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How the internet is changing the printed sheet music industry

by Joris Noreillie

Here at neoScores we spend a lot of time thinking about and analysing where this industry is heading. As with every business, one can expect the effects of internet and digitalization to kick in at some point. Unlike what we’ve seen in the music and book industry, these disruptive forces have taken a long time to materialize … but in the last few years online is making huge advances over print: according to industry reports, the industry shrank over 4% every year since 2010, with little improvement to be expected. Why did it take so long?

It’s a niche market

Let’s face it, in comparison to the behemoth that is the music industry ($15 billion in 2015), the very fragmented $1.5 billion market of sheet music is small in comparison.

Proprietary content

When we say fragmented market, we don’t just mean this geographically. About 90% of the content is internationally protected by copyright law, making digitalization without consent of the rights holder illegal.

It helped the legitimate market … maybe

As with the music industry, pirates sometimes made the argument that publishing their work helps disseminating the works of beginning artists.

The format sucked

As in the recorded music industry, digitalization was first brought upon the sector by pirates – online, tech-savvy site owners who cared more about their monthly visitor count than about respecting intellectual property. One more thing they did not care about is the format. Up until today, the internet is swamped by illegally scanned pages or poorly rendered interpretations of popular music. Some amateur musicians were happy to work with that material, most of them remained hungry for decent material.

What a publisher can do


This has been the first reaction of most stakeholders in the sheet music business. Before they realised digitization was here to stay, it had already claimed a lot of victims, especially among the smaller players.

Side step

A few notable exceptions purposely refused to go digital and still live to tell the tale. They retreated into a sheet music niche, hoping to survive with this business.

Go solo

A couple of the more proactive parties started working out online solutions themselves, mostly in the shape of an online store that sells and distributes sheet music PDF files. Some of the biggest online retail sites are closely connected to large offline publishers, others were built standalone, with a licensing deal to secure cooperation with multiple parties. In order to avoid the most obvious risks, these PDFs were secured in one or another way, e.g. programming a single copy print. The internet wouldn’t be the internet though if all of these security measure couldn’t be easily overridden, especially as these 20 year-old solutions were overridden by new technology such as cloud-based storage or social media. Often, the effort and costs required to run these IT projects were too much to handle for a small to medium sized publisher, which ended in a failed launch, or in an exit altogether.

Eat or be eaten

Overwhelmed by this threat from outside, many small publishers ended up being taken over by larger players. The consolidation in this sector was already well underway, but digitalization was adding to the pain which most publishers were already feeling due to rising running costs, a drop in cultural subsidy cuts and increased price competition.

Team up

The old imperative stating that every company should focus on what they do best still rings true. In this case, this means that a publisher should focus on the activities they have been best at over the last decades. Building an online offering is no small feat, and very hard to do with the dwindling resources that are left.

What does it mean for the musician?

For the musician, all this should be good news. Everything that is being said on sheet music web sites is valid: it’s fun to browse through an enormous catalogue from the comfort of your home, to have all your content available in the cloud, especially when it’s legal. … and for the artist? At this point, a lot of parallels are drawn with Spotify. When we look at the storyline of Napster – Apple – Spotify (illegal – online store – streaming), we see that no big benefit was derived for the composer, arranger or performance artist. Although a lot of value is created for the party that distributes, the royalty payments to the artist stay largely the same. Except of course for the proverbial 0.01% of artists that were already superstars: they are a big hit. A couple of surprising side effects

In a sector that has long been spoiled by high margins due to little competition and proprietary content, digital disruption is hitting extra hard. National and international industry associations that defend publisher rights are suddenly becoming very important stake holders. It will be interesting to see if they will take the lead in the coming years.

A publisher will have to revert to their core activities: identifying, investing in and promoting talent. Organising the practicalities of shifting boxes of sheet music across the globe have never brought much added value and should be stopped as soon as practically possible.

Finally, let’s not deny that the distribution of PDF files by publishers to customers has directly created and promoted piracy, for it is all too easy for this customer to share it online with their band, choir or pupils. Publishing PDFs is this sector’s equivalent of a pharmaceuticals company publishing their new recipe – people will pay for it. Once. And then the company’s core asset will be lost forever.

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