PianoFiles Will Shut Down Because of Clueless Music Publishers

by Dave Hamilton in ,

I found out today that the sheet-music-oriented community site, PianoFiles, announced that they will shut down in December.

I'm new to PianoFiles, having only joined earlier this year, but it's been a huge resource for me already. As some of you may remember I got back into playing (drums, mostly) in musical theater pits this year, and PianoFiles was the resource that made it super simple for me to use my iPad in the pit instead of sheet music. 

Using my iPad means I can make as many notes as I want, back them all up, don't need a light on stage, and can turn pages far more easily than I can with a paper book. It made a huge difference for me.

As I said, I got back into playing in theater pits. It had been almost twenty years since I had done this, and here's how it used to work for all of us musicians:

  1. Get hired for show.
  2. Get book (sheet music) from the musical director.
  3. Go to copy shop and make a copy of sheet music.
  4. Go to rehearsals and mark up my copy with all the notes that are necessary for that particular production.
  5. Play the run of shows.
  6. Return pristine original book back to musical director (who then returns it to publishing company).
  7. Keep the copy. Sometimes it's fun to go back and revisit those parts. I've learned a lot doing that and it keeps my reading skills fresh.

Step 6 is mandatory. Regardless of how you organize yourself, that book is rented and needs to be returned in as mint condition as possible lest you get fined. If you make notes in it, you damned well better do them in pencil (or stuck-on post-it notes) that you can erase or remove. Someone else is going to use that book next week for a completely different production and wants to start with a clean book just like you did.

When I got hired for a show earlier this year, I got the book and went to Staples. I figured I'd either follow my exact method above (and use the paper copy during shows as I used to) or I would have them scan it into a PDF that I could use on my iPad, depending upon the cost. At that point I wasn't sure if my iPad would work for me (it does!).

What did Staples tell me? "We're sorry. This book is copyrighted. You need a release letter from the publisher in order for us to copy it." THAT never happened 20 years ago!

I had two options. Ok, well, three, but actually getting a bona-fide release letter (and doing so in time) was probably a long-shot. I could phony up a release letter (how would the rep at Staples know?) or I could find someone who already had the PDF and just use that. I suppose I could also scan it myself, though doing that with a 100+ page spiral bound book would be a disaster.

I went to the Googles while standing there in Staples and found PianoFiles. This site just allows folks like me to list what scores we have and what we want. The site doesn't host any files, and trades are arranged person-to-person. There's no mass distribution of files. I'm not sure, but it's possible what we're doing (sharing scores with each other) might even fall as legal under copyright law (similar to if I shared a copy of the new Phish album with you). Either way, the folks I've met through PianoFiles are all quite pleasant and aren't interested in screwing anyone. They're all mostly musicians just looking to make things easier for shows to which they already have the rights.

But no. ICMP organized a terrible letter-writing campaign to get this great resource shut down. Terrible. Just another example of an old business model hanging on and not changing with the times. We musicians don't get paid very much, either. But we want to be able to play the shows we're paid to do. Either distribute PDFs or let us share them when you give us paper books. 

It's not like anyone is going to get the PDFs of a show via someone they met at PianoFiles and then actually, you know, rent out a theater and put the show on without getting the rights. There's far more at risk there than would make it worth that, and the rights to shows (which come with the book rentals) are priced quite fairly from what I've seen. If you know what you're doing you can likely make your money back and then some, even in a small theater (because rights are priced based on number of seats capable of being sold).

ICMP should stop hanging on by a thread and instead start a letter-writing campaign pleading with their own publishers to provide PDF copies when someone licenses the rights to a show. Why that's not already happening is something that I find quite curious.

Hopefully this injustice can be reversed. Otherwise I think I have a new idea for a site to launch.