I Support Songwriters – The New Frontier for Anti-Piracy Activism
On April 21st 2014, the New York musical theatre community saw an unprecedented event take place at the Dramatist Guild offices. Veteran, established, and aspiring musical theatre writers came together in one room with the hopes of making a large dent in the world of sheet music piracy. The phenomenal roster of composers and lyricists that attended the two hour event included writers such as Stephen Schwartz, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Stephen Flaherty, Lin-Manuel Miranda, David Shire, Craig Carnelia, Amanda Green, Jason Robert Brown, Georgia Stitt, Mark Hollman, Kait Kerrigan, Brian Lowdermilk, Nathan Tysen, Adam Gwon, Michael Kooman, Joe Iconis, and many more. The event consisted of two primary goals: (1.) To spread awareness regarding the piracy of musical theatre sheet music via multiple media outlets and (2.) to personally contact and connect with a multitude of individuals trading sheet music. This event was made possible through the efforts of the Dramatist Guild’s Anti-Piracy Committee.
Obviously I applaud the integrity and the efforts made by the committee. Nevertheless, after discussing the topic with a few anonymous self-proclaimed internet pirates, two questions were initially thrown my way. The first question asked, “How much harm does ‘trading’ sheet music actually do?” The second, and ultimately more enlightened questions, “How much of an impact can event like this ultimately have on the world of internet piracy?”
Before we begin to grapple with these questions, let’s quickly start with how this committee came to be. Five years ago, musical theatre writer Georgia Stitt discovered her music being traded on various websites. “I was teaching a master class at a college in Oklahoma,” explained Stitt, “and a student came over to me with a computer and said, ‘Look at this! Isn’t this amazing? Look at how many people are trading your sheet music!” The innocent nature in which many students and young people trade sheet music was a much discussed subject at the event. “He presented it to me, [suggesting,] ‘You’re so famous, you should be so excited.’ And in fact my response was, ‘Wait a minute, I sell my sheet music and these people are not buying it, they’re trading it.’ And it’s like there’s this huge lending library that has nothing to do with me.”
Believe it or not, most musical theatre writers do not greatly profit from full productions of their work. The majority of songwriters who do generate any kind of income do so through the distribution of sheet music. And while some believe that sheet music revenue is paying for a songwriter’s rent, it is actually going towards something much more precious and beneficial: time. Any sort of income derived from sheet music sales allow writers to spend less time at their day jobs and more time at the piano.
After the surprising encounter with her student, Georgia Stitt took action by writing a heartfelt letter to different music publishers, producers, and of course songwriters. These musical theatre writers ranged from veterans such as Stephen Sondheim to younger writers like Kerrigan and Lowdermilk. “The responses I got from people were overwhelming,” said Stitt. “We all, as a collective, started to become fully aware of the problem.” As conversation about sheet music piracy began to grow, a definitive decision was made to try and do something about it. As a result, songwriters such as Craig Carnelia, Andrew Lippa, Kait Kerrigan, Brian Lowdermilk, Sean Patrick Flahaven, and Stitt formed a committee through the Dramatists Guild with the hopes of ending/hindering the world of sheet music piracy.
At the Dramatists Guild event, all the invited musical theatre writers had individual usernames on various trading sites as a means of contacting other users that are publicly “trading” different sheet music. Then, all the songwriters at the event personally contacted several users who had been found trading their sheet music. It should be known that these songwriters maintained the utmost integrity in only contacting users that were found stealing their music (for example, Adam Gwon reached out to users pirating Ordinary Days, and Joe Iconis contacted users pirating The Black Suits, and so on). Thus a genuine humanity was added in each personal plea from songwriter to user.
However, while observing musical theatre writers Craig Carnelia and Nathan Tysen search for their music on trading websites, I noticed it was not just their individual songs that were being traded but also full scores and librettos. The amount of scores being illegally traded seemed endless, ranging in songs with multiple keys to full orchestrations. Furthermore, finding the entire score to The Bridges of Madison County and the libretto to If/Then seemed to cross the line from stealing songwriters income to a gross invasion of artistic privacy (the listed libretto of If/Then was labeled as a draft that had been updated last November, and I doubt Mr. Brian Yorkey would approve of his artistic process being swapped around the internet without his consent).
