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So You Want to Buy a Score?

by Joseph M. Boonin

In 1927 one could walk into many music stores in major American cities and expect to find music. Not recordings but printed music. Serious music was stocked in all of its printed forms and staffs were fully conversant with what was available. True, much of the serious repertoire was published in Europe and expensive. But with a willingness to wait three or four months a customer had reasonable assurance of obtaining practically any work he could name. Dealers and publishers prided themselves not only on the financial success of their businesses but also on their inventories and backlists. Even if a piece was not "successful" or "popular," if it was felt to have some merit or to fill a particular need, it was kept in print and available. True, when the time came to reprint a work there was often a decision to discontinue it, but as long as inventory remained the work was listed. Often, when a work was out of print a modest demand caused the publisher to issue anew printing or even a new edition. pervading the entire operation was a sense that, although it was a business and profitability was mandatory for continued existence, printed music had an intellectual and aesthetic existence quite separate from its commercial, monetary worth.

By 1957, much of this had changed. World War II was little over a decade past and its ravages were still felt, particularly in major German publishing centers such as Leipzig and Berlin. What bombs had failed to destroy, the political upheavals in Central Europe made virtually inaccessible. (The great Leipzig printing plant of Breitkopf & Hartel, for example, was totally occupied for a number of years with a new edition of the works of Marx and Lenin.) Despite all this, music publishing (and the concomitant ability to buy any given piece of music) flourished. The 1950's saw an almost universal dipping into artistic and commercial resources. Warehouses were combed, new printings were made, the second-hand market made its last gasp as a true and equal partner of the merchants of new copies. (Has any reader attempted in the last decade to purchase a second-hand piece of music? Be it currently available as a new publication or out of print, his chances of finding it were slim or nil.) New publishers sprang up both here and abroad. Their wares represented not only the new music of living composers but newly edited and reprinted music of past generations. From 1950 until 1975, printed music was actively produced, vigorously marketed, and eagerly purchased by both private and institutional consumers. If a European publication was not in stock, airmail and telex made it available within days, rather than weeks or months. The dollar was king and music of European origin was like French wine and Volkswagens — a real bargain. Publishers, dealers, and even the ultimate consumer asked the question "Why not?" and purchased anything even remotely of interest.

At this point, the perspicacious reader will have determined the rhythm of the chronology: 1927, 1957, add again 30 years and we are at 1987. Technology has certainly made more strides in the last 30 years than it had in the preceding 30 or, for that matter, in the preceding 300 . Our world has given us more time for the study and enjoyment of music than we have ever before had. Indeed, in these selfsame 30 years, the phonograph record has exposed us to and familiarized us with virtually all of the last thousand years of Western music and the music of many other cultures as well. From this one might postulate the demand for all types of printed music and blithely assume the creation and distribution of a supply. Wrong! wrong!! wrong!!!

It has become almost impossible to purchase a piece of printed serious music in a face-to-face transaction. Not only has the small town music shop all but disappeared but its city cousins have done so as well. The exceptions to the foregoing can be counted on the fingers of either hand. True, there are still stores in cities and towns big and small that sell "sheet music." However, their inventory is aimed to their clientele, school and church musicians, or the private teacher, especially of piano. A good many of these stores are adjuncts of instrument stores and are in business primarily to fill school contracts in order to support their sale of instruments. Additionally, many of the large record stores have printed music sections but these are almost invariably devoted to pop folios and collections of the "World's best-loved" whatever. Miniature scores or vocal scores-those mainstays by which so much repertoire is learned by both amateurs and working musicians-are stocked by fewer than twenty shops in the United States.

The reasons for this attrition are not difficult to unearth. In these days of expensive labor costs, it requires a very labor-intensive operation to maintain an inventory of that species of music known as "serious." Add to this the replacement of the printed note by the sound recording as the principal medium of music dissemination and one can readily understand the decline of the music store.

It would be wrong, however, to blame music dealers for their own extinction. In point of fact, music stores had virtually no alternative. Music publishers have made major alterations in the way they do business and have begun to reassess the very essence of their raison d'être. The tradition in this country has been to divide music publishing into three distinct groups: Popular, Educational, and Serious.

Printed sheet music of popular songs used to be the prime means of promoting them. We have all seen old movies of song pluggers hustling sales of sheet music in large urban stores, and many copies were given away to singers and band leaders to attract them to a given popular ballad. Today, when so much popular music is performed by its composers, the printed product (as it is currently called) has been reduced to the subsidiary role of an after-the-fact graphic documentation of a hit song or record album.

The educational market is the area in which most publishers and dealers have continued to concentrate the greatest activity. It remains significant and viable but a combination of anti-tax referenda, the photocopy machine, and the general change in the nature of music (from a participatory to a spectator activity) have had an adverse effect.

The market for serious printed music has always been the smallest, but it used to boast the singular advantage of dealing with a commodity that had a much longer active sales life than either its popular or educational counterparts. Until recently, most publishers and dealers thought nothing of retaining relatively large and broad inventories of back-list material. A glut of music publications, both old and new, was considered an asset for the industry.

The concert music market has been characterized by small sales volume and a product that is largely of foreign origin. Shifting economic priorities and basic changes in the ownership and management outlook of publishers of serious music have brought about drastic reductions in inventories, policies to import only those items that sell well, and a studied indifference to the less "popular" repertoire. The music lover, for his part, is content to acquire the latest compact disc of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or Boulez's Third Piano Sonata. He is quite sophisticated in his musical taste but scarcely concerns himself with the printed note. Indeed, he reads music poorly if at all — particularly the complex and non-standard scores often typical of today's music. Responding to diminished popular demand, publishers keep much new music on rental, hiring it out only at the request of performers or performing organizations. The limited market, it is said, justifies decisions not to print works at all or to issue so-called "archive" copies — crude photocopies of out-of-print or never-published music (at astronomical prices) that are not distributed through normal channels, but sold on definite order only.

Both publishers, in the music editions they produce, and dealers, in the items they stock, have therefore become dispenser of wholesale goods, supermarkets that carry only musical merchandise that they can move in bulk. What does this development mean to customers wishing to buy a score?

Still servicing the retail music market is a handful of firms in the United States known as distributors. They deal with music from all publishers the world over, and differ from music shops mainly in that they do not cater to a walk-in trade and therefore do not need to stock much inventory. They generally have informed staffs with superior research facilities, and are therefore able to offer their customers excellent service in the information they provide, i.e., all options of availability and differences among editions, compatibility of scores and parts, etc. In addition, they save customers time by doing all the legwork in procuring music from many different publishers, some of them as uninformed to subject as they are monolithic in structure. It is no coincidence that music librarians and librarians to operas, choruses and orchestras choose to acquire their music through such distributors rather than taking the cumbersome path of identifying and coping with original sources of supply.

While it is true, therefore, that there may be fewer scores thrown upon the market in the future, it is still possible to buy the scores which already exist. All you have to do is learn how. ©Copyright 1987 by Joseph M. Boonin

Joseph M. Boonin is president of Jerona Music Corp. He is a frequent lecturer and writer on various aspects of the business of music.

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