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Music Review Print

How Quickly Can the Music Trade Adapt in the Age of COVID-19?

April 8, 2020 - Raleigh, NC:

Coping with crisisWe at CVNC are painfully aware of how COVID-19 has affected the performing arts. But it is equally upsetting other aspects of the music business. Examples are sheet music publishing, sheet music trade, music dealers, wholesalers, music rights and permissions departments, and hiring/rental libraries of orchestral/ballet/operatic works.

Let me tell you my story….

I work for Oxford University Press that publishes not only vital, cutting edge educational materials, Pulitzer Prize-winning writing such as this 2019 winner, and life-saving research journals in the medical field, but also some of the world's most-beloved composers. For the North American territory, the bulk of our sheet music is printed in the United Kingdom (with the exception of print-on-demand titles) and shipped to our distributor, Edition Peters USA in New York City, who then takes orders and ships to dealers and individuals throughout the United States and Canada.  Peters also serves as our hire library for our orchestral, chamber, and ballet works as well as housing those print-on-demand services through Halstan Printing USA.*

Three weeks ago, New York City moved to a "shelter in place" status. While most of the sales staff worked from home, the warehouse stayed open for about one week longer, keeping orders going out the door. By Friday of that final week, we were able to push one last stock order out to a large dealer in an effort to have a little more product in the marketplace. The company that prints our emergency rush orders here in the US closed. Our print-on-demand services closed. Unless we have it available through a dealer who happens to still be open, or as a digital download, you won't be purchasing our music for a while. 

Because this all happened so quickly, we continued to work that last week to come up with a contingency plan. There was a brief period – about 48 hours – when we thought we could temporarily move stock from the UK warehouse to the OUP warehouse in Cary, North Carolina. However, when looking into the cost of air freight, it did not seem plausible, due to the drastic 75% reduction in transatlantic flights. On top of that was the likelihood that NC may have shut its doors by the time a Hail Mary shipment reached us (as in fact it did). Sea freight would take two to three months. (Readers of a certain age may recall the term "surface mail" – the old, slow method of sending packages, mostly, when air mail was just starting to take hold universally. There's basically no such thing anymore as virtually everything goes by air – until COVID-19….)

Passenger plane airfreight has always been a popular route for shipping as it is economical. This freight simply goes in the cargo hold with passenger luggage – there's usually a lot of room there and a lot of flights. Airfreight is now basically non-existent. Courier companies like DHL that own their own fleet of planes are basically the only way to ship now. A colleague who sells music to the Asian market noted that, in February, airfreight was at £1.89 ($2.34) per kilo (2.2 lbs.) to Singapore. Today it's at £5.20 ($6.45) per kilo – 2 ½ times more expensive in the space of six weeks. In some cases, he noted that freight costs were up above 700%.** Add to this the onward ground transportation costs from a major airport to a remote part of the country and the situation is at present untenable. 

All music publishers are scrambling to find ways to get their music out there. For the time being, those who have solo materials, piano methods, theory materials or scores, will be doing best if they are digital. While the book industry moved toward online/digital models many years ago, sheet music has only recently stuck a toe in those waters. It's tricky, and not all dealers have invested in the technology. More than likely, the new normal will include more digital offerings. There will be an attempt to sell larger works digitally, but I personally can't imagine wanting to download and print from my home printer the entire Messiah score, for example. But who knows? It's certainly not unheard of, as users of the online public domain library ISMLP around the globe know all too well.

As for performance revenue..., sheet music is being returned due to cancellations of concerts. Many works that were for hire by orchestras are also being returned. I have personally cancelled trips to Podium Canada (the Canadian version of ACDA, the Royal Canadian College of Organists (their version of AGO) and, most recently, Chorus America. The sheet music industry, artists, and students are still waiting to hear about the rest of the conventions that are scheduled for this summer. These organizations depend on these conventions to stay afloat. They are holding out until the last breath. 

No doubt, the few mom-and-pop brick-and-mortar stores left in the country will not make it through this. Perhaps even some of the fairly well-established publishers will have to close their doors. Some good news is that those who have music that can be sold for synchronization rights (music featured in movies, television programs, radio programs, for example) will still have substantial income along with Harry Fox and BMI. One of my colleagues in the UK reports that one of his dealers who also sells pianos is reporting record sales of the instrument! 

Oxford University Press is one of the most solid organizations in the world - it has been around for over 500 years, survived two world wars and continues to be a charitable arm of the University, serving the entire globe.

When we come through this, there will be music.

There will be sheet music, performances, travel, and trading. But I'm not sure what it will look like. And I don't think it will ever be quite the same. 

*Here's a list of OUP's catalog of composers.

**An European manufacturer of CDs reported just last week:

"As you are probably aware we are unable to either order or ship CDs at present. Our 'department' or county covers an area of some 3,500 square miles (9,060 km sq) and has a population of over 400,000. Right now there are 12 post offices opening sporadically to serve this area - but for banking only. We are unable to send any packages or access any postal services. We investigated our other options earlier this week. Most of the major parcel companies are not accepting any packages at present. The only one I could find that would was FedEx, so I set up a potential package typical of our sales, for 600g (1.3 lbs.) to the US in a standard box. Here's the quote: [short term delivery] €11,511.81 ($12,495.49); [longer deliver lead-time] €8,176.00 ($8,875/15)."

We don't think he was kidding.