Stephen Flaherty, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jason Robert Brown, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk Sound Off on Sheet Music Piracy and Advice for Songwriters

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23 Apr 2014

Brian Lowdermilk
Brian Lowdermilk
Photo by Donald Bowers/Getty Images

The Dramatists Guild's Anti-Piracy Committee hosted its first anti-piracy awareness event April 21 from 5 PM–7 PM in New York City. Playbill.com was there.

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"If the Internet has created the problem, it's possible that the Internet can also fix it," explained Brian Lowdermilk (of the popular contemporary songwriting duo Kerrigan-Lowdermilk) at the April 21 Dramatists Guild anti-piracy event held in Times Square. Approximately two-dozen songwriters gathered at the Guild's home base to send personalized emails to pirates around the world and explain the impact felt from illegally downloaded sheet music.

In 2009, when songwriter, music director and arranger Georgia Stitt was visiting a college class, it was brought to her attention that her material was being illegally shared and traded all over the Internet. Instead of feeling flattered from her music's popularity, she felt betrayed — and began to take action.

"I sent an email in 2009 to like 100 people — musical theatre people, publishers, lawyers, agents, MTI [Music Theatre International] and said, 'Hey, this is a problem, and it's bigger than I can handle. I'd like some help,'" she explained. "And, out of that formed this anti-piracy committee, [which] formed this room today — this huge collective of people who are raising awareness about this issue."

"It was this enormous legendary email with [hundreds of] Tony Award-winning recipients," said Lowdermilk. "Everyone from Stephen Sondheim to, well, us. And, it was really astonishing, and as you read this purposely not BCC'd email, you got the sense that there was no way there wasn't going to be something that came from it. Within weeks of that we announced [the launch of] NewMusicalTheatre.com… It all came out of that impetuous to do something and address it head on and speak to people directly."

Lowdermilk and Kerrigan, along with contemporary songwriters such as Tony Award nominees Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (and web developer Scott Meves), co-founded NewMusicalTheatre.com, a central location on the web to purchase sheet music — in its appropriate keys and formats — and download and print the material instantaneously.

"We get to control where you're getting it," continued Lowdermilk. "I think one of the big [issues with] sites like PianoFiles and other file-sharing sites is that they take the control of what version [performers are] receiving out of our hands. We don't want [performers] going into auditions with typos. We don't want you going out with chicken scratch, hand-written chords that have been photocopied three times…"

Kerrigan interjected, "Piano parts that some person transcribed… We want to be able to have that quality control because that's our hallmark. Those songs represent us just as much as they represent the singer, so to be able to have that control helps us so much in the process of putting our work out there."

Craig Carnelia and Stephen Schwartz
photo by Donald Bowers/Getty Images

Websites such as PianoFlies.com, MuseScore.com, PianoWorld.com and others are sharing (and selling) thousands of files — scanned, stolen or illegally obtained — from multiple songwriters, with much of their material in its early forms and not the latest and most up-to-date draft.

As Tony Award-winning Ragtime composer Stephen Flaherty (who celebrates his 30th year with writing partner Lynn Ahrens — and the Broadway bow of Rocky — this year) typed in his name and hit the "Search" button on PianoFiles.com, 4,788 results bounced back — with My Favourite Year (misspelled with the letter U in the title) topping the list.

"You can get the song 'I Eat,' which is a song I wrote for Audra McDonald, Seuss… You can get A Man of No Importance, the entire piano score," Flaherty said as he combed through the long list of results. "Look at Seussical — who knew there were 999 pages of band parts? They're releasing the band parts. That's actually leased material. It's a rental material from MTI. You can get Once on This Island, 'The Streets of Dublin,' the music of 'Anastasia,' Dessa Rose, which was a really tricky and important piece for me to write and get into the world… The last time I checked, there were nearly 3,000 [results]. Now there are 4,788."

He continued, "I remember when I came to New York City, I was 21 years old — right off that bus from Pittsburgh, and I had no money, and each week, if I could collect enough money, it would allow me to be a writer for one more week. It was literally 'hand to mouth.' I think of a lot of the young writers in my shoes… We're here because we want to be supportive of all writers."

Stitt, who (along with husband Jason Robert Brown) has been a major voice in anti-piracy awareness, added, "You have the young songwriters who can't pay their rent because they live on sheet music sales, so they get jobs that preclude them from being able to write new songs, so ultimately, they can't be prolific. And then you have the older, more established songwriters whose publishers won't pick up their contracts or won't publish their new solo songbooks because they can't sell them because there's no profit margin."

Bridges of Madison County songwriter Brown thanked his wife for initially bringing the issue to the forefront and has been fighting the fight ever since. The Tony Award-winning Parade composer famously posted his email exchange with a teenager in 2010 regarding the illegal share of his work.

"The legalities are not vague," said Brown. "There's nothing sort of ambiguous about them. It's really clear. You can't do it. According to the law, you cannot take a piece of sheet music and then photocopy it or scan it and then distribute it on the Internet for free."

Jason Robert Brown
photo by Donald Bowers/Getty Images

As for advice, Brown said, "Young writers have enough bullshit to worry about without having to worry about this. It should not be something that a writer has to worry about. The writers should write. Writers write, and that's what they do."

Kerrigan and Lowdermilk said that up-and-coming writers in the industry shouldn't be afraid to charge singers for their music — even if it's a small amount — watermark their music and personalize it for the singer, so the material can't be traded.

Stitt offered, "On one end, I'd say, 'Keep writing — get your music out there,' but then on the other hand, it's, 'Have a backbone and realize that you're not a public service — that you are actually creating a business and that your work has value…' A lot of people [think], 'I'll just give this one away for free because then somebody will hear my song, and maybe somebody will like it, and then I'll give this other one away…' Ultimately, it winds up feeling like a hobby, and you can't support it."

On the upside of digital sharing, Oscar winner Stephen Schwartz and Tony winner Marc Shaiman believe that the Internet can provide a great outlet for new songwriters.

"I actually think it's a good time [for new writers] for many reasons. It's much, much easier to [put your material out into the world]… I think that's what you do. You have to have something you can show — an example of your work — that you can give to someone to listen to, and I think it's become easier to do that," said Schwartz.

Shaiman added, "The Internet is so fantastic for exposing songwriters who haven't had a Broadway break — [or] anything close to that — [because] now their songs are literally around the world, and they're being sung by people, and that's unbelievable."

In the Heights Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda said of the event, "This is the beginning of a conversation that's been happening informally — thanks to social media — for some time between composers and people who enjoy our music and the people who have no idea they're taking money out of our pocket by going to one of the sites where you can get anything we ever wrote for free. We're not going to see [songwriters like] Justin Bieber in this room. We make our living off of sheet music. We make our living off of digital music…and a lot of what this event is about is saying, 'There are ways to enjoy our music and download our music and purchase our music that supports the artists you love so much.'

"You're seeing four different generations of composers in this room. You've got Schwartz and Flaherty, and Nathan Tysen is over there… Everyone is here, and we're doing it together, and I think that's great."

Also in attendance were Dramatist Guild committee chair Craig Carnelia, Scott Wittman, David Shire, Adam Gwon, Michael Kooman, Amanda Green, Joe Iconis, Sean Patrick Flahaven, Julia Jordan, Nancy Ford and Mark Hollmann.

Many of the attendees, including contemporary songwriters Gwon, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk, Iconis, Kooman and Tysen, were featured in Playbill.com's Contemporary Musical Theatre Songwriters You Should Know. Read Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)