Sheet Happens: One of Music's Oldest Businesses Is Growing in the Digital Age

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Twenty years ago, when she would ask publishers to license sheet music so her company, Musicnotes, could sell it online, Kathy Marsh would usually receive a two-word response: Forget it. "'People will never buy digital sheet music' — that’s from a big publisher," remembers Marsh, Musicnotes' co-founder and CEO.

Publishers overcame their early resistance, however, and today — thanks to online stores like Musicnotes, digital subscription services and music-notation formats for tablets and phones — sheet-music sales are booming. They generated $240 million in global revenue in 2018, according to Musicnotes -- a tiny fraction of the overall publishing business. But the sheet-music sector is growing quickly: The National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA) has said that sales were up 7% in 2017 compared with the previous year. "I don’t believe we have a ceiling, really," says Lorenzo Brewer, co-founder/CEO of Nkoda, a $10-a-month subscription service launched last year.

Some of this growth is fueled by musicals like Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born, The Greatest Showman and La La Land. "Five years ago, it slowed down a little bit -- there wasn’t a lot of content that thrilled the audience," says Marsh. "But the last couple of years, we’ve picked back up."

Sheet music is one of the original entertainment businesses -- perhaps the first one that was scalable, since it didn’t involve live performances. Until phonographs came along in the early 1900s, sheet music was the main way consumers bought songs, which they could hear at live performances and then learn to play on living-room pianos. The business survived wax cylinders, vinyl records, cassettes, CDs and then downloads and streaming. “I don’t think it ever went away,” says Janis Susskind, managing director of Boosey & Hawkes, an 89-year-old publisher that publishes the Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein song catalogs and counts print-music sales and rentals as 40% of its business. “I’ve been in the business for 40 years, and it has been ever-present."

The biggest players in sheet music are (and have been for decades) Hal Leonard, founded by a Winona, Minn., bandleader in the 1930s; and Alfred, the 1922 brainchild of a Tin Pan Alley violinist and silent film mood-music importer. And despite the rising popularity of online sheet-music stores, printed scores remain popular, partly because musicians like to scribble notes on the pages. “You’re a performing musician in a church and you get called to play a funeral and there’s a special song somebody wants — we get that all the time,” says Kathy Fernandes, chief marketing officer for retailer JW Pepper, which opened in a Philadelphia family print shop in 1876. “Or you’re a school-band director and the principal called: ‘We’re doing this assembly, is there any way you can perform X?'"

Older sheet-music players went digital around the same time as Musicnotes: Hal Leonard acquired the online notation service Noteflight in 2014 and sells scores through subsidiaries like the $10-a-month subscription service Sheet Music Direct. "All the formats drive one another," says Hal Leonard executive vp Jeff Schroedl, adding that the company’s digital business has grown by nearly 37% over the past four years. "The more we can bring a musician from beginner to intermediate or advanced player, the more they’re going to consume music in a variety of ways."

At the same time, the market has been expanded by startups, like Yousician, which posts step-by-step video tutorials of tablature for bedroom guitarists and local bands looking to learn how to play popular songs. The company has 16 million monthly users, $25 million in revenue and annual growth of 50%. "In the U.S., 12% of people actually play a musical instrument — our goal is to get that to 80 or 90%,” says Yousician co-founder/CEO Chris Thür. “That’s one way we think it could become a growth industry."

This digital growth has forced some old-school mom-and-pop stores out of business, says Richard Rejino, executive director of the Retail Print Music Dealers Association. "Primarily their stores were full of print music, and those have fallen way down," he says. Those stores also suffered from rampant sheet-music piracy online, but publishers say it has become less of an issue in the last few years. ("It’s a problem,” says Boosey & Hawkes’ Susskind, “but the photocopier was a problem.") NMPA president/CEO David Israelite says publishers have been aggressive about sending cease-and-desist notices to illegal sheet-music sites in recent years: "We’re driving traffic to the legal sites," he says, “which is partly why we’re seeing growth."

"The traditional sheet-music business is still very much about printing and binding paper," says Susskind. JW Pepper has grown digitally, for example, but print remains its core business; the company added 125,000 out of its total of 250,000 titles over the past three years, and sales have doubled since it began offering digital scores in 2000.

During roughly the same period, Musicnotes built a database of over 300,000 downloadable song files. Dozens of arrangements, for different instruments and orchestras, of the most popular compositions account for 80% of sales -- including, in recent years, "Bohemian Rhapsody," A Star Is Born’s "Shallow" and La La Land’s "City of Stars." Its website also lists Irving Berlin’s "God Bless America," Lauren Daigle’s "You Say" and Kacey Musgraves' "Rainbow" in the top five. The other 20% are obscure "backlist titles," as Marsh calls them. "We've gone from zero in 1999 to the largest digital sheet-music publisher in the world," says Marsh. "It has been a real trip along the way."

This article originally appeared in the June 1 issue of Billboard.