I figure a solution, or even a partial solution, to the problem of sheet music file trading (and its attendant copyright infringement), should have the following features:
- It’s easier and more fun than stealing.
- Artists still get paid.
To that end, here’s my suggestion. It isn’t perfect, but bear in mind that neither was the former system of copyright, engraving, distribution, and royalties. I remember, for example, finding sheet music in my local bookstore for about $12-$19 for a single song (this is back in 1988, when $12 meant something). I would stand at the rack and memorise anything I really needed. No infringement, but also no money for Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
OK, it was really Glenn Medeiros.
The World Set Free
The sheet music is about $3-4 a song from a site that’s like iTunes, but less overbearing and clumsy. Books of vocal selections are about $15-$20, and complete vocal scores can be had for $40-60. The app costs a couple of dollars, its format is readable on desktops, tablets and smartphones, and it plays a MIDI file if you ask it to. You can hear the music before and after you buy it. Tempi can be adjusted and keys can be changed, but the file remembers its original settings.
Here’s the fun part – once you’ve paid for it, the file can also be edited, by mouse or finger. You can select bars and delete them, or re-arrange their position, should you wish to sing the bridge as an intro. The MIDI follows suit, so you can hear what you’ve done. The result can be printed if you like, but it’s simpler to take your file to the audition/rehearsal and display it on the pianist’s digital music stand (these are coming, I swear they are).
The online shop keeps track of what you’ve bought in the past, and makes suggestions based on your preferred styles and vocal type. It’s also able to search by such terms as “up-tempo comedy” and find something to suit your voice. You can make your own vocal anthology if you like, and buy it for the price of a vocal selection. You can also see how many people have downloaded a particular song, and deliberately opt for the more obscure stuff. In fact there are sections to the store, such as “Less Than Five Years Old” and “Forgotten Gems”.
This system can still be cheated, of course it can. But I remember this sign at the supermarket, over the blank cassettes:
Then we all went out and bought CDs. The trick is to keep upgrading the service, so that it’s better than ripping off the songwriter. So, for an extra subscription fee:
- You get audio – full backing and karaoke mix.
- Choose from Alternative Arrangements! Walking on Sunshine as a heart-rending ballad!
- The Medley-Maker! You list the songs you want, and choose from several medley versions! (Composers and publishers can opt out of these editing and arranging options if they prefer.)
- Audio backing track, played by the composer himself! Or by somebody who can actually play!
- Audio of Idina Menzel saying “Wow, you sing that much better than I ever did”. Make it your ringtone!
Yes, I grow facetious, but the idea is there. And yes, a writer’s royalty for an individual song would be tiny, but royalties build. Furthermore, I think more people would buy legal, complete scores than have ever done so in the past.
It’s a lot better than what’s going on now.