The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Print vs. Digital

Print vs. digital. Print scores or digital scores?

Of course, it’s not a question of either/or. But how can a nearly-thirty-year-old (!) American raised on the evening news not open with a sensationalistic and misleading pseudo-question?

A business-savvy composer with her eye on the changes taking place within the industry will see that print and digital scores are a logical complement to one another. Print scores continue to fulfill the needs of and carry on tradition, while digital scores offer more immediate access for a generation of musicians steeped in technology, and that embraces the digital revolution of the 21st century.

While few composers neglect the print side of the business in favor of digital scores (although I must confess that my efforts are generally – and obviously – more geared toward digital, and I would be a bit better served if I found more of a balance between the two), most have yet to hop on the digital bandwagon, as it were.

I think that there are a few reasons why the digitization of scores is still in its infancy.

For one, I think that people forget that they have some wonderful technology at their disposal that wasn’t there a few years ago, which can help them to accomplish so much. The ability to create PDFs – and when I speak about digital scores, I’m speaking primarily of scores and parts in PDF format – has come a long way in the last few years. The Open Software movement has offered a number of PDF creation tools that are remarkably sophisticated, while proprietary products with full technical support like Adobe Acrobat have become infinitely more affordable.

Why do I automatically speak of digital scores as being in PDF format? Simple: accessibility.

Everyone has full and free access to Adobe Reader (do people use other PDF reading software other than maybe Google Docs?). Very few non-composers own Sibelius or Finale or Score or whatever notation software you may use to create your beautifully-engraved scores. Consequently, to offer scores in one of these formats as opposed to as a PDF strikes me as self-defeating.

Digital Springs from Print
In my creating my own scores, I prepare my files to be printed in one fell swoop – everything in one file, which gets uploaded to my Dropbox account. That way, when I need a bound copy of one of my scores, I just email it off to the printer. No muss, no fuss. My files are formatted to be printer-friendly so that they’re always ready, and require as little effort to print as possible.

In the process of putting my print score together, of course, I’ve generated a full digital score, including the cover and everything else that needs to go inside. Ensemble X is hosting a competition with electronic submission? I’m already prepared. Performer Y has a call for scores out? Point, click, send.

So, in preparing my print version, I’ve coincidentally created the digital version, as well. And the whole process could hardly be easier.

My process, in brief, is this:

1) I create my score in Sibelius
2) I create my cover, notes, texts, etc in either Microsoft Word or OpenOffice (depending on my mood that day)
3) I print my score to a PDF using Adobe Acrobat Professional (any PDF creator worth its salt will come with a printer driver that is installed automatically, allowing you to “print to PDF”)
4) I print my cover, notes, etc to one or several PDF files, depending on whether or not I’ve created them in one or several documents
5) I use Adobe Professional to append the files to one another (Document -> Insert Pages, if you’re wondering), creating a single PDF file.

And voilà! A full digital score!

Let me offer as an example this song I wrote in 2009, To a Western Boy: tobenski-t82-v2009-3pdf.pdf

The cover was created in Microsoft Word, the score itself in Sibelius, and the back page (a “stock” page that goes at the back of every score, and which I have always available) also in Word. All were printed as PDFs, then aggregated to a single document and saved. Because the song is so short, I decided to forego any additional pages in the score so that it could be printed on a single 11″x17″ page and folded, like many older short songs from legacy publishers were printed on a single 12″x18″ page.

It’s simple and economical – any additional pages would complicate the matter too much. Were I to add any more, I would have to either add two pages’ worth of material, which would necessitate the buyer to print on one sheet of 11×17 and one page of 8.5×11 (or, more simply – three sheets of 8.5×11), or a whole four pages’ worth, which would be a silly waste of space and of paper.

Digital Concerns
As the founder of NewMusicShelf.com, I spend a lot of time pushing people to take the digital leap, and consequently talking people off the ledge when it comes to their concerns about sending digital copies of their works out into the world.

Concern number one is the big topic that has been highly visible in art-business circles: piracy.

I’ve already written a big post on DRM and Piracy here, so I’ll just give the salient points with a little new elaboration.

