By: Georgia Stitt
I make my living as a composer and lyricist, working in collaboration with playwrights to make new musicals for the theater. I have a lot to say about sheet music, and I’ll get to that, but I’d like to start by drawing your attention to World Intellectual Property Day. How wonderful to have an excuse to celebrate creativity!
What I’ve always perceived as a simple law is in fact the foundation of creativity itself: copyright. It’s what allows someone like me to make a living while dedicating my life to music. In our country, we value and uphold IP through strong copyright protections, ensuring that those who create it are recognized and compensated fairly for their contributions to society. Unfortunately, those protections are under threat as our work becomes more and more digital and the largest tech companies seem to maneuver just under the law and without consequence for serving up pirated material.
As an artist who writes musicals, my intellectual property falls into a number of categories. My fellow musical theater writers and I occupy a unique crossroads where music and drama meet. We are, above all, dramatic storytellers, and our most valuable IP are our scripts and our scores. The physical representation of the words and music we write is our sheet music.
The ongoing conversation about IP and the harms associated with its infringement rarely mentions sheet music piracy — in spite of the fact that musical productions on Broadway alone made more than a billion dollars during the 2016-2017 season and that tens of thousands of additional regional, community, and school-based theaters across America and beyond also perform countless musicals in any given year.
In every single musical production – whether it occurs in Times Square or in a college black box theater – a group of actors, musicians, singers, and dancers must rely on sheet music to rehearse and perform their show. This group can range in size from a small handful of people to hundreds of performers. You might be surprised to learn that the rental and sale of sheet music is a crucial revenue stream for any professional composer who works in musicals and that the owning of sheet music is a kind of “industry access” for any performer who dreams of his or her name in lights. Performers collect sheet music as they accumulate “their” songs which they share (often photocopied) with their accompanists.
There are websites where the wheeling and dealing of infringing sheet music runs rampant– much like YouTube, where a vast ocean of illegally uploaded songs, movies, and television shows are readily available. Most of the visitors to these sheet music pirate sites call what they are doing “trading,” but the principle is the same: composers’ copyrighted works are being uploaded by people who do not own them and then are made freely available to anyone who wants to use them. And people do seem to want to use them. Yay?
I have been sounding the alarm about sheet music piracy since 2009, and there is great support from the Dramatists Guild and the Music Publishers Association, but little has been done to combat the problem, or even to analyze its impact on the creative economy. While studies have shown that piracy of film and television costs the entertainment industry billions of dollars annually and jeopardizes its workforce of millions of people, no such statistics have been made available regarding sheet music theft within theater or its effects on the emerging songwriters who are just beginning to establish themselves in the industry. Without the ability to profit from the songs you write, what keeps you writing them? A hobbyist can take the hit. A professional cannot.
Consider this: most of the sheet music for my original songs sells for between $4.00 and $8.00 on reputable sites like Musicnotes or NewMusicalTheatre. Recently I entered my own name into one of the numerous disreputablesites trafficking in sheet music piracy – and turned up nearly 50 pieces of my own music, available to download for free and without my permission. Now, multiply that figure across numerous pirate sites, and over many days, weeks, and months. Do a similar exercise for the hundreds of other composers and lyricists who make a living working in theater, including such heralded names as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeanine Tesori, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Alan Menken. I mean… BEAUTY AND THE BEAST alone!
Finally, consider all of the other individuals who partake in the creation of songs and the dissemination of the sheet music that represents them: there are actors, musicians, directors, orchestrators, copyists, record producers, graphic designers, photographers, artistic directors, publishers, agents, and managers. No artist is an island, but theater is a particularly collaborative art form. When one of us is hurt by piracy, the entire industry feels it.In order for creativity to bloom, we must respect and support the creative process, the carefully-balanced theatrical ecosystem, and the quantifiable value of a writer’s creative contribution. Original musicals bring people together and allow us to experience how others think and feel. We respond emotionally, we consider new perspectives, and we experience empathy. Sometimes we’re even moved to change our lives or our surrounding world. That’s why I go to the theater, and that’s why I make it.
This year, for example, I am thrilled for the world premiere of my new musical Snow Child, co-produced by Arena Stage in Washington, DC and Perseverance Theater in Anchorage and Juneau. Based on a centuries-old Slavic folktale, it’s a story about a childless couple in 1920s Alaska who builds a small snowman that magically comes to life. Through the musical language of bluegrass and the traditional style of musical theater, our show tells a story of finding love in unexpected places, overcoming loss, and trusting in the miraculous resilience of the human spirit.
Snow Child would never have existed without intellectual property protections because I would never have grown enough as an artist to write it if I hadn’t been able to build the career that, after more than 20 years of songwriting, got me all the way to this opening night. I fight for IP because I believe in the stories we can tell in the musical theater, and I believe in the songwriters who are telling them.