Sheet music store falls victim to power of internet

New York's last store selling classical music scores couldn't compete with online retailers and free Wiki-style sharing sites

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm
AFP

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Heidi Rogers scurries back to the heaps of manila folders in her shop's maze of cabinets, but she already knows what she has in stock.

She tells the musician at the counter that there's a wide choice of Shostakovich scores. But for the young trombonist who wants sheet music for an impressively obscure solo work, it was last on sale in 2003, says Rogers.

These are the last days for such personalised attention for New York's musicians. Rogers' store, Frank Music Company - the last shop devoted to sheet music in this global music capital - has just closed down.

Founded in 1937, Frank Music is hidden inside a high-rise building in the Theatre District. Aspiring Broadway actors audition in nearby rooms. Famous past customers have included violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Emanuel Ax.

The loquacious Rogers, who has run the shop since the late 1970s, greets everyone with advice on scores and witticisms, including one for her finale: "Failure has been success. I've had more people come to my store in the past week than in the past five years."

Adria Benjamin, a viola player and conductor who teaches at Mannes College of the New School for Music, regrets that future students won't be able to consult Rogers. "It's a sad day - this is a huge part of the New York musician community's history," she says.

The chief culprit, according to Rogers, has been the internet - first the rise of major online retailers and, more recently, Wiki-style websites that encourage the free sharing of scores by dead composers.

Rogers believes free downloads are no match for published scores, which can cost hundreds of dollars each. Online scores can be riddled with errors or devoid of scholarly markings, she says.

"What it leaves out is the beautiful paper, the beautiful printing, the community, the talking, the knowledge," says Rogers. "But you can't compete with people giving away things for free."

Rogers also fears that young musicians are exploring less as they see classical music as stale: "I've been seeing a lot less curiosity."

While the internet has shaken so much of the music industry, the sheet music business is comparatively stable in Europe. In France, for example, government spending aimed at supporting music education has helped sheet music sales.

One of the most robust cities for sheet music is Vienna, the classical music mecca.

Musikhaus Doblinger, which says it is Austria's largest seller of sheet music, was founded in 1817, when Beethoven and Schubert were still living in Vienna. The shop's expertise and location fuel sales, but it too started online sales last year.

"We are trying to find niches so that we can hold our own against Amazon and the like," says Martin Wyrobal, the cheerful manager of Musikhaus Doblinger. He called the closure in New York "very sad".

Rogers will likely come out without too much of a financial hit: a donor has agreed to buy the remaining stocks to give to the Colburn School for the Arts in Los Angeles.

And New Yorkers will still be able to buy sheet music - just without the personalised attention - at more general stores.

The more diverse approach has benefited one of the most prominent US sheet music vendors, Eble Music, which sells both online and at its store near Minneapolis.

"Customers have a lot of options, and we're very conscious of that," says Dan Friberg, co-manager of the print music department.

Eble Music's sheet sales are up since last year. The store does not only focus on classical music and does brisk business, for example, with church groups seeking choral scores, Friberg says.

And the rock world does not entirely shun sheet music. Beck, the alternative rock icon who won the latest Grammy for Album of the Year, in 2012 published a book of songs exclusively in sheet music form, hoping to encourage musical experimentation.

Agence France-Presse