In this digital age of computers, devices and the internet, this wonderful thing called a PDF is becoming an asset that we really can't live without. We make them, receive them, explore them and store them - but as musicians, what are the ways in which we can use them and enhance our working environment? The acronym stands for "portable document format" and that describes them well - no matter what software application you are using, what sort of operating system you are on, or even what device, the PDF will look as it should as a fixed format. Also, it can't be edited, which is great for a whole raft of reasons. They have been around since 1993, but it's only in the last 10 years or so that they have really come to fruition, as we are sharing documents like never before and are using the internet to distribute our material. And because of all this, software is now also making it increasingly easy to export, save and share in this most wonderful format.
When I mention "devices" I am referring to things like the iPhone and iPad, which are of course wonderful standalone, but I often am referring to them an extensions of the computer. PDFs can be seamlessly synced between devices using services like Evernote.com and Dropbox.com, and so access to them out on the road opens up so many more possibilities.
I've categorised some thoughts about how PDFs will benefit three areas of the industry: writing musicians, performing and teaching musicians, and music consumers.
THE WRITING MUSICIAN
As a composer or arranger your ability to distribute your music, and the ease of doing so, is incredibly important. It doesn't matter whether you are on the other side of town or world you can quickly email PDF documents to your performers. All they need is a computer and printer and you know your music will be presented exactly as you wish.
I recently sent music off for a recording sessions in London - I finished and emailed it to them a few hours before it began and had complete confidence it was sitting on the orchestra's music stands exactly how I wanted it.
Professional orchestras have their own preferences when it comes to physical preparation of the music and so they often only accept a PDF master set - with the volume of music that goes across the music librarians desk, it's very efficient to just have the PDFs.
On your website or in your promotional material you might like to present samples and examples of your work, in which case you can easily add watermarks to keep it safe or add extra information.
Very handily, programs like PhotoScore (www.neuratron.com) can scan previously printed music and import it into the Sibelius, the notation software. I do this a lot - where someone may want an arrangement of a certain piece, or a piece needs to be transposed - I don't have to begin with hours of entering the original note by note.
THE PERFORMING AND TEACHING MUSICIAN
As a performer or teacher you generally need to carry large amounts of music around with you. Aside from potentially putting your shoulder out, the ability to call up music quickly in certain environments is very important. Having your music as PDFs on a digital device can mean huge amounts of space saved and the ability to bring up any chart in a matter of seconds.
For music not already existing as PDFs you can of course scan in music and keep all of your current collections. There are wonderful online music databases such as IMSLP.org which contain predominantly scanned royalty-free music.
The use of digital music stands is becoming very common (this is where you view the music on a screen rather than a printed copy), either by the use of dedicated systems or with devices like the iPad. Their use in band and orchestra environments is also becoming more common - they are not just restricted to the high-budget stages of American Idol!
I have written several posts on the topic of digital music stands and using iPads for performing on my website so check those out if you are interested.
THE MUSIC CONSUMER
I don't know about you, but when I purchase sheet music I want it right then and there. So the option to pay less and choose the "download as PDF" button always gets my click. As a person selling that music it is also my preference, as the transaction is completed automatically and there is no need for any packaging and posting - it's just money in the bank.
With this, however, there are potentially problems where your music could be easily distributed further once someone else owns the PDFs, but the argument is that you could always do this via a photocopier anyway - it just takes a few extra steps and may not be quite so pretty.
Even though with choral music is it common to charge per copy required, that really doesn't translate to other music and I don't see that working well for choral music for much longer - it is a little too trusting to ask someone to buy two copies of something rather than just buying it once and printing it twice. Generally now PDF music is licensed to the purchaser and they can do multiple copies as they wish. MusicNotes.com has nice way of indicating this by marking each page with a "Authorised for use by Ryan Youens".
So are PDFs a musician's best friend? Absolutely. With the internet, websites, email and various devices being such an important part of our work, distributing and receiving music is essential and it's essential for it to be done safe and efficiently - with a PDF.
This post was originally published on 17th March 2013 at www.flutefocus.com.