After 250 Years Will A Brussels Digital Challenger Destroy French Sheet Music Publishers?

Like their Italian and German counterparts’ centuries-old French musical publishers are being forced to learn digital survival tactics in an age where orchestral music stands armed with Ipads may be about to replace traditional printed scores in European concert halls.

Pierre H Lemoine managing director of Editions Henry Lemoine (Credit website)

Pierre H Lemoine managing director of Editions Henry Lemoine (Credit website)

Just as the ubiquitous Amazon has challenged and disarmed traditional booksellers worldwide and digital platforms have fatally disrupted recorded music businesses, free sheet music from the Internet is destabilising long-established European publishing houses.

While the impact in France of the Amazon insurgence has been cushioned somewhat thanks to the exception culturelle, a concerted effort to dilute the Amazon steamroller, the massacre of big names in the recording industry perhaps reached a zenith with the 2012 collapse of the UK-based giant EMI group.

Digital challenges to the sheet music industry however are of a significantly different order,  for the ancient traditional European publishers — Riccordi in Italy; Editio Musica Budapest in Hungary, Editions Peters and Schott Musik in Germany, Henry Lemoine in France — are repositories of much of the world’s early editions of great classical music scores, annotations, scholarly research and operatic heritage starting from the mid-15th century when mechanical publication of musical scores began in earnest.

Pierre H. Lemoine Chairman and managing director of Editions Henry Lemoine, the venerable music publishing house established in 1772, told France Musique’s La matinale culturelle programme recently: “a whole section of what is or rather was the music publishing business is disappearing”.

Listen to the interview here:

He suggested a turning point had come in 2011/2012 when the firm noticed a significant drop in sales. Pierre Lemoine, who is also president of the Chambre syndicale des éditeurs de musique de France (CEMF) the French Chamber of Music Publishers, said that since the 1950s, the “urtext” score (See here for a detailed explanation) — that is to say that which is as close as possible to the original version created by the composer, had been the unique selling point of European, especially German publishers.

”But over the past two to three years, we have seen changes in musicians’ appetites for these scores. Why pay they say when you can download everything you want free and immediately from the Internet. As a result sales have declined some 6 to 8% a year,” he said.

The added-value now left to sheet music publishers is the quality of their centuries of expertise. “When a musician buys a score from a traditional publisher, firstly he is assured he is getting an error-free score that resembles the composer’s original work as closely as possible. Additionally there is print quality and the convenient format for easier reading on a music stand or just the fact that it is remains a paper score. It’s really not very convenient printing out an entire work on A4 sheets from the Internet,” he said.

Classical music is not the only area to be affected by digital challenges. Sales of all kinds of light music scores have dropped by as much as 30%, where 15 years ago, these accounted for half of all sales, he added.

The one sector that is resisting is formal music teaching: methods, learning an instrument, music theory, everything related to the job of the music teacher and academic course work, as well as compilations of a range of different pieces, remain a stronghold for the industry, the programme revealed.

Publishers also rely on their still-in-copyright catalogue of contemporary composers. They rent out scores to orchestras and garner other revenue from public performance rights or commercial recordings of works.

However in a sign of the times Pierre Lemoine noted that Amazon had recently become Editions Henry Lemoine’s biggest customer, ahead of the firm’s once top line outlet, the famous Parisian music shop La Flûte de Pan in Rue de Rome (75008).

Every serious French musician has heard of La Flûte de Pan, established in the late 19th century and still the leading French seller of music scores — some 200,000 sheets of music a year. But the retailer has not been spared by the advances of technology and is also reporting a significant sales downturn since 2011/2012. A score that once sold 60 copies a year now struggles to reach 25, the radio programme revealed. The retailer has adapted to the changes by offering scores via an internet platform and says such online selling will soon outstrip items sold through its three Paris stores.

Dish with Gonzaga arms VA (Credit  Andreas Praefcke Wikipedia)

Dish with Gonzaga arms VA (Credit Andreas Praefcke Wikipedia)

La Flûte de Pan is also working on a viable model for selling digital scores. Martine Joulié, the company CEO says she believes printed scores on paper “still have a good many years to run. Just like printed books, I think people will remain attached to the printed and bound musical score. We expect to see a parallel model of business developing involving a purchase mix of physical score alongside digital versions. But this will only become widespread once the tablet makers (principally Apple’s iPad and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab) develop a model that is large enough to handle two full size scores side by side. Existing tablet computers are too small – straining players’ eyes and subject to battery drain — for comfortable use by orchestral players and concert performers. “

Just such a model of tablet and distributed digital scores has however, already emerged on the market and is being refined by a Belgian start-up, NeoScores . The firm was founded by a former Brussels Philharmonic musician and the technology recently won a prize in Seoul as one of the most promising innovations in the world. It will be a kind of “iTunes” for musical scores. A virtual library where musicians will be able to access digital files of musical scores and annotate them using a stylus.

