Sheet music and music books are easier to find than ever, thanks to many online retailers. For working musicians, big, fat “dummy books” containing lead sheets (that is, simplified scores cut to the bare essentials) remain popular.
You might ask, “Sheet music on paper and ink? – In this day and age, with this and that totally digital?”
Yes. People still buy sheets of paper with printed music notation, to learn and memorize, and especially to play for their own pleasure and satisfaction. Amateur musicians buy sheet music to play. Music students buy sheet music to learn from the teachers. They look for scores of popular songs and classical solo pieces.
Unfortunately, not all songs are published in sheet music form. Some songs you hear on an album are not chosen by its publisher to justify the expense of having a score created for it.
Also, even if a song was published, the songs have a kind of shelf life, where the sheet music is available for a time, but the publisher does not replenish its supply. If you don’t buy the sheet music in the first year or two, you may never have a chance.
At some point, the demand for a song’s sheet music becomes so low that retailers have no incentive to keep sheet music that is no longer in demand in stock. When this happens, the song is technically “out of print.”
But that brings up an interesting question:
Q. How do I find sheet music that is no longer printed or never printed?
Q. How would you find a “hard to find” song?
The simple solution is an easy tip to give because it involves three little words: “Find the publisher.” But that simple solution is not easily done.
The steps to find the publisher are simple. But just because the steps are easy, that doesn’t mean success. You have little chance of an editor responding to your letter or phone call with a real solution.
However, despite the great chances of success, there are three basic steps you can take to at least give it a try. Listed below are the steps that I recommend you follow.
Step # 1: Find the correct song among all those songs with the same title.
Beware: Song titles are not subject to copyright, according to the US Copyright Office, so there will be countless songs with identical titles. So if your favorite song is titled something like “Sunday Morning” or “My Girl”, you will have to analyze countless songs. other writers other editors, and other recording artists, to find the right song by the right person (s).
Step # 2: Look up the song title in the databases of all performance rights organizations.
Luckily for you, all the published songs that are still protected by copyright are surely registered somewhere in a database maintained by one of the organizations responsible for raising money on behalf of the songwriters. Such organizations are called “Organizations of scenic rights”. In the US, the two largest performing rights organizations are ASCAP and BMI, being the smallest SESAC. They all have online search engines that list the songs they are responsible for. If you know who wrote the song you are interested in and you have the exact title, you will eventually find the correct entry in the database, even if you have to skip more than 10 or 20 songs with the exact same title. But until you look, you won’t know if your song is under the control of ASCAP or BMI or SESAC.
Step # 3: When you find the correct song in the database, write down the name and address of the publisher.
Your homework is almost complete. You will need to contact the publisher and ask how to get the score for your song. Writing an old-fashioned letter is probably your best option, as you will enlist the help of the US Postal Service to forward your letter to the appropriate address or appropriate company.
I cannot vouch for the customer service of a particular publisher. They may respond quickly or not respond at all. They may have access to email for your customer service department, or it may be almost impossible to reach them.
Again, be careful: publishers close regularly. If your target publisher has merged with another company or filed for bankruptcy, then your task of reaching an understanding person in the right publisher is low. This is another reason to write a letter instead of calling or emailing. – Get help from the USPS to go one step further than you could on your own. A name change, or a change of venue, can cause your hounds to lose track of a promising trail.
That last step of “contacting the publisher” completes the process. It’s that easy.
Now, you are at the mercy of the Fates if your letter will get to the right address and to the right part. Even then, if the right party doesn’t have the budget or resources to support its clients or the fans of the recording artist in question, then you’re out of luck. Remember, small publishing companies don’t have a budget for personalized customer service. They tend to sit back and collect royalties, and are not interested in one more sale, here and there, every two weeks. They just don’t have the staff for any kind of personalized service. There is no benefit in selling your modest inventory one song at a time.
On the other hand, since countless small publishing companies have administrative relationships with the large publishers, there is the possibility that your letter will reach the large company, which in turn runs hundreds of small publishing companies. The big publisher can point you in the right direction, such as recommending a major retail store with official ties to that great publisher.
Bottom line: though your chances of getting out of print scores of your favorite song are low, the steps you can take are so easy to do You could also take the risk and invest the time of an online search and invest the cost of a postage stamp and mailing your letter. At the very least, you can send a quick email and see what happens. You might even get lucky and reach out to an expert representative who has the right contacts.
And who knows? If enough people write that letter, the publisher might think, “Hey, there’s a market demand for this song. Let’s take advantage of this surge in interest and print one more edition and take this wave of popularity to the Bank.”
And you will celebrate it by sitting down with your guitar or piano and playing your new sheet music.