Scarcity Versus Abundance

Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine, wrote an interesting article entitled Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter: It's Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity. (He also came up with a provocative retailing concept called the Long Tail that I mentioned a while back.) This got me thinking about how this applies to the music industry, and also to being a composer and performing musician. The following quote from his article pretty much sums it up:

"This is the power of waste. When scarce resources become abundant, smart people treat them differently, exploiting them rather than conserving them. It feels wrong, but done right it can change the world."

In the music world, there are many examples of how something that used to be scarce is now abundant. Quite often we are still living by the old model (scarcity) when the new one (abundance) makes more sense. Two examples where everything has changed dramatically in the music world are with recordings and sheet music.


When someone wants to hear a  piece  that is not available commercially (and that I don't have the right to post in full on my website), I either need to email an audio file, give them access to a private page or burn a CD. Ten years ago, I paid ca. $1.00 for a high-quality blank CD-R, but now I pay ca. 20¢. This means the cost of physical media is now negligible. Hard drive space has also become cheaper per gigabyte, and burn speeds, upload and download times are now much faster than they were even five years ago. Burning music to blank CDs is now not only cheap, but faster than ever. Emailing files is even more efficient—and virtually free.

So which is better? CDs or emailing files? As each year passes, the value of my time goes up. Sometimes even the five minutes it takes to burn a CD, email a file, write a note (which is often repeating what I wrote in an email message or on FaceBook) and send a package seems a little time-consuming, or at least shrouded in redundancy.

Bandwidth speeds have increased way beyond even what was available in the 1990s, and since almost everyone in the Western music world has access to a computer and high speed internet, it is more cost effective and time efficient to post audio files online. After all, many people are purchasing digital files rather than CDs, especially younger crowds. The main problem is that with live recordings, I often don't have the right to post these files online openly, so I have to post them on a private page and give permission to each person individually. Of course, this process slows everything own, and flies in the face of what computers are capable of.

One of the reasons people still like to send CDs is that they believe—perhaps rightly—that files on the burned CD will generally not end up being spread all over the internet. In reality, at least with classical music, this almost never happens. I attribute this to both the good nature of most classical listeners, but also to the relative scarcity of classical music and listeners in general, versus the massive listenership of pop music. It's really just statistics: there are simply more pop listeners, therefore more chances for someone to post something on a file sharing site.

Also, receiving a physical CD seems much warmer than just linking to audio files. Most people like holding physical objects, and knowing that someone took the time to make a CD for you seems like they went out of their way for you even more. I am so used to downloading files that I don't think this way anymore, but I know that there are those out there who do. Also, you don't have to wait to play a CD, unlike downloading or streaming an audio file: you just pop it in and play it, and can take it anywhere, including a car or laptop on a plane.

The main point is that whether you use CDs or audio files, both cost virtually nothing, so we should be exploiting this resource even more, rather than treating each CD or download as a precious gem. We often fail to see the big picture: exposure via recordings will often lead to even more opportunities that eclipse the recordings in value.

Sheet music

Are publishers a dying breed? Reproducing sheet music at a copy store or at home is now fairly cheap. It is really just an issue of supply versus demand, the value of a composer's time, their ability to tolerate duplicating their own materials, and so on. But it is also an issue of scarcity versus abundance. Fifty years ago, reproducing sheet music was not only very expensive–especially for large scores, think 11X17—but more time-consuming as well. Also, you couldn't easily reproduce materials at home.

Now, it is almost silly to not sell PDFs online instead of sheet music. Think about it: selling the PDFs is obviously easier, there are no shipping costs, and the purchaser now has you file to print over and over again. So, why don't we do this?

Composers and publishers are sometimes afraid that performers will just send their files around willy nilly, and won't pay for future performances of their piece. I counter with this: I think that at this point in time, it is less about the physical sheet music and more about the license. Each piece of music should be licensed. When you purchase a  piece of music for, say $30, that could give you the rights to print as many copies as you need for yourself (for page turns, in case  our music was lost or ruined in a rainstorm), but for each subsequent performance, you would have to pay an additional fee. Or, you could purchase a number of performances outright, say five, if you knew you were going to play the piece five times. This process seems to make more sense, but there are catches.

Print size is currently limited to standard sizes (8.5X11. 11X17 and 8X5X14) and 9X12 and 11x14 cut down from 11X17. 10X13 parts and scores larger than 11X17 are still relatively difficult to reproduce, and only major publishers or people patient enough to do the printing themselves are able to accomplish this. Copy stores are still not able to do this well.

Good publishers also often have better paper and binding machines. But do musicians really care? What is more important: receiving the music quickly and having a backup copy, or a beautifully-bound copy on nice paper? It is not that paper and beauty do not matter, but it is an issue of what is more valuable. Most musicians I work with are so used to awful paper and bad binding that they don't seem to care. But they really care if the music arrives too close to a performance, or if they lose it and need another copy, and will receive it too late.

Conventional wisdom dictates that really good publishers publish really good composers—they mostly weed out the riff-raff. Do I really believe this? Not really, but some performers will gravitate toward composers who are published by publishers such as Boosey & Hawkes and Schirmer, simply because you assume that in order for publishers to spend time promoting their roster of composers, they must have determined ahead of time that those composers are marketable, or at least good, whether now or in the future, and therefore, publishers save you time when looking for an engaging, performable piece of music. In practice, this seems to only be true some of the time. All musicians have played awful pieces published by well-respected publishers, and excellent pieces by un-published composers. Either way, many performers place trust in publishers, and publishers have staff to promote their composers, or at least that's what they are supposed to be doing.

Purchasing from publishers also saves time. When you purchase something online or from a brick and mortar music store (a dying breed, I am afraid), you don't have to worry about paper, binding, going to the copy store, etc. However, since most performers own printers at home, if the parts are on letter-size paper, printing parts is extremely easy. Of course, letter-size is definitely not an optimal size for sheet music, but many composers now use this as their default paper size anyway.

The problem is that technology has moved faster than our old business model. In most cases, the internet negates the need for hard copies of sheet music. This has, of course, led to performing from a computer monitor. As flat screen monitors catch on, printed music will be even less necessary. Monitors make a lot of sense: your markings are easily altered and saved for future performances, you won't lose your music, no need for physical storage, licensing becomes a lot easier, music will not degrade, etc. However, my prediction is that monitors will merely be an additional alternative and not a replacement, well into the future, at least for a long time to come. There is just too much old music that is still performed that will not be transferred anytime soon, and it will take a few generations before performers are comfortable reading music off a screen with any regularity.


Ultimately, if the music world learns how to embrace technology even more, it will lead to greater freedom and more opportunities. Those that jump on fastest will benefit the most. The key to all this, as with the newspaper industry, is to figure out how to maneuver this new business model and still be able to make a living. Ironically, this may center around old ways of thinking that predate recordings and published music, such as focusing energy on live performances, or on ideas we have yet to imagine.