Using digital scores and parts comes with a lot of advantages over paper performance materials: they’re backed up, synchronized across devices, easy to carry, and streamline collaborative workflows for performers and librarians. However, one of the many drawbacks of digital materials is the act of digitizing them to begin with. That’s why in my roundup of iPad score readers, one of my primary review criteria was “ingestion”. It’s potentially tedious to scan or copy files into a new system, and sometimes the results aren’t as visually clean as reading from the paper copies you started with.
This month, Newzik — one of the top options in my review — launched a new partnership with Universal Edition — one of the biggest and most influential publishers — to help solve exactly that problem. The program, UE Now, allows musicians to purchase high quality scores that are delivered instantly to the Newzik app for performance and study.
How it works
Users can visit the Universal Edition store and and purchase digital materials. Just look for the colorful “UE Now” badge on the item. During the checkout process, you’ll be asked to login with your Newzik credentials, connecting your UE and Newzik accounts. Then, upon checkout, your materials are instantly delivered to your Newzik inbox.
To test the process, I purchased a digital copy of Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra (1973). I was slightly confused when the purchase showed up in the “Orders” list on my Universal Edition account as having shipped “Economy Airmail (worldwide)” for €14.95, and I was worried that I had accidentally ordered a paper copy.
However, the piece did show up right away in my Downloads tab, and I immediately saw a “1” badge on my Inbox within the Newzik app.
Upon downloading the score, I was surprised to find that it was only that: the score. I selected this particular work because I wanted to see how the app handled sharing parts. The Newzik app is capable of handling parts attached to a score, but at least with this particular item in the UE Now catalog, there is no part view available. I asked Newzik about this, and they told me that their technology does support purchasing complete sets of scores and parts, which can be shared between users. However, it is up to the publisher to include these materials and permissions as part of the purchase. When I posed the same question to UE, they told me that they will make it clearer that parts for the Berio Folk Songs are available separately (for hire), and that for “works which are available on sale only (string quartets for example) we are working on a solution currently. It is not possible to share individual parts with other members.”
Visually, the scores purchased from UE Now are exactly the same as PDF scores that you might import or scan into Newzik manually. If anything, they’ll look significantly better, having come directly from the highest quality source materials provided by the publisher. The score I purchased looked great and it included all of the front matter, which I was very happy to see. This may seem anticlimactic (and perhaps it is), but I think the best thing I could hope to say about this platform is exactly that: it looks great and behaves exactly the same as a score that I imported from a scanner or from a notation application.
How UE Now stacks up
Previous attempts to achieve app-based digital distribution fell down in exactly the ways that UE Now succeeds. Publishers or retailers who excel in their catalogs are ill-equipped at developing and maintaining quality mobile applications (such as ePrintGo from J.W. Pepper). Stellar applications like forScore and Newzik were slick, powerful, and robust, but the catalogs available in their storefronts were limited at best. You’ll find an excellent catalog from nkoda’s subscription service, but the application itself is not as strong as some of its competitors. UE Now is the first time we’ve seen this kind of combination of strengths, and I find it to be rather promising.
I think the structure of the UE Now/Newzik partnership is also very interesting, as it leaves UE as the vendor. When I make a purchase of digital materials, that is a relationship primarily between me and UE. Newzik is just the portal into my purchase. To me, that leaves open the possibility of UE having a lot of flexibility for how this content is handled. The Newzik team told me that publishing partners in their system have total control over the terms of the distribution, including rentals or perusals. The “contract” between publishers and users can be defined in many different ways with regards to sharing, printing, and time limits.
I would love to see publishers like UE making more use of these tools. I can imagine something like what Amazon has offered with recordings, where purchasing a hard copy includes a complimentary digital copy. Universal could even offer their own UE-specific subscriptions, sales, or bundle deals. The options are really only limited by the publisher’s imagination and threshold for experimentation.
Compared to film, television, games, recorded music, and other content sales, relatively little has changed in the music publishing industry. UE Now could allow for a lot more experimentation and flexibility because of the underlying business and technological structures. But I may be in danger of allowing my excitement for the potential future distract me from some notable friction in the present — the “now” of UE Now.
The biggest limitation for the moment is the size of the available library. Universal Edition tells me that they have “nearly 1,000 titles” currently available through UE Now. This seems a bit of a stretch to me. Right now when I filter UE’s store by “Digital Purchase”, only 677 are available.
Even if there are 1,000 titles available through UE Now, that’s a tiny, tiny fraction of UE’s overall catalog. I spent a long time searching for composers and works that I might want to purchase for my own collection, and I honestly couldn’t find a single work that I wanted to purchase through the platform. For example, although the catalog includes 92 items that are tagged with composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, zero are available digitally through UE Now. If you’re looking for something a little more familiar, you may also be disappointed. None of the 75 listings for G.F. Handel are available digitally either.
I’m told by UE that they are adding more works all the time and that the goal is to have the entire UE catalog available digitally at some point in the future. There was no indication of how long this might take, but it’s a huge undertaking. I’m just not sure why they decided to launch when they did, considering how limited the digital offerings are now. Perhaps it was less risky to start the service with a small sample and roll it out to more titles gradually.
Another drawback is that scores purchased through UE Now are currently locked to Newzik. If your workflow is currently focused in another application, like forScore or nkoda, you’ll be switching apps in the middle of rehearsal or performance. On the other hand, Universal Edition is one of the few major publishers which does not currently provide content to the nkoda subscription sheet music platform, so this is the only way to access these scores digitally. While I would love to see a Movies Anywhere-style agreement among publishers and platforms, I’m afraid we’re stuck with this sheet music fragmentation.
By using UE Now, you are also reliant on the harmony of the tech ecosystem being maintained: Apple continuing to make iPads, Newzik maintaining its app and service, and Universal Edition continuing to provide its intellectual property. This isn’t ideal, but any digital system is going to be subject to a similar compromise.
I asked representatives from both Newzik and Universal Edition if they had any plans to partner with other publishers or platforms, and both indicated to me that the agreement between UE Now and Newzik is not contractually exclusive. Universal Edition is not currently working with any other distribution partners, but Newzik did indicate to me that they were in negotiations with other publishers, and that they would be open to developing a centralized web store for purchasing digital editions.
Last, the UE digital store has a lot of filters that shoppers can use to narrow their searches, but they don’t work very well. Many of the works are missing metadata — selecting the “chamber music” filter failed to surface a Schönberg’s String Quartet No. 2. It does show up when filtering for “solo voice” (it includes a soprano soloist), but so do three other scores that do not have voice.
This partnership really changes the way I think about both Newzik and UE. Newzik’s ecosystem becomes more robust through affiliation with one of the stalwarts of music publishing, and Newzik’s future appears even more dependable. Universal Edition becomes the first major publisher to partner with an established software platform, showing both a confidence in digital scores and the humility and foresight to “outsource” the software experience to a dedicated development team.
UE Now isn’t without flaws, but for this first offering, it’s a great start. I am hopeful that we continue to see improvements to this partnership as well as more collaborations between publishers and app developers in the coming years.