Samsung Galaxy Tab (Credit Wikipedia Julien Houbrechts)

Samsung Galaxy Tab (Credit Wikipedia Julien Houbrechts)

Pierre Lemoine told France Musique that challenges notwithstanding his traditional family concern — run by members of the same family for seven generations – will adapt and plans to be around for many more generations.

It remains to be seen however whether publishers will be happy selling their current catalogues as virtual digital scores and in turn losing some control over use and rights.

The idea of becoming a paperless orchestra is certainly being actively pushed by at least one European orchestra — the Brussels Philharmonic.

According to David Kettle writing at The Strad, the online version of a magazine founded in 1890 for the string music world: “The Brussels Philharmonic is on a mission: to become the world’s first paperless orchestra. On 7 November 2012 it gave its first concert playing, not from traditional sheet music, but from tablet computers. South Korean technology company Samsung had donated 100 of its Galaxy Note 10.1 tablets, and the orchestra worked with Samsung and Belgian company neoScores on new software to display the musical parts for the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Ravel’s Bolero… The orchestra predicts huge financial benefits if it moves to an entirely digital music system. ‘If we can totally digitise our library, we’re going to save about €25,000 a year in printing costs …  But a bigger issue … is the availability of scores in a compatible digital format.’ For the November concert, the orchestra itself digitised the two scores it needed, but for tablet use to expand, music publishers will have to provide digital files themselves – a costly process. ‘And I don’t know if publishing houses are interested in doing that’. ”

But as Charlotte Gardner reported for the Sinfinimusic site, the technology is still in a very early stage: “More classical music is becoming available for download onto smartphones and tablets from online libraries such as IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project, a favourite with orchestral musicians that holds over 200,000 orchestral scores and parts), Steinway’s Etude piano music library, and Musicnotes. More recently, score reading software catering to the specific needs of classical musicians has begun to appear, such as piaScore, and neoScores. NeoScores, used by the Brussels Philharmonic, has a screen display that remains active as long as the musicians are looking at it. It also has a special concert mode similar to Flight Mode to avoid electronic interference, and a secure sweeping system that ensures players only turn one page at a time rather than involuntarily zooming 10 pages ahead mid-performance. Furthermore, musicians can annotate their scores with an S-Pen stylus, then share those changes with the conductor, the whole orchestra or individual musicians.”

The chanson Belle, Bonne, Sage by Baude Cordier (Credit Wikipedia)

The chanson Belle, Bonne, Sage by Baude Cordier (Credit Wikipedia)

Here is a very potted history of European music publishing (courtesy of Wikipedia): “Venetian printer and publisher Ottaviano Petrucci, (16thC) is considered the father of modern music printing. Germany was the publishing pioneer with music publishing dating from the 18th century. Breitkopf, a Leipzig print concern, became a major music publishing house from 1754. Initially specialising in French and Italian operas, Schott Music of Mainz founded in 1770, still exists today. Casa Ricordi was established in Milan in 1808 and by the 1840s Casa Ricordi grew to be the largest music publisher in southern Europe. Rózsavölgyi, Budapest established in 1850 is one of the oldest music shops in Europe. by end of the 19th century sheet music publishing and sheet music sales made it one of the most important music shops in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The spread of instrumental and vocal music during the Renaissance was in large part due to several enterprising music printers, many of whom were active musicians and composers. The most prominent among these were: Ottaviano Petrucci of Venice, the Parisian Pierre Attaingnant, the Flemish Teilman Susato and the Venetian Antonio Gardano. Pierre Attaignant (born1494) was the son-in-law and heir of the printer-engraver Philippe Pigouchet. Beginning with a collection of chansons dated April 4, 1527, he used movable type and a single impression, a method that was probably his invention. Jacques Moderne (born in Slovenia in 1561) was a music publisher very active in Lyons from 1523. For years he and Pierre Attaingnant were the only music publishers active in France.

In France Gérard Billaudot Éditeur, was founded in 1896 by Louis Billaudot and has remained a family business. The venerable houses of Durand & Cie, Éditions Salabert, and Éditions Eschig have merged to form Durand-Salabert-Eschig Éditions Musicales; Alphonse Leduc et Cie has been one of the premier French musical publishing houses since its inception in 1841; Editions Henry Lemoine is a venerable music publishing house opened in 1772.

Story: Ken Pottinger


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