Towards the end of last night’s fantastic drumming rehearsal in my living room we selected the cover artists for our next go, one of whom was The Strokes.
“Great,” I exclaimed,” I finally have an excuse to buy their sheet music books!”
Chaz eyed me with speculation. “Do you really need sheet music for those songs? Can’t you just figure them out?”
I plucked my Amnesiac book off of the music stand and waved it in his direction.
“Look, given enough time I can figure out anything, but then I can’t play whatever song strikes your fancy at a moment’s notice, and I won’t have something physical to put on the stand, and I can’t give you a starting note if you want to sing, and I certainly won’t know the harmony. Without this book there would have been no awesome version of ‘You and Whose Army.'”
That paragraph explains exactly why I believe all albums should have matching sheet music folios, and plainly illustrates my addiction to sheet music – because I want the ability to cover or arrange a song to be at my fingertips.
I have a sizable sheet music collection – over a hundred books. A significant portion of it is comprised of out-of-print books I hunted down two Christmases ago, including sheet music for every Madonna album and imported, out-of-print David Bowie books that contain the full scores to their corresponding albums.
Pop and rock sheet music is an interesting niche of publishing, not only because of its specialized audience of amateur and professional musicians, but because the sales of each book can be predicted by the sales of the corresponding album and the singles therein. Does every Mariah Carey album get a sheet music book? Of course – because they sell big, and the singles are huge – lots of people know the songs or want to hear them covered. Those are the books that are printed the most often. Similarly, any radio-ready rock band merits a book – like Foo Fighters, Radiohead, and even Paramore. Also, young artists with a breakthrough record often merit a first book to test the water – Anna Nalick got one on the strength of one single, and Sara Bareilles had one out when she was just touring behind “Love Song.”
The smaller or less-played the act, the less obvious the case is for a book. Get too obscureand you’re out of luck, unless you happen to be a Dresden Dolls fan – singer Amanda Palmer arranged and published two sheet music books on her own. Not coincidentally, they’re the two best-edited piano books I’ve ever purchased.
That makes me wonder – what’s the magical sales threshold that’s preventing us from seeing books from Guster or Rilo Kiley? Is it a flat number based on economies of scale in the print run … perhaps twenty or thirty thousand? Or, is it a function of album sales – a gold-shipped album might move two percent of its copies in sheet music – ten thousand units. There’s clearly a fixed, single-run print quantity for most books, because sheet music regularly falls out of print, and if the book wasn’t popular enough the first time around it never comes back.
Either way, any kind of threshold puts up a barrier between older and lesser-heard albums and the musicians that are clamoring to play them. Effectively, there can be no “long tail” of sheet music books. Yet, any DIY guitarist might argue that it’s okay, because of the internet. Why wait for a publishing company to spend production dollars arranging and laying out a book of sheet music that will cost you twenty bucks when you can crowd-source the task to guitar players in basements across American, who can tab out an entire album for free?
If the industry supported this solution I’d be all for it, but that relationship is tenuous at best. In the late 90s the Harry Fox Agency sued prominent guitar tab sites – primarily Harmony Central so they would remove all of their guitar tab archives – mostly on the argument that reprint of the lyrics without permission was illegal. It was a selfish, spiteful move on the part of the music publishing business – they shut down a venue for people around the world to play their artists’ songs, which is one of the best forms of word of mouth advertising an artist can have, yet they didn’t offer any commensurate response to the clear demand for a long tail of transcriptions.
I’ve been buying rock sheet music for the intervening decade, and I can tell you that the situation has not improved, except now Transcribed Score books are slightly more common – and they certainly represent increased value over internet tabs. Otherwise, if anything I’d say that in the 90s the threshold to print must have been lower – more niche artists got a short run of their own books. Today I don’t know that I’d be able to find my cherished book of Tracy Bonham’s The Burdens of Being Upright, or the tightly edited edition of Elastica’s self-titled disc.
The clear solution is a variation on Amanda Palmer’s Dresden Dolls model. Amanda, being just about the savviest indie artists I know of, made it a point not only to compile the best-edited sheet music possible, but to also turn her books into collectors items rife with stories and photos not available anywhere else. She sought to expand the audience for her product outside of musicians to more casual fans, which would increase her personal threshold for turning a profit on the endeavor in the long term.
It’s a valid strategy, but it’s a gamble – the extra material drives the price of the book, and relies on non-musicians fans to snap up the book for that half to help subsidize the sheet music portion. It’s probably working just fine for Amanda, because her fans are amazing, and the books were a labor of love to begin with. But, what about all of the other niche and indie artists out there who want to spread their music to the masses?
I think the best model would be for artists to offer a PDF of an album’s sheet music for download – either for free or a small fee – and to also offer a physical book containing that music plus some additional content – more detailed song histories and performance notes. Similarly, publishing companies need to find a way to do the same for out of print sheet music. In either case, if certain books prove to be big-movers on the print-on-demand front then you know to go to an actual print-run. If not, you at least have all of your sheet music compiled and available, which will draw a steady stream of revenue as a long tail shopping solution, and you can easily release a “Greatest Hits” book at any time.
Once Arcati Crisis actually records an album (hopefully next year) I’ll be undertaking that endeavor – I’ve already arranged “Standing” and “Moscow, Idaho” as a test. I’m under no illusion that we have hoards of fans waiting to play our songs, but I want to prove my point. More importantly, I want to insert my idea into the marketplace – maybe the only way I’m going to get my long tail of sheet music is to grow the damn tail myself.