Efficiency Through Technology: Digital Music

Second in this series of how technology can improve the efficiency an industry that has been described as a “stagnant service industry that benefit[s] very little, in terms of productivity, from technological innovations” is the use of digital music.  This is decidedly a hot button topic for many involved in that element of the industry, mainly the orchestra’s music librarians. 

If you’ve ever been looking for a way to start up a conversation with a music librarian just ask them “so what do you think about distributing the orchestra’s music on digital format as opposed to paper?”  You’re guaranteed to get an ear full on either side of the issue.  Some music librarians hate the idea because they feel that it turns librarians into publishers and increases their work.  While others tend to think it’s the natural evolution of the industry and will actually allow them to work more productively and raise their value as essential components in the way this art is delivered.

So how does the music get onto the players stands anyway?  Well it’s actually a complicated process, but here’s a basic overview of how all this works from the time the composer writes the music to the point were it sits in front of the player:

  1. Composers write the music, either by hand or by use of a music composition software (kind of like a “musical” word processor).
  2. The publishers typeset the music and print copies.
  3. Those copies are purchased or rented by the orchestra.
  4. The parts, already collated in a big box and theoretically “ready to use”, are then shipped to the orchestra.
  5. Music librarians check the parts for errors or defects, write in performance markings given to them by conductors or section leaders, and then they distribute the individual parts to each player.
  6. Players mark performance reminders or changes in their music throughout their part (or sometimes even write little stories for their stand partner’s appreciation, but I digress).
  7. The piece is performed, the librarians collect the music, erase all of the markings (expect those the conductor or players tell them need to be left on the music), collate the music, put it back in the big box, and either store it on a shelf or send it back to the publisher.

Every time the piece is performed, the music goes through a similar process.  So gradually, paper begins to rip, parts get marked in pen instead of pencil, pages get lost, chewed up by players pets while practicing the parts at home, and generally decay into dust over the years. 

This is where digital music comes into the equation.  The idea of digital music gets interjected into this process at step #2.  When publishers typeset new music, it’s all done on computers using the same basic software that composers use to write out their music in the first place.  So instead of delivering the big box of music to orchestra, you can simply deliver a few CD’s containing the digital music files (or even download then directly from the publisher).  Librarians would then need to print out and bind each individual part (this is where many of them that don’t like the idea start to get upset.).  Musicians then use those parts in rehearsal just like they do now.

The next big change in the system comes after the performance.  Librarians could then transfer markings that need to be kept on record for future performances to a copy separate from the original digital file.  They can then either store those paper parts or recycle them.   The long term cost savings and artistic benefits for the orchestra after the initial investment in software and necessary office equipment (such as printers with large format capability) are enormous:

  • Players can download parts and last minute revisions from home for their personal practice (a big plus for orchestras where the library is not located in the same building as the concert hall
  • Publishers can regularly offer updates to pieces or composer revisions via online download.
  • Librarians can save edits made by conductors or players as separate digital files from the originals.  Then the orchestra can then have the option of using those edited parts or originals at any time.
  • You no longer have to worry as much about loosing a multimillion dollar asset to natural disasters (Houston Symphony lost their entire library to flooding a few years ago). 
  • “Out of print music” will become a thing of the past.
  • You can print out customized parts for players with vision trouble, thus reducing occupational hazards in the workplace (reduced medical claims against your insurance!)
  • For many smaller orchestras, the expense of mailing parts to players is completely eliminated.
  • Wasted rehearsal time due to misprinted, sloppy, or poor quality parts is significantly reduced.

So why don’t orchestras do this now?  Well, some of it has to do with the fact the orchestras are, by nature, creatures of habit and tradition.  Which mean that they change slowly.  Really, really slowly.  Many orchestra librarians feel that this system actually increases the amount of time they need to properly prepare the music compared to the current system.  However, I feel that after initially implementing the technology, librarians will actually appreciate the flexibility of this system as well as learning how to utilize it to reduce their time spent preparing music.  Much more work could be done from home and hiring part time digital copyists to assist in maintaining the library.  Much like how the medical and legal industries use private transcribers.

According to Paul Gunther, the principal librarian for the Minnesota Orchestra and President of MOLA (Major Orchestra Librarian’s Association), some of the wait is due to working out the bugs in the technology needed to support an industry accepted standard.  Paul says “MOLA has no official position on the issue, but the member’s message board is always full of very spirited discussion on the subject”.

In the not so distant future, we can also expect to see the mainstream inclusion of products like eStand.  These nifty devices will become commonplace throughout most professional orchestras and paper music will be all but a “special use” medium.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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