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The BEST place to buy sheet music these days is...well, it's complicated

Monday, February 25, 2019

When I was growing up, my house was filled with sheet music, with everything from Mozart piano sonatas to Broadway songbooks. We bought most of it from Childers Music Center, a small storefront run by Dan Childers, a.k.a. “Dandy Dan the Music Man.” In addition to running the store, he supported the County 4-H program and the Civic Forum Spelling Bee.

Every so often we made 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 choices. It was either Childers or Stanton’s.

These days there are innumerable sources for sheet music (as well as licensed PDFs). Deciding where to buy it can be a head-scratcher.

As someone who loves not only music but the people who compose and sell it, I decided to pull together a list of these sources:

  • Many family-owned brick and mortar music stores (including Childers) have closed their doors. Those that remain (like Stanton’s) have invested in online stores, some of which are now offering licensed PDFs as well as print music. These stores still hire 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 JW 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 presence and skilled employees, JW 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 discuss their programming choices and upcoming events, and at times 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).Other online marketplaces offer composer-publishers a platform for promoting and selling their music, two of the largest being MusicSpoke and JW Pepper’s MyScore.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.

Does this mean that all sources of sheet music are 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 practices:

  • Some ginormous online music clearing houses offer discounted prices but do little else for the music community. You won’t see 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 resellers. 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, but 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.

I love being part of this enterprising musical ecosystem. I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner as our endless creativity and innovation keep this cherished music community working for everyone.

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