Sheet music is all-pervasive in music events. Yet it has hardly seen any tech innovation in the past few decades. But all this is about to change. MusicSpoke, a Kansas City based startup, is disrupting the sheet music industry by creating an online marketplace for digital scores.
The MusicSpoke platform is a premium marketplace for artist-owned sheet music by professional composers. Think of it as the Amazon or Etsy of the sheet music world. The marketplace runs on certain principles and are fairly simple. Composers can go on and list their scores on the platform once they have been reviewed. Buyers, on the other hand, can go to the website, listen to the scores, and purchase the digital copy of the sheet.
MusicSpoke has a community orientation to it. It reviews the composers before on-boarding them to ensure trust and authenticity. Buyers can gauge the score as the audio and the sheet music (perusal score) are available side by side. Thus, buyers precisely know what they are buying.
Solving for a broken marketplace
Jennifer Rosenblatt and Kurt Knecht are the married duo that co-founded MusicSpoke in 2014. The idea came about when Kurt noticed some unique challenges in the sheet music segment of the music industry. These challenges included copyright issues, dead scores and inequitable sharing of proceeds.
Some of the accomplished composers such as Sydney Guillaume, Jake Runestad and Stephen Paulus responded to these pressures by publishing their own scores through their own websites rather than going through traditional publishers.
The MusicSpoke platform came about as a more organized response to these pressures and as a synthesis of the couple’s expertise – Kurt’s music background and Jennifer’s business experience. Kurt is a world-renowned composer and performer who has sold 100,000+ copies while Jennifer has successfully built and sold Argyle Octopus Press, an award-winning marketing company, in five years. Jennifer has also been active in the start-up ecosystem for 7+ years now. She has leveraged her experience to develop MusicSpoke since its inception by participating in accelerators and incubators such as Pipeline Entrepreneurs, ScaleUP KC!, and NMotion Accelerator.
Democratizing Sheet Music
The sheet music end of the music industry is little known and archaic in its functioning. There are traditional publishers through which most of the scores are channelled as physical copies. These business models involve the composer handing the copyrights over to the publisher and getting a fraction of the sales, typically 4% to 10%. The public availability of the score depends on the publishers. It could easily go out of print and not be revived since they are circulated via physical copies. The composer also has little information on the end-users of the scores. Thus, composers had little money coming in with no control over their own work.
Kurt writes “MusicSpoke is committed to three basic ideas which are absolutely antithetical to ‘traditional’ publishers. The composer should maintain copyright and control of his/her work. The composer should get a fair share of the profits from sales of his/her works. The composer should be able to find out who is purchasing and performing his/her music.”
With these ideas, the founders aspire to democratize sheet music and empower composers with MusicSpoke. Composers get upto 70% of the proceeds and retain the copyrights to their work. Since the scores are digital, they remain publicly available as long as the site lists them, solving for the out-of-print risk.
Apart from empowering composers, Kurt and Jennifer are focused on developing a strong community as well. Their marketplace is designed in a way where information about the buyer is shared with the composers. While the MusicSpoke team extends customer support, the composers and the musicians can also get in touch and contribute.
An organic result of the marketplace has been composers promoting each other’s works. MusicSpoke also strategically promotes the work of the composers based on the geographical area in which the promotion is taking place. This allows the composers to collaborate with local artists. There is also a private Facebook group dedicated to facilitating a conversation among composers.
One of the more nuanced aspects of the platform is the opportunity for composers to share across a wide variety of genres, including the ones traditional publishers shy away from such as art songs. Thus, composers can build and maintain their entire portfolio on the platform.
MusicSpoke is committed to protecting the integrity of the works produced by artists. They initially password protected the PDFs that contained the sheet music in order fight copyrights and piracy issues. However, as customers started complaining about accessibility, a conscious decision was made to reduce friction in the accessibility to the document and to add copyright labels to the score. It shows the exact number of permissible copies that can be made based on the number of copies that are purchased.
While most of their funding has been through grants and investments from investors such LaunchKC and Invest Nebraska, the duo has been able to reinvest the profits made. MusicSpoke takes a 30% commission from the sales proceeds, allowing the composer to rake in 70%.
The platform has grown 300%+ annually since its inception. What started off as a small platform with 16 composers and 72 scores in 2014 has now grown into a lively marketplace with 130+ composers, 1100+ scores and 11,000+ buyers. MusicSpoke initially started off with choral music and has steadily evolved to cover 7+ genres such as chamber music, orchestra, string orchestra and organ. Grammy® award-winning composer Charles Bruffy and composer Brandon Elliott have their own dedicated series.
The sheet music segment is truly one of the last areas in the music industry to be disrupted by technology and new business models. While there are other online platforms such Sheet Music Plus and Musicnotes, MusicSpoke is dedicated to composers and doesn’t have listings by publishers. As the community increases and the platform grows, MusicSpoke could potentially disrupt the US $1B sheet music industry. MusicSpoke is rapidly expanding into new genres and continues to actively promote the platform as well as the composers. It has also succeeded in creating a vibrant community of composers and artists. The future of this space is also closely linked to trends in the broader music industry. While copyright violations and piracy continue to be a major challenge, MusicSpoke is empowering composers by helping them realize a larger share of their work.