I had kind of a random thought the other day. I was in my car, it was the end of the year, and I was thinking a lot about my publishing business and how things had gone and what I wanted to do in the coming year. And I was sitting there in the drive-through and I just had this thought: “Why is it so easy for people to buy a cheeseburger but not pay for sheet music?”
Here in Nashville, the cost of a Big Mac (in January 22) at my local McDonald’s is about $4.39. If we compare that with the pricing minimums that Arrangeme.com gives to its users, they’re saying that the minimum price of a piano solo or any kind of instrumental / vocal solo / duet is $4.99 cents.
So far so good, but the numbers get a lot less friendly to musicians when you look at other types of music. Take choral music, for example. The minimum price per copy is $1.99, so assuming that a director is buying the correct number of copies, that puts each copy of sheet music at about half a Big Mac.
The numbers get even worse for bands and orchestras, where the minimum price is only $49.99. So, depending on the size of the ensemble you could be looking at a dollar or less per musician. And listen, I don’t have anything against bulk pricing. But my point is, if you were to take that choir of 50 people to McDonald’s, they would not be getting their hamburgers for dollar a piece just because you came in a big group.
And by the way, I’m not the first one to come up with the idea of a Big Mac as an economic indicator. The Economist actually has a really fun tool on their website that looks at the cost of a Big Mac in different countries and compares that to exchange rates to determine whether or not a currency is being over or undervalued.
So on balance, if you’re looking at just the numbers, the market is saying that a cheeseburger is worth more than sheet music. But if you’re like me, that statement probably doesn’t sit well with you. A cheeseburger is disposable, it gives you life for a few hours and then you forget about it. Sheet music is something you can use over and over again.
Not only that, but sheet music is something you can use to generate income as a performer or a teacher. Call me biased, but I think you get a lot more out of a piece of sheet music than you do a hamburger.
Now, in fairness to Ronald McDonald, he’s got a lot of bills to pay. He has to source all of his ingredients, build stores, pay employees, lobby Congress, design those happy meal toys, and all sorts of expensive things. But composers and publishers have bills too, and the fact that most of them are small businesses makes those costs even more pronounced. If I’m going to make sheet music, I need a computer, a MIDI keyboard, monitors, a desk, access to the internet, I’ve gotta pay extra business taxes, I need to advertise, I’m paying for web hosting. If I’m selling a physical product, I need a printer, ink, paper. I gotta pay shipping costs. I have to pay musicians to make recordings. There’s all sorts of stuff that goes into it that maybe gets overlooked.
Now, it’s pretty hard to find data for the cost of sheet music over time, so I did some hard-hitting journalism, walked over to my closet, and got out the big tub of sheet music from the 1950s and 60s that my grandma gave me. You know what I’m talking about. Those old piano vocal scores with the really beautiful art on the cover. And flipping through those, I saw that the average price ranged from about 30 cents to 75 cents. And according to Google, the cost of a Big Mac in 1955, the year McDonald’s was founded, was 45 cents.
So, you know, not a perfect scientific experiment, but it was interesting to see that sheet music and hamburgers have been pretty much neck and neck since they were invented. It was also encouraging to see that sheet music has pretty well kept up with inflation. The main difference, of course, is that in a year like 2022 where inflation was up between eight and nine percent, you can be sure McDonald’s will factor that into their pricing right away. I’m not so sure sheet music will have the same luxury, although I think for the digital only folks that might be something to consider.
Now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room, or I guess…the cow in the room, if you will, and that’s the fact that for the cost of a cheeseburger, you can basically have access to a recording of every song that’s ever been commercially released in the history of time.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love streaming just as much as the next guy, but there’s no question that the perceived value of music in the average person’s mind has taken a hit because of it. However, for all streaming’s faults (and there are many) I don’t really think that Spotify or Apple Music or even YouTube are ultimately to blame for the devaluation of music.
The challenge we face is that we as an industry, as a society, have let music become secondary. Streaming companies make their money off of advertising and selling our personal data. Concerts make the real money on t-shirts and alcohol and ridiculous Ticketmaster fees. Even music licensing, the last best hope of the industry, exists fundamentally because film and television needs background music.
I know this isn’t exactly an earth-shattering take, but I think sometimes it’s just easier to blame corporate lawyers and big tech and kind of miss the point. Music is more important and more present in our lives than ever before, but we’re paying less for it than we ever have.
The reason I bring this up is to illustrate the main thing that makes sheet music different. You see, in our analogy, it’s not really fair to compare sheet music to a cheeseburger because sheet music is more like the recipe. When you buy a piece of sheet music, you’re not buying the song. You’re buying the instructions to recreate the song on your own. You’re buying the experience of performing the song yourself and being able to put your own spin on it, and that’s what justifies the price. Sheet music is not a passive experience. It’s engaging and entertaining and exciting and educational.
So, is sheet music worth more than a cheeseburger? I certainly think so, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to change that perception, and it starts within our own community. After all, how can we expect to convince society to pay for music if we can’t even convince our fellow musicians to do it?
So, what can you do?
If you’re a composer, don’t sell yourself short when pricing your music and don’t hide behind it either. You need to become more than just a name on the page to those buying your music. Help them get to know you and advocate for your work by showing all of the time and thought and cost and effort and energy that goes into it.
If you’re a publisher, stand up for your composers! Give them the platform to make their case, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to step out of the box and try new ways to market their music.
If you’re a consumer of sheet music, be outspoken about the music you’re working on. At a certain point, a composer can only share their music so much before it becomes spammy. Especially if you direct a performing ensemble there’s no better advertisement for a composer than a concert video.
And in the interest of full disclosure, I had a cheeseburger for lunch.