Internet piracy is not necessarily a modern marvel in 21st century America. Television shows, newly released films, and digital music have been illegally downloaded or stolen for quite some time now. I remember in the late 1990’s when my friends at school informed me of the “latest software” known as Napster, in which I became one of its 80 million users. But after Napster’s run-in with the 9th U.S. District of Appeals, I was confronted with two isolated yet related thoughts. The first regarded the multimillion dollar industry known as popular music, and questioning the hindrance of illegally downloading a Britney Spears or Backstreet Boys album. The second (and more pressingly) was realizing for the first time that I had in fact been stealing music (regardless of whether the music belonged to millionaires or a local band from the street).
I must admit that despite having endless amount of respect and adoration for the Anti-Piracy Committee’s efforts, I did enter the event last Monday with an ounce of skepticism in regards to how much could fully be accomplished. But upon seeing writers like Michael Kooman and Amanda Green pour their hearts out to young actors, singers, and vocal teachers, I began to feel the emotional impact of witnessing one artist (a songwriter) reaching out to another artist (a performer). And while a personal letter from Stephen Schwartz might not necessarily stop someone from pirating his music, a personal letter will definitely make one stop and think about the personal impact it can have.
For those wondering how songwriters of successful blockbusters are affected by online trading, here’s just one of multiple existing repercussions: music publishers have been struggling to find a financial means to produce new songbooks for said composers. It may not strongly affect the wallets of the occasional lucrative songwriter (and as we all know, the words “lucrative” and “songwriter” seldom go hand-in-hand), but if the publishers themselves can’t turn a profit, they can no longer strive towards making a songwriter’s future repertoire accessible.
But let’s return to the second question I posited earlier. What can become of the efforts made by these songwriters? When Stephen Flaherty and Jason Robert Brown both have brand new Broadway musicals playing down the street, how does their presence in the Dramatists Guild office truly make an impact? Leave it to Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk, co-founders of NewMusicalTheatre.com, to enlighten me on the possibility of an online social change. I asked Kait how the work of these songwriters differs from the piracy of television shows, pop albums, and feature films. “Brian and I were talking about this earlier,” Kerrigan said, “and there is a rather clear difference that separates musical theatre from a lot of other mediums in that it’s a much smaller subculture.” It feels safe to assume that the ratio of films, television shows, and/or albums that are pirated in comparison to musical theatre songs show a rather wide gap (I wish I could have the statistics to prove this theory, but the statistics available for film and pop music are rather astronomical if you look them up). Thus Kerrigan and Lowdermilk rightfully believe that the piracy of musical theatre songs can indeed be contained. And if that is an existing possibility, no matter how difficult, then that is a possibility worth fighting for.
I can honestly say that I have never participated in the act of sheet music trading. This is not necessarily because of a moral high brow, I’ve just never been that informed or aware of sheet music trading. I may be in my mid-20’s but sometimes I’m hilariously inept when it comes to utilizing the internet. But that being said, I always found websites like musicnotes.com, sheetmusicplus.com, or (let’s not beat around the bush) NewMusicalTheatre.com to be exponentially easy to use. When I’m teaching a class and need sheet music for a new song, I spend four dollars and have the sheet music in my hand in less than 60 seconds through these websites. But the Anti-Piracy Event heavily opened my eyes to a culture of which I knew little. And as an aspiring musical theatre writer/composer, the prospect of struggling to support myself through my work (in an already fiscally unstable endeavor) struck a definite chord within me.
Beyond the avoidance of trading sheet music, there are still steps you can take towards preventing sheet music piracy. The writers at the Anti-Piracy Event were publicizing the event through various media outlets and coining the hashtag #ISupportSongwriters. If there’s a song you have purchased and cherished, let the world know (and let the composer and lyricist know! Contacting these songwriters can also function as the beginning of a potential collaboration. Remember, many of these performers who trade sheet music aspire to work with these songwriters). You can also take (and share) the Anti-Piracy Pledge and let the world know that you plan to be part of the solution.
Final thought: the relationship between songwriter and performer is a two-way street and many of the songwriters are fully aware of that. Not only is the performer asked to responsibly obtain the sheet music, but the songwriter is asked to responsibly make their sheet music accessible to those who ask for it. “We have to be responsible for making our music easy to find and affordable,” said Stitt, “and that’s partially why we’re attacking this thing today.” After all, the best way to resolve most conflicts is through an open dialogue, and these songwriters are ready to listen if you are.
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