In today's world of digital music and falling CD sales, an Emeryville-based company is thriving by selling sheet music. And not in the high-tech digital form but in the old-fashioned paper form.
In 1996 when www.SheetMusicPlus.com started, most sheet music was sold in brick-and-mortar music stores that had a limited number of titles.
The ever-expanding Internet has changed that. Now, there are dozens of Web sites that offer a huge variety of sheet music online. Typically, individual pieces of music are offered as a digital download for a few dollars while other retailers offer customers a choice of either digital download or mailing out the printed version. Or some, such as privately-held Sheet Music Plus, sell only paper-based sheet music.
"One of the great advantages of digital is of course the speed with which the product can be downloaded," said Keith Cerny, 46, who last year was named chief executive officer of Sheet Music Plus, the country's largest provider of sheet music with access to more than 550,000 titles. "That being said ... music comes in all shapes and sizes and may not fit all that well on a particular printer."
Christyna Kozel, a classical music teacher and past president of the Alameda County chapter of the Music Teachers' Association of California, started buying sheet music for her students from Sheet Music Plus after a Berkeley music store went out of business a few years ago. Having sheet music in its hard-copy form is better than dealing with a digital download that may have to be pieced together, she said.
"First of all it's more beautiful. It's in one piece and everything is shown. It has a cover on it so you will find it again," said Kozel.
Most of what Sheet Music Plus sells is not individual pieces of sheet music. Instead, the most popular products are bound books of sheet music, including "fake books" used by professional musicians who need access to a large number of songs that contain just the basic melodies, lyrics and chords. Typically, customers spend an average of $35 for an order, said Cerny.
Last year, revenues for Sheet Music Plus were $24.5 million, or 9.9 percent higher than 2007. The company's top markets are in the United States, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, Japan, France and Germany.
"We sell more than 550,000 titles and keep more than 22,000 of those in stock at our Emeryville facility. That is many, many times more than even a large retail store will typically have," said Cerny.
The titles are provided by more than 1,000 companies, ranging from large firms such as Hal Leonard, which publishes books that contain compilations of licensed music, to small music publishers.
While sheet music is making inroads online, most sheet music is still sold at music stores, although their numbers are dwindling. And unlike CD sales that have been hurt by digital downloads, printed sheet music has not seen a big sales drop, said Larry Morton, president of Hal Leonard, the world's largest publisher of song books.
"Probably 90 percent of (sheet music) sales go through (brick-and-mortar) retailers. There's something tactile about a book," he said.
In addition to selling to musicians and music teachers and orchestra or band leaders, Sheet Music Plus's other customers include libraries and music conservatories, Cerny said.
He has a musical background that includes working as a conductor, opera coach and piano soloist. About two-thirds of the 40 employees who work at Sheet Music Plus have a background in music.
"It's ranging from classical to heavy metal guitar," Cerny said.
Serial entrepreneur Nick Babchuk founded Sheet Music Plus in 1996. Twelve years later, Babchuk sold part of it for an undisclosed sum to Sverica International, a private equity firm with offices in San Francisco and Boston. He still has a stake in the company and is now its chairman. About one-third of Sheet Music Plus employees own stock in the company as minority shareholders.
As with other aspects of the music business, piracy has arrived in the sheet-music sector. During the past three years, several Web sites that provide free downloads of unlicensed sheet music and lyrics have been hit with industry-backed cease-and-desist orders that have largely reduced the problem, according to the National Music Publishers' Association.
But it still happens.
"(The) demand for music prompts a seemingly endless stream of illegal business models," association President David Israelite said in a statement released last month that announced the filing of copyright infringement lawsuits against four Web sites that provide unlicensed lyrics.
Some legal online sheet music Web retailers, including www.8Notes.com and www.MusicNotes.com, provide free legal downloads of classical sheet music and other works that are in the public domain, which means no licensing fees are paid to reproduce them.
Unlike musical instruments, which can see a drop in sales during hard economic times, sheet music tends to be a recession-proof product.
Last year, revenues from sheet music sales in the United States were about $600 million, or about 1.25 percent higher than 2008, said Scott Robertson, spokesman for the National Association of Music Merchandisers.
Of some 16 categories of music sales, sheet music has the third highest revenues after fretted instruments and audio equipment such as amplifiers and microphones.
"It remains a very stable product category within the music industry," said Robertson.
Name: Sheet Music Plus
Web site: www.SheetMusicPlus.com
Year founded: 1996
Chief executive officer: Keith Cerny
Number of employees: 40
2008 revenues: $24.5 million
current best sellers on www.sheetmusicplus.com
Classical: Canon In D by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)
Pop: You Raise Me Up by Josh Groban
Rock: My Immortal by Evanescence
Movies: Twilight - The Score by Carter Burwell
Children: Teaching Little Fingers To Play by John Thompson
Broadway: The Sound of Music
Country: Fearless by Taylor Swift
R&B: Take a Bow by Rihanna
Opera: Arias For Soprano
Various: 150 of the Most Beautiful Songs Ever - 3rd Edition