A standard is required

This is the first of a series of articles on the challenges faced by the global music publishing industry for a shift from print to digital.

A popular part of my presentations to publishers on the emREADER project is a demonstration of the work we have been doing to create a purpose-built device for the interaction with digital sheet music that would at last challenge the dominance of paper. This is exciting stuff (and in my view essential) but this can overshadow the critical requirement for content to display on this or any other platform.

Digital sheet music distribution systems are a hot topic at the moment with considerable investment being undertaken across the globe in the race to create the platform of choice.  The “build it and they will come” strategy may work for the likes of Apple and Amazon with an existing and loyal customer base and the market strength to call the shots, but in my view any startup without these resources will struggle.  What is perhaps more critical is that there simply isn’t the breadth of content available for any digital distribution platform right now.

Is the switch from print to digital inevitable?

The greatest challenge in a move from print to digital is the conversion itself. The vast majority of music available today exists ONLY in printed form and so this will require a considerable investment in time and money to convert into a digital format. While most publishers do have already large archives of PDFs (from a scans or a digital proofs) and files in other formats like Sibelius, Finale or Music XML, these digital assets are little more than a digital reproductions that lack security and the usability of the title in its printed form.

Consumer acceptance plays an important part in this process because it will be difficult to encourage users to invest in the resources required to use and maintain digital media if the repertoire they require is not available. It will also be a hard sell if the user experience is less rewarding than the paper it is replacing.  Ignoring the deficiencies of the device you use to read your music, our research has shown that the way a musician interacts with his musical score is rarely in a linear fashion (from beginning to end).  Cuts, repeats, play lists and rehearsal requirements make it inconvenient to be restricted to navigating a score by page turns alone like we do with eBooks.  Providing better navigation requires input into the digital platform itself so that common access points (like bar and rehearsal numbers, movement and section indexes) are available.

For individuals like singers and instrumentalists the benefits of a digital platform have already been demonstrated by some performers, but once you start increasing the number of participants in the musical activity (ensembles, choirs, bands and orchestras for example) the complications also increase. One of the remarks I remember most from that experiment back in 2012 where the Brussels Philharmonic performed a few works from tablets in concert was that the task of simultaneously charging 50+ tablets proved to be a nightmare for the administration. Musicians and their support staff need innovations that reduce cost and improve efficiency, and this is not the case with current offerings. Perhaps this is why the most prominent digital sheet music distributors are those focusing on single song sheets, and the only real success story for larger works is IMSLP where free downloads compensate for any other inconvenience.

So a switch from print to digital is only possible when we have an eco-system that addresses all of the shortcomings of current offerings along with a comprehensive range of titles.

The need for a standard

One way to fast-track content creation would be for the music publishing industry to adopt a standard for the creation of digital sheet music assets.  A standard will provide all publishers, large or small, with a guarantee that their investment in the process will be sound, and will also enable them to commence the digitisation process as soon as possible.

This standard should:

  • allow publishers to create holdings that can be easily adapted for any technology (present or future)
  • work for ANY type of source material
  • provide a secure environment to ensure that publishers maintain complete control over its use
  • be easy to use and available to all publishers
  • be an open standard that can be developed independently

These are the core objectives of the emREADER Publish system we have developed.

Only when a standard is in place can the building a universal repository of digital sheet music commence an event that would transform the industry.

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