The New York Times has taken notice of the Internet Music Score Library Project, and the dramatic change it has meant for music. If anything, the story understates just what a difference this project has made for the availability of classical music. It has breathed new life into what has long been a dying genre, making a world of music available to people to try, practice, and perform – and doing so outside monopolistic publishers and their overpriced scores.
Indeed, I would say that this site is saving music from the publishers, and restoring a system of distribution that prevailed for hundreds of years on the Continent and gave rise to the most vibrant and flourishing musical culture we’ve ever known. The ethos of sharing and learning from others pervaded music before the age of copyright, which permitted growth and development generation after generation.
The story does not mention the Choral Public Domain Library, but the effects of this site for Church music have been similar. There is just no chance at all that our own schola would have ever gotten started without this site, and this is true of hundreds of other parish-based scholas. It is now common for most any schola to sing exclusive from packets of music that are downloaded for free. It is especially useful for trying out music. We have no problem in passing out half a dozen scores in the course of one rehearsal, keeping what works for us and tossing out what does not. This would be impossible in a world of music imprisoned by copyright and caged by state-protected publisher monopolies.
This entire method of distribution has been a major boon to the whole of serious music, and brought to life what otherwise might be a dying tradition. What’s more, this method has taught modern composers the merit of publishing in the Creative Commons to assure wide distribution, and given rise to a new financial model as well: the revival of commissions and patronage rather than royalty as a means of supporting new composting. Indeed, the Chant Cafe has had a role here in funding the Simple English Propers project.
The NYT article hints at the tragedy for long-dead composers whose works are still under copyright. Their work is being overlooked and thereby under-performed. This is a very sad situation. I should mention also that many liturgical texts are now burdened with this old model of pay-to-pray and this seriously harms the cause of evangelization in the same way that the old copyright system nearly killed classical music in our time.