The future of classical music

Where is classical music publishing headed now that the great works are available for free online?

The job of a publisher is to identify and cultivate talent, underwrite the writing process, and distribute the result. The publishing industry has been wringing its hands about the future of the print book for some time, but that model is sound (in the abstract) regardless of whether a book is printed on paper or transmitted over the Internet to a paying reader.

But what if you’re a publisher of works that have been in the public domain for a long time? The talent has already been identified and the writing has already been done, so the only value to be added is in editing, printing and distributing. That pretty much describes the business of publishing classical music scores, and the amount of value that publishers add varies greatly — between Dover, which mostly produces cheaply-bound facsimiles of out-of-copyright editions, and the German publishers Barenreiter and Henle, which produce beautifully printed scholarly editions.

Regardless of quality, all of these publishers face disruption in the form of the International Music Score Library Project, which makes 67,927 works of public-domain classical music available, for free, as scanned scores from academic music libraries. Traditional publishers rely on sales of warhorses like Beethoven’s piano sonatas to fund their operations, and that’s precisely what’s most readily available at IMSLP. It’s as though Knopf needed to sell Great Expectations to supply Robert Caro’s typewriter ribbon.

In our latest podcast, Mike Loukides and I talk about classical publishing and changes in the ways we play music. You can subscribe to our podcast series on iTunes or SoundCloud.

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  • Herding Bats

    Lots of food for thought here! I wouldn’t want to be Dover these days, that much is certain.

    Copyright protection for editions of public domain music is a funny thing: one of the arguments in the Ex Cathedra case (Sawkins v. Hyperion–in the UK) was that the role of a scholarly editor of baroque music is precisely to remove any copyrightable creative work, to reveal (not create) a work from … 1695! That argument didn’t fly with the judge in the case.

    I note that Touch Press’ app about Beethoven’s 9th is free (for iPhone and iPad), too–and I just downloaded it. (If I must disclaim it’s not that I work with Touch Press, but I did first hear of them through our–U of C Press’s–collaboration with them on Gems.) Their catalog is really growing–I wonder if the Beethoven and Orchestra apps are in part to tease out the size of the potential audience for musical-score-based, enthusiast-level works–which would be the market-based subsidy for music publishers.

    It’s also possible that we’ll pretty quickly get spoiled by resizing and scrolling and a scan-based PDF of music will seem as backward as a scan-based PDF of a public-domain text, and so there will be a market for properly edited and typeset musical scores, again, at the enthusiast level.

    Just out of curiosity, have you ever brought your tablet to a concert? I’ve certainly seen folks with scores at concerts, but then again, most of the concerts I go to are on a university campus–nerdiness like that is quite accepted!

    • Jon Bruner

      The argument that an editor should remove copyrightable content is really fascinating. Is there a clear standard for how novel an editor’s improvement needs to be in order to be copywritable in itself?

      I almost always buy the “urtext” editions from Barenreiter and Henle, which in theory are just as the composers wrote ’em and nothing more, though typeset into a crisp, modern setting. For, say, late Brahms, there isn’t much transformation that goes into these things–by 1890, musical scores looked almost exactly as they do today. But for Baroque music, some modern conventions hadn’t yet appeared, so even the most faithful urtext editions of Bach include some transformations–i.e., Bach often used the alto clef in notating keyboard music, which is uncommon enough today that it’s a huge hassle to read, and any new good edition will transpose into treble or bass clef and add at least a handful of implicit markings.

      As far as copyrightability is concerned, I think it’s understandable that you wouldn’t be allowed to sell photographic reproductions of Barenreiter’s urtext Bach edition, since their typesetting represents a great deal of added value, but to what degree are these other improvements, which are either mechanical (like transpositions) or quotations from the original (like a newly-discovered manuscript) themselves copywritable?

      On the other end of the spectrum, famous musicians used to release their own, highly interpreted, editions of classics (Fritz Kreisler, like several other virtuosos, wrote a cadenza for Beethoven’s violin concerto, which basically amounts to an original work within Beethoven’s work). Albert Schweitzer edited Bach’s organ works in a way that’s today seen as original (i.e., they’re studied in order to understand early-20th-century music criticism, not as authoritative representations of Bach), but his additions to Bach were mostly phrasings, tempo markings, deletions of earlier editors’ flourishes, etc. Still, these are all pretty strong changes that, particularly in his era, amounted to substantial artistic reinterpretations.

      I agree with you that scan-based PDFs of music won’t replace the high-end scores anytime soon, since they’re still markedly inferior (they tend to be turn-of-the-century, so the printing isn’t very sharp, and recent scholarship has made some big improvements to Baroque and Classical-period works in particular). But print out one of these PDFs on a laser printer, pop the result in a three-ring binder, and you end up with something better than a Dover edition.

      Barenreiter and Henle (and the handful of other very-high-end publishers) will probably have to figure out, soon, whether they can make an e-publishing play, typesetting their music for display on tablets and charging less than current pricing but saving costs on printing, distribution, and retail markup. Some of this might come down to a technological question: do these houses have their catalogues digitized in a way that the scores can be automatically re-typeset for digital editions? If not, digitization could be very expensive.

      I haven’t tried bringing a tablet to a concert (the idea hadn’t occurred to me, actually). I’d certainly try it at a university concert, but people at Lincoln Center are so sensitive to electronics of any sort that I might not attempt it for a couple more years.

      • Ah, the standard for copyrightability… In the US, the threshold is a “spark of creativity” (Sandra Day O’Connor’s phrase). 999 millisparks won’t do. There are quite a few differences in British and US copyright law, though–one of the more important is that type, layout, and typesetting–the layout of the words on the page, even in prose–are in fact subject to copyright in the UK, but not in the US. For US law, the string of 1s and 0s that represent this paragraph are equivalent to any display or printout of it. (I wouldn’t be surprised if musical typography is equally protected.)

        The issue of copyrightability of editing hasn’t come to court in the US (that I know of); you can call it a gentlemen’s agreement or simply a risk (and expense) that no one is particularly interested in taking. It seems (from my reading about the Ex Cathedra case, which is admittedly spotty) that Ex Cathedra and Hyperion started off a bit disorganized about seeking permission and then tried to brass their way through it.

        The question of editorial intervention as subject to copyright has a more important analog (IMO) in the question of mechanical processes that produce a product; in the US, the product of a mechanical process is not copyrightable, but that doesn’t stop Google from watermarking a (c) claim all over Google Maps’ imagery.

        EU law has protections for database copyright, which acknowledges (and incentivizes) the resources that go into the creation of projects like Google Maps; whether that’s a better approach than “by using this site you agree…” EULAs is a good question to discuss, but (again, in my opinion) either way is better than spurious claims of copyright.

        To bring it back home: I recall the pride (and approval) with which Kathleen Hansell (our acquiring editor for music) came back from a Lyric Opera production of a Verdi opera–I don’t recall which one–they were using the Chicago edition.

  • Bob Carpenter

    We don’t need publishers for distribution, but they can be useful for marketing. The main complaint I hear from authors is that publisher cost cutting is putting increasing pressure on authors to market their own books.