Piracy, for the most part, stems from a demand for a work that is either unavailable or priced beyond the means of the people who want it. A thirteen-episode series of Doctor Who (squee!), last I checked, retails for around $50 (when I first started searching, they were $99 apiece), which is a lot more than this sci-fi dork can reasonably afford for something like a DVD box set. I adore the show, and would love to own it, but it’s too expensive for me. A lot of people are in the same boat. Consequently, all six series of the new Doctor Who ($300 in all, plus tax) are particularly popular on various file sharing sites.

The hundreds (probably thousands) of wannabe Companions would happily buy the whole thing to watch over and over and over if the DVDs were only more reasonably priced.

And therein lies lesson number one about piracy: piracy can be combated with affordable pricing. Just think about how many scores you yourself would buy – and not photocopy from the library (just admit that you do it) – if they weren’t so prohibitively priced!

Another television example (since that’s where a lot of piracy is happening): Game of Thrones (god, I’m just putting my nerdiness on display here, aren’t I?) was almost impossible to get for months after it finished airing. The DVD set wasn’t due out for months, and streaming versions were only available by buying or upgrading your cable package. In fact, there’s a great dissection of the whole scenario here – check that out for a wonderfully pithy (and swear-tastic) explanation. Piracy, in this case, was just about the only option for many people (fortunately, I’m blessed with a boyfriend whose parents had an HBOGo account just lying around unused).

And that’s lesson number two: piracy can be combated by making your product available and easily accessible. Fighting piracy with scarcity – by removing the product from the market, or making it prohibitively difficult to obtain, or by putting the release date off for an obscene amount of time – only encourages piracy.

And so it is with your scores. If you’re afraid people will share your scores without paying for them, then make it easier to get them and easier to afford them. Don’t undervalue yourself, but don’t insult the people who want to buy your scores.

The corollary to all of this is lesson number three: the artist’s enemy is not piracy, it is obscurity. Which problem would you rather have? People want your music so badly that they’ll resort to piracy (which we know you can combat), or people don’t know where to find your music/can’t afford it, so no one bothers to perform it? I think we both know the answer here.

Another concern I’ve encountered has to do with page size. For those composers who insist on adhering to the traditions of using outsized paper, digital scores are a bit harder to justify. Either there needs to be a big neon sign attached to every digital score that uses odd-sized paper in order to warn the buyer of what they’re getting, or a second version of the score needs to be made to accommodate regular sized paper. (Scaling is maybe an option here, but then the size of the printed music can be a little too small.) I don’t quite have an answer to this one yet – while I format my scores to 8.5″x11″, I understand the allure of slightly larger pages: they really can be nice. I welcome input on this point – how do you reconcile the issue?

A third concern that I’m going to acknowledge here, but tackle in a few weeks, is how to sell the digital score. How does a composer go about putting his digital scores out there, collecting payment, and delivering the files in a way that doesn’t require constant attention? We all know I’ve got solutions to this one, so I’ll address it when we get to distribution.

So Why Digital?
To the question “Why should I embrace digital?” I can really only respond, “Why not?”

You’ve already got the files ready to go.

Also, the overhead of selling digital scores is almost nil. Print scores come with the costs of printing/binding/postage – a necessary part of doing print business. But digital scores come only with the time cost of creating the files, which you already have to create the print version. After that, your investment is over – there are no losses to recoup. The only money you may “lose” would be the fees that PayPal or Google Checkout or whatever your payment solution of choice charges per transaction, or in the cases of NewMusicShelf and similar services, the distribution fee the business deducts per sale.

Digital scores can, consequently, be offered at a lower price than the print score because there are no print costs involved. (I think that offering digital copies at the same price as print copies is counterproductive and silly – as major book publishers do with ebooks and their print counterparts.) And despite any discount you may offer for ecopies, your profit margin is probably higher, depending on how steep of a discount you offer. In other words: less work and higher return.

In the end, I think that print and digital sales complement one another very well: print accommodates those who appreciate the Score-as-Object, and digital accommodates those who are happy to save some money and print the score themselves.

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.

Thanks!





One thought on “The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Print vs. Digital

  1. Good article, Dennis. Thanks. I’ve been conditioning myself to studying digital scores more including the scores available for perusal from Schirmer, for instance. When I have performances that aren’t local, which is happening more and more, I have been sending a digital to the performer or to a Fedex Office near them. It works out very well saving me time and money. I’ve now even bought a score from NewMusicShelf!

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