The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business

Yesterday, I launched a new blog series titled The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business at DennisTobenski.com. The new series is aimed at composers looking to become more entrepreneurial, and who want to learn more about the business aspects of the concert music world. So hop on over to the site to check out the first installment. And be sure to say hi in the comments section!

The series will be updated every Thursday at this address: http://dennistobenski.com/news/category/the-composers-guide-to-doing-business//.

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Doing Business: DRM and Piracy

Every couple of months, the topic of Digital Rights Management (DRM) rears its ugly head when I’m talking to a composer or new music enthusiast about the NewMusicShelf. How does NMS ensure the security of the composer’s scores once someone buys one? How does NMS limit the number of times a customer can print a score they’ve purchased? What does NMS do to make sure that someone who buys a score doesn’t email the PDF to someone else?

These all seem like reasonable questions on the surface: with today’s technology, there must be some way to ensure that a composer’s intellectual property is safe from piracy. But the truth is, DRM is expensive, time-consuming to implement, and ultimately ineffective.

I don’t mean to sound defeatist about the issue. Far from it. I think that piracy is something that can be rather easily overcome, but not by shackling customers with invasive, cumbersome, and potentially hazardous “security” measures.

Practicality
DRM is a very difficult thing to implement for a variety of reasons. For one, with the constant changes in technology, any given set of DRM encryption or software is likely to become obsolete quickly, and with that obsolescence, the DRM-containing files are likely to become unreadable. So, a performer who buys a copy of my song cycle And He’ll be Mine in PDF format with DRM encryption may not be able to open that file when the next version of his operating system rolls out. Then, that performer is either forced to buy another copy, request a new copy from NMS or directly from me, or – most likely – write off the piece entirely and move on, remembering never to buy another score from NMS again because of the problems caused by the DRM. I’d much rather avoid all three of those situations, thanks.

When I started NMS, I did an obscene amount of research into DRM technologies. I thought that piracy was the biggest problem I might have to face. But the more I researched, the more I realized that DRM was a bigger problem than piracy ever could be. Not only because of the scenario I mentioned above. Many forms of DRM have the potential to damage the user’s system, or compromise their sensitive personal data such as credit card numbers. I encourage you to check out the DRM article on Wikipedia to read some DRM horror stories.

Sending a Message
The greatest drawback, however, that I see to using DRM to discourage piracy is the message that it sends to customers and to potential customers. By restricting their ability to use a digital file that they’ve paid for, I’m not only inconveniencing them, I’m also saying that I don’t trust them. I’m saying that I expect that the vast majority of musicians – my colleagues and friends – are dishonest, thieving, and completely untrustworthy. Consequently, I have to put security measures in place to keep them from being so despicable. I, for one, wouldn’t appreciate being treated like that. Instead, I prefer to use a strategy that I outline below, which has worked very well.

A Note on Piracy
When approaching the subject of piracy, we need to acknowledge that there are different types of people who engage in the practice for a variety of reasons. There are some people who just can’t afford the price tag on the digital files they want to buy. These people frequently end up actually buying the DVD/CD/album when they can afford it. Now, I’m certainly not condoning the behavior, but I do want to address this form of piracy more in-depth later on.

The other major type of pirate is the one who just flat-out refuses to pay for anything. They think that they’re somehow entitled to get everything for free. This type of piracy will happen no matter how hard we try to stop it, and can never be considered a “lost sale” because there was never even the slightest intention to shell out any cash in the first place. A sad truth.

A Practical Solution
So what can we do to discourage the bulk of piracy? The kind of piracy that stems from consumers being unable to afford the digital goods they would otherwise want to purchase? We make those goods affordable and available.

It’s that simple. By making a digital score easy to find and easy to purchase, we encourage people to pay for it. By slapping a prohibitive price on the score, we make it harder to afford, and more likely to be passed around without the composer being remunerated. The easier it is to find a score, and the more reasonably priced it is, the more likely people will be to buy it.

We should also ask ourselves: which is preferable, that our works are available and affordable, or that they’re prohibitively priced and (more likely than not) obscure? The artist’s greatest enemy is not piracy – it’s obscurity.

