This post originally appeared on the NewMusicShelf blog on August 6, 2011.
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.