Digital sheet music is nothing new. Several old-school sheet music distributors sell digital scores on their websites. Several composers also offer their own works via digital download on their personal websites.
But MusicSpoke, based in Kansas City, has taken the advent of digital scores one step further into the future by applying an online marketplace business model to sheet music sales.
In the traditional music publishing model, a composer sells their score to a publisher, loses copyright privilege, receives 10 percent of the royalties, at the most, and has no control over who purchases and performs their music.
Selling a score through MusicSpoke allows a composer to retain copyright privileges, earn a large percentage of each sale and make personal connections with buyers, which can often lead to repeat purchases and commissions to compose new work.
“Technically, MusicSpoke doesn’t function as a publisher,” says Kurt Knecht, MusicSpoke’s co-founder (with Jennifer Rosenblatt). “When I have to explain (the business) to my grandmother, I just say we are a publisher, but we’re really not. We are a company that is democratizing distribution for self-published composers. What we are doing is really just Etsy for composers. For established composers that are already selling their music, we allow them to retain their copyrights and a fair share (most of the time 70 percent) of the profits. We also let them know who is purchasing their music.
“Even before the internet, there were problems with music publishing,” Knecht continues. “When pieces aren’t selling as well, traditional publishers will refuse to print them, but they won’t return the copyright to you. I have pieces that I have written that are “dead.” If you try to order them, you’ll be told they are out of print. I can’t give you a copy because I don’t own the copyright. They are just gone from the world now.”
With traditional publishers, composers also don’t know their music is being performed.
“About two years ago, the director of choral activities from Florida State tagged me in a Facebook post that said they were doing my piece at Carnegie Hall that evening,” Knecht says. “I didn’t know. And I want to know that stuff just so I can tell my mom and say thank you to the performers.”
MusicSpoke started with 16 composers and about 70 scores. It now represents about 150 composers, and around 1,200 scores. There’s also a waiting list of almost 150 more composers wanting to join.
Because of the internet-as-marketplace, traditional publishers are starting to reorganize their business models; no one wants to be a Blockbuster in a Netflix world.
“I think it’s definitely causing many publishers to reassess things,” says Kansas City-based composer Andrea Ramsey. “I have seen a rise in my digital sales with traditional publishers, and traditional publishers are pushing digital sales a bit more than previously. I have yet to see traditional publishers compete with MusicSpoke’s percentages or copyright policy, however.”
“Every composer that I know is basically moving in this direction,” Knecht says. “Traditional publishers already know that their model isn’t viable because it’s a model that developed before the internet. MusicSpoke has been at the forefront of bringing this model to sheet music, but it’s already been done in other industries, and I don’t see things moving backward.”
Traditional publishing probably isn’t going away. Ramsey spoke at length of the relationships she has built via traditional publishing companies and credits them for initially believing in her work and helping her create her international reputation.
But she’s also trying to make a living. And with MusicSpoke, she can.
“There’s also the huge perk in the community MusicSpoke has created,” Ramsey says. “I have learned so much from the other MusicSpoke composers. It’s nice to have a group that supports one another and is available to help answer questions. I feel fortunate to be a part of this venture.”