Nails in the Coffin
One of the “solutions” that composers who clearly haven’t put much research or thought into the issue offer is limiting the number of times people can print the score. Well, that sounds nice doesn’t it? You can only print it once, so you only have one copy. Would that we all lived in that happy fantasy land were scanners and copying machines were but a figment of our imaginations!

The mere fact of having limited the number of times a PDF can be printed assumes that people can’t take that printed copy, scan it back in to the computer, and be able to print/email/post it on various internet message boards to their black little hearts’ content. Or just bring it down to Kinko’s, run off a few hundred copies, and slip one under every apartment door on the Upper West Side. Now, of course I’m being hyperbolic in that last example, but control over the digital copy has no effect on any analog copies. How many of us have gone to the library and photocopied a song or a score that we wanted because we didn’t want to shell out the astronomical price set by the publishers?

By limiting the digital, we’re only inconveniencing the people who who want to buy our music. So let’s all stop punishing the very people who enjoy our work enough to give us their money.

Copying Licenses
During my research, I spoke with a number of composers, and asked their opinions on how NMS should proceed with trying to curtail any potential piracy. One composer offered what I think is the simplest, most straight-forward solution that shows respect to the customer while making it absolutely clear that they have certain clear obligations and limitations.

NewMusicShelf offers a Copying License to all customers that allows them to make sufficient copies of the score or parts that they’ve paid for to allow them to prepare and perform the piece – for their ensemble only. The license extends only to them and/or their ensemble and no further. They’re not allowed to email it to another ensemble, they’re not allowed to print a gazillion copies and pass them out higgledy-piggledy. As with any score, they may perform the piece as much as they like (obviously with the stipulation that they pay the proper performance royalty). But sending or making additional copies to other performers and ensembles is the same as photocopying a published score and giving the photocopy to someone else – it’s considered piracy.

I think that the Copying License is both simple and elegant. The customer is notified of her rights and responsibilities with regard to that score, yet isn’t shackled with ridiculous and potentially harmful encryption limiting her ability to use – completely legally – a score that she’s paid for.

Let’s drop these silly ideas about DRM, and worry instead about making our scores affordable and available.

As always, comments and discussion are welcome in the comments section below.

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300 scores

A new mile marker for NewMusicShelf – there are now 300 scores and sets of parts available!

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Joe Wiedemann joins NMS

Everybody say hello to Joe Wiedemann of Orchestronics!

Joe WiedemannWith a degree in broadcasting from the University of Evansville, and a double major in music, Wiedemann has been active in creating works for documentaries and news programs since 1981. His music has aired in national syndication, and on CBS and PBS affiliates. Commercial videos for the San Diego District Atty., Thomas Jefferson School of Law, City of Chula Vista, Regional Transportation Council and others are in circulation on the internet.

Using electronic and acoustic instruments, Wiedemann integrates new players into classical ensembles. Whether it’s just one synth part added to an orchestra, a full concerto, symphony, quartet or duet, there will always be room for sounds the audience has never heard before. All-Acoustic compositions take the orchestra and other ensembles into new territory as well.

Joe’s music can be found here.

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Doing Business: Virtual Shelf Space

Virtual shelf space is a wonderful thing.

In a brick-and-mortar music store, of which there are sadly becoming less and less, shelf space is at a premium – a physical store can only hold so much physical sheet music. Of course, most music stores are now given over to instrument sales and rentals and audio equipment. Sheet music, if there is any, is relegated to a dark corner, and usually limited to the easy piano/vocal songbook of either X album by Y pop star or the latest Disney movie musical. In terms of concert music, you might find some Beethoven sonatas; possibly some Liszt; probably the Well-Tempered Klavier.

The new stuff – the stuff that you and I write – doesn’t have much of a chance there, unfortunately. Plus, you’re limited to sales in a single location if you even manage to get some of that premium physical shelf space for your own works.

A physical shelf can only hold so many scores. In a bookstore, you’ll notice that some books are faced spine out, and others are turned so that you see the full front cover. Those that are turned out are meant to sell well – new releases, intended bestsellers, whatever the publisher had decided needs to sell a lot this month. By being turned out, they’re given more shelf space – more prime real estate – because they’re supposed to get noticed. The spine-out books take more of an effort to look through because each book takes up less space, and you also have to tilt your head to the right to read the title and author. Here, those authors who have more books on the shelf, and are consequently taking up more real estate, will get noticed more and sell better. Scores, however, because of their size, never really get the luxury of facing cover out.

