Staying Competitive: The Path to Selling Sheet Music

This month, we launched a new e-commerce functionality, allowing subscribers the ability to quickly purchase and download over 300 songs on our secure website. This is a huge milestone for our company, which seeks to always put writers and their work center stage. But it took many steps to begin selling music online, both from a legal and technical standpoint. We thought we’d give you a sneak peak at the development of this new functionality and explain why it’s so important to our writers.

The Need

When we first launched ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com, we were excited to connect musical theatre professionals to the largest roster of writers and unpublished musical theatre songs available online. It was a bridge I recognized was missing, working both as a private voice teacher and musical theatre composer. But at the time (and until recently), many writers’ scores weren’t easily accessible, especially online. Most times, our subscribers had to e-mail the writer, pay an agreed-upon fee via PayPal and wait for an e-mail with the score. So 2003, right?

Why was this? Most writers don’t have their own storefront because of the time and expense associated with building it. Having created a storefront to sell my art songs, I am well acquainted with the many pitfalls. Writers feel their time is better spent writing a new song or show (hard to argue with that). And yet, in many ways our site exists to light a little fire under the writers’ proverbial butts, making sure they have some sort of online presence (i.e. sound cloud, YouTube, etc…).

While helping writers get online and connecting them to people who want to buy their songs was a great beginning, we realized it wasn’t exactly helping our subscribers in the way we had hoped. And it was hard for us to have any real sense of what happened when subscribers left our site and purchased a song (either from the writer or another website). Google analytics can only tell us so much when people leave the site.

We decided to take on the challenge of helping our writers sell their music by making building a store into our website for everyone’s convenience.

The Parameters

We had to figure out how to sell scores in such a way that we could stay true to our mission of not taking a cent of the writers’ sales. Of course, we also had to make sure we weren’t losing money. And it was important to us that writers be able to set their own sale price for each song.

So, with the help of our lawyer, we drew up an agreement that outlined the terms: writers would grant us permission to sell their songs, they would set their own sale price and we would add a surcharge to cover our costs. At the end of every month, writers would receive payment for any song(s) they sold. Pretty simple.

Building the Store

This was part was not so simple. Fortunately, we hired a company whose tech team was able to navigate us through the many steps in creating an online store. Starting in early October, the company built an e-commerce functionality in our site, which included several things:

  • A cart for collecting songs subscribers wanted to purchase
  • A checkout page, connected with our PayPal and merchant service provider
  • A “My Orders” page, which shows the download history for each purchased song (songs can be downloaded up to 3 times)
  • Three watermarks, which are automatically added to the scores once purchased
  • A confirmation email for all purchases
  • A back-end functionality that allows us to upload the writers’ scores to the site and set the sale price

Not a short list of tasks. As you would expect, each bullet point broke out into several different action items, many of which Laura and I didn’t even understand from a technical perspective. Armed with a clear sense of purpose, we tried to convey our needs to the tech team and they, in turn, tried to find viable ways to make those things happen. From beginning to end, it took about three months to complete the project –  exactly one month longer than we had thought it would (typical for these kinds of projects). And, of course, there were… problem-solving opportunities, let’s call them.

Bumps in the Road

We hit a couple snafus, especially with the automated watermarking process.

As I mentioned above, we decided to have three watermarks on each score: the purchaser’s name, our logo and “DO NOT COPY.” It’s the last one that gave us the most trouble. Unlike other sites that sell sheet music, we wanted to make it abundantly clear that pirating our writers’ scores is not OK. Having the purchaser’s name isn’t always enough to deter someone from sharing the score. So, we set out to create a watermark that would appear diagonally on the score without obliterating it for the purchaser. If the score was copied, however, the idea was that it would be rendered useless because of the watermark.

Watermark Sample

After trying a number of ways, we realized this wasn’t possible. There were too many variables: the many different printers people use to print their scores, the different kinds of papers they print on. Every time we tried to make the watermark appear darker or lighter on the initial downloaded scores, it didn’t work. We ended up moving the “DO NOT COPY” to the right-hand margin with the other watermarks, figuring it was better not to inhibit our subscribers’ ability to read the scores. At least we’ve made it clear that copying music is illegal.

What Next?

Once all of the technical issues were solved, Laura and I spent four days uploading all of our writers’ PDF scores to the site and setting the sale price as per their instructions. While initially time-intensive, the new functionality makes it very easy to add and edit the scores and prices, which is exactly what we wanted.

As soon as we announced to our writers the site was ready to go live, we got a slew of updates from them, including new songs to be added to the site, profile updates to be approved, new scores to be uploaded. It was a lot to manage, but it brought several new writers on the site, along with over 30 new songs. We expect to continue growing at that rate.

CMT Cart
Our fancy new cart. Notice the “My Orders” page as well.

So, now over 300 songs are available for sale on our website – how cool is that?! And we’ll have more offerings very soon – we’ll be adding another 15 songs in the next week alone. All this continues to ensure that we have the most comprehensive collection of  unpublished contemporary musical theatre songs available online.

We call that staying competitive.

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Visit www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com for more information on over 150 contemporary musical theatre writers and 400+ songs, all searchable by voice and song type.

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