NEW YORK — By now, some young musical theater fans have received an e-mail from Stephen Schwartz asking them to stop illegally downloading sheet music from his shows. Or anyone else’s.
The award-winning composer of the Broadway smash Wicked wants people to know that it’s stealing.
“You wouldn’t walk into a music store and walk out with a piece of music under your arm. So why would it be acceptable to do it online,” Schwartz said recently at an anti-piracy awareness event held by the Dramatists Guild.
He added, “I just went to the first of the Web sites that I’m going to be e-mailing, and I typed my name in to see how many individual pieces of sheet music that were available for free of mine – over 11,000.
“I didn’t know I had that many pieces of music,” said an astonished Schwartz.
The event proved to be a summit of musical theater composers that included Jason Robert Brown, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Amanda Green, Stephen Flaherty, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman and others. Many of them sat in a room hunched over computers, writing letters to offenders as a projection screen showed the organization’s Twitter activity.
The idea of reaching out to sheet music pirates began a few years ago, when composer and Dramatists Guild member Georgia Stitt found out during a talk with students that her husband’s sheet music was being illegally downloaded. Stitt is married to Bridges of Madison County composer Jason Robert Brown.
Brown took to a letter-writing campaign to ask illegal downloaders to stop.
“About three or four years ago, when Georgia had told me about it and I got on the Internet, I saw a whole list, about … 400 people pirating my sheet music that day, and I said ‘I’m just going to write them,’ ” he said.
Though that doesn’t entirely solve the problem, Brown feels getting an e-mail from a Broadway composer carries enormous clout.
“If Stephen Sondheim had written to me when I was 20 years old … I would have had an aneurism,” Brown said. “It’s more of a reason to take somebody seriously. You’re not going to listen to your mother about it, or your teachers, but maybe you’ll listen to someone that you respect when they say to you, ‘This hurts me.’ ”
Miranda, composer of the Tony-winning In the Heights, feels most of the people illegally downloading music are unaware of the impact on the artist.
“Musical theater artists, we thrive on productions and we thrive on sheet music. That’s our bread and butter,” he said. “We’re not ranked iTunes artists. We create for live productions, so we suffer more than most in this era where you can download anything.”
Dramatist Guild committee chairman Craig Carnelia is leading the fight in shutting down these illegal Web sites and bringing awareness to the problem.
“There are more songs being stolen than being sold … there are people that believe that intellectual property should belong to everyone, but for the most part, it’s people that don’t really understand that by doing this, they’re taking from the very people they revere and damaging the business they hope to become a part of,” Carnelia said.
The Anti-Piracy Committee was founded in 2010. It has produced numerous resources for writers and is behind Someone Wrote That Song, a musical PSA with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Carnelia.
The committee has not assigned a dollar value to the sheet music illegally traded but feels it’s significantly affecting the livelihoods of composers and lyricists. Well-known composers have tens of thousands of pieces of music available for download. Carnelia said he’s seen thousands of pieces of his material being offered free.
“On one site, there are some composers like Sondheim that have 30,000 being offered,” Carnelia said.
Sheet music generally sells for $5 to $10, but some sell as low as 99 cents.
Hands on a Hardbody lyricist and composer Amanda Green understands why young people just want to get their hands on music. But she feels it’s important to let them know of that it hurts the composer’s livelihood.
“I think it’s about changing people’s mind-set,” Green said.
She added: “The more attention that’s paid, and the more we refuse to be quiet about it, the more impact we can have.”