how he needed composer Jason Robert Brown's song, "Stars and The Moon," for a performance but could not find it anywhere. The show's producer wound up loaning him a copy. Mr. Larson then wrote that he wanted to find the music for another Brown song:

"...I never could find the sheet music. I went to the composer's website and, while they DID have some selections available for sale-by-download, the one I was looking for wasn't one of them. Inquiries to the website went unanswered."

Mr. Larson goes on to write that he's often asked to perform a wide variety of music that's simply not available at the local music store.

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"With no time to order and wait for shipment, going online to find it should be a no-brainer: a purchase-by-download transaction, printing and all, would take no more than 5 minutes. However, attempting this is an exercise in frustration; there is simply no reliable method of finding what you need."

Larson continues:

"Why? 'Copyright issues' is always the generic answer given. And so, to the point of the story: Unlike the argument given by the young contributor to Mr. Brown's blog, most music professionals are glad to pay for a piece of sheet music — particularly one that is new or otherwise difficult to find. I have spent in excess of $4,000 in just the past few years to have recordings of songs transcribed to the page and arranged for performance, because the sheet music simply was not available. Price? Anywhere from $50 - $400 per selection, depending on length, complexity and instrumentation.

These are part of my chart library, and most serious singers invest heavily in their 'book' - without which they have no way to be heard with live musicians. And, not to put too fine a point on it, while many casual music listeners feel no guilt over sharing audio files without paying royalties, most serious musicians - which is the only market for sheet music - do care about being fair, and in any case are willing to pay for the convenience of rapid, in-your-hands delivery of a clean, legible copy of a much-needed song."

Mr. Larson offers a solution that he did not hear in NPR's story:

"There are choices between the throw-hands-up-in-despair or prosecute-protect-hide extremes.

Here's one: Publishers/composers need to put a priority on making sale-by-download an easy, quick to execute, and universally available choice to obtain their sheet music. If iTunes (and porn sites) can do it for their content, so can the sheet music industry. Worries about illegal copies of their sales is nothing new, and nothing will stop that from happening. But how much better to sell one copy of a piece of music than to sell none at all?

As it is, they are shooting themselves in the foot by resisting the technology instead of embracing it and figuring out how to make some money from it. And this reluctance is driving ME crazy.

And, finally ... Jason Robert Brown's (and MANY other non-household name composers') music deserves to be sung — live — by as many people as can get their hands on it and perform it. We don't all want it 'For Free' — we just WANT it.

Thanks, Thomas Larson Minneapolis, Minnesota."

Thank you Mr. Larson for making a case — from the musician's perspective — that just about every part of the music industry seems to have had a hard time hearing.