How To Find Out-Of-Print Sheet Music

Sheet music and music books are easier to find than ever, thanks to many on-line retailers. For working musicians, big, fat “fake books” containing lead sheets (i.e., simplified sheet music stripped down to bare essentials) are still popular.

You might ask, “Paper and ink sheet music? — In this day and age, with all-digital this-and-that?”

Yes. People still buy sheets of paper with music notation printed on it, to learn and to memorize, and especially to play for their own pleasure and satisfaction. Amateur musicians buy sheet music to play along to. Student musicians buy sheet music to learn from the masters. They seek sheet music of popular songs and classical solo pieces.

Unfortunately, not all songs get published in the form of sheet music. Some songs you hear on an album are not chosen by its publisher to justify the expense of having sheet music created for it.

Also, even if a song was published, songs have a kind of shelf life, where the sheet music is available for a while, but their supply is not replenished by the publisher. If you don’t buy the sheet music within the first year or two, you might never get the chance.

At some point, demand for a song’s sheet music becomes so low that retailers have no incentive to keep no-longer in-demand sheet music in stock. When this happens, the song is technically”out of print.”

But that brings up an interesting question:

Q. How do you find sheet music which is either no longer in print, or never was in print?

Q. How would you find a “hard to find” song?

The simple solution is easy advice to give because it is three little words: “Find the publisher.” But that simple solution is not easily realized.

The steps to find the publisher are easy. But just because the steps are easy, that does not imply success. Your chances are low that a publisher will respond to your letter or phone call with a real solution.

Nonetheless, despite long odds of success, there are three basic steps you can take to at least give it a shot. Listed below are the steps I recommend you take.

Step #1: Find the right song from among all those songs with the same title.

Beware: Song titles are not copyrightable, according to the U.S. Copyright Office. Therefore, there will be countless songs using identical titles. So if your favorite song is titled something like “Sunday Morning” or “My Girl,” then you will have to weed through countless songs by other writers, other publishers, 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 the performing rights organizations.

Lucky for you, all published songs which are still protected by copyright are surely registered somewhere in a database maintained by one of the organizations responsible for collecting money on behalf of songwriters. Such organizations are called “performing rights organizations.” In the U.S., the two biggest performing rights organizations are ASCAP and BMI, with the smallest one being SESAC. They all have on-line search engines which list the songs for which they are responsible. If you know who wrote the song in which you are interested, and have the exact title, then you will eventually run into the correct entry in the database, even if you have to skip over 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 right song in the database, write down the name and address of the publisher.

Your task is almost complete. You will need to contact the publisher and ask the publisher how to obtain sheet music for your song. Writing a letter the old fashioned way is probably your best bet, since you will have the help of the U.S. Postal Service to forward your letter to the appropriate address or appropriate company.

I cannot vouch for the customer service of any given publisher. They may respond quickly, or not at all. They may have e-mail access for their customer service department, or they may be next-to-impossible to reach at all.

Beware, again: Publishing houses go out of business regularly. If your targeted publisher has merged with another company, or has filed for bankruptcy, then your task of reaching a sympathetic person at the right publishing house is low. This is another reason to write a letter instead of telephoning or e-mailing. — You get help from the U.S.P.S. to go one step farther than you could on your own. A change of name, or a change of headquarters, can throw your bloodhounds off the scent of a promising trail.

That last step of “contacting the publisher” completes the process. It’s that simple.

Now, you are at the mercy of the Fates whether your letter will arrive at the right address, and reach the right party. Even then, if the right party has no budget and no resources to do support for its customers or support for the fans of the given recording artist, then you are out of luck. Remember, tiny publishing companies have no budget for any personalized customer support. They tend to just sit back and collect royalties, and are not interested in one more sale, here and there, every couple weeks. They just don’t have the staff for any kind of personalized service. There’s no profit in selling their modest inventory one song at a time.

On the other hand, since countless tiny publishing companies have administration relationships with the huge publishing houses, there is a chance that your letter may reach the large company, who in turn is administering hundreds of tiny publishing companies. The big publishing house may point you in the right direction, like referring you to a major retail outlet with official ties to that big publisher.

In summary: Even though your chances of obtaining out-of-print sheet music of your favorite song is low, the steps you can take are so easy to do that you might as well take a chance and invest the time of an on-line look-up and invest the cost of a postage stamp and mail your letter. At least, you can dash off a quick e-mail and see what happens. You might even get lucky and reach a knowledgeable representative who has the right contacts.

And who knows? If enough people write that letter, then the publishing house might think, “Hey, there is a market demand for this song. Let’s cash in on this surge of interest and print up one more run and ride this wave of popularity all the way to the bank.”

And you will celebrate by sitting down with your guitar or piano and playing your brand new sheet music.