With digital scores, however, shelf space is virtual. And virtual shelf space is unlimited.

With virtual shelf space, as with physical shelf space, you want to take up as much as possible. People who are looking for scores may pass over the lone piece by So-And-So wedged amongst the rest of the scores on a shelf, be it in a physical location or online. The more you have available, the more likely you are to be noticed, and the more likely you are to be checked out and hopefully bought.

Think of it in terms of the signal-to-noise ratio. Your music is the signal, and everyone else’s is the noise. (This isn’t a value judgment on anyone’s music, obviously.) You want people to get your signal despite all the noise trying to drown it out. A weak signal – i.e., having only one or two scores available – isn’t likely to get you noticed. It’s certainly possible, but you’re more likely to be noticed if you have five pieces or ten pieces or your entire catalog available in any given market.

“Any given market?” you ask. By market, I’m not referring to the broader (albeit fairly small) “market” for concert music scores. Instead, I mean a virtual location. Your website is one of them. NewMusicShelf is another. If you have only one piece available through the NewMusicShelf, at this moment (there are 271 scores/parts available, and another 12 being added this weekend) you make up less than one third of one percent of the total available works/total shelf space. If, like me, you have about 40 scores/sets of parts available, you take up around 15% of the shelf space – you’re much more likely to be seen as visitors click around the site. Right now Allen Brings takes up the most shelf space on NewMusicShelf with a whopping 139 scores – that’s 51% of the current virtual shelf space on the site. I do recommend you check out his stuff.

I should also add: with my signal-to-noise analogy, I’m not implying that you don’t want people buying other composers’ scores. Whether they buy someone else’s music or not is a neutral matter. All you’re aiming for is to get your music in front of them and into their hands.

So my advice for today to composers is this: wherever you’re able to make it happen, take up as much of the virtual shelf space as you can. Make yourself visible. When you write something, put it on your website, put it here, make sure people can find it.

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Peter A. Michalove joins NewMusicShelf

I’m excited to welcome Peter A. Michalove to the NewMusicShelf!

Peter A. MichalovePeter Michalove has written for a wide range of musical media, including orchestra, concert band, and chorus, as well as a variety of vocal and instrumental chamber ensembles. His music draws on varied strands of the Western tradition, combining often familiar rhythmic and melodic gestures in unfamiliar contexts and combinations.

He studied with Roger Hannay at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (B.M. 1972); and George Balch Wilson and Eugene Kurtz at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (M. M. 1973). In 1977 he earned a DMA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studying with Salvatore Martirano and Ben Johnston. In 1976 he was one of three composers commissioned by the Eastern Music Festival to write an orchestral work ("Circles and Squares") celebrating the American bicentennial.

After finishing his formal musical education, he left music for economic reasons. After retiring in 2006, resumed composition in 2007 with a new maturity and deeper outlook.

Michalove is committed to continuing education in music; he has lectured and taught courses on Beethoven, Stravinsky, the elements of music, and opera at the University of Illinois’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Peter’s scores can be found here.

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Rebekah Driscoll joins NewMusicShelf

Please give a warm welcome to composer Rebekah Driscoll!

Rebekah DriscollRebekah Driscoll was born in Lebanon, New Hampshire in 1980. As a child she taught herself to play several musical instruments, and as a teenager she began composing music without formal instruction. She later studied flute, voice, and composition at Sarah Lawrence College and composition at Brooklyn College Conservatory, City University of New York. Her composition teachers include Chester Biscardi, Jason Eckardt, and Tania León.

Rebekah enjoys writing for unusual combinations of instruments and voices, exploring the connections between language and music. She often writes her own texts or creates texts from diverse sources, such as using excerpts from six different plays by Shakespeare to illustrate themes of darkness in The Mask of Night. Her mobile-form Driscoll Alphabet for chorus, a winner of the 2009 Essentially Choral competition, allows singers to spell out words of their choice with music, creating pieces that uniquely suit the performers’ tastes and abilities. She also studies various foreign languages and sings with choruses throughout the New York City area.

Rebekah’s pieces can be found here.

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