(Tin Pan Alley Buildings, New York. ca. 1910)
America's Music Publishing IndustryThe story of Tin Pan Alley
Over the years of our features, you may have noticed our reference to a place called "Tin Pan Alley" as the location of America's music publishing industry. If you are like we were at one time, you may have wondered, where is Tin Pan Alley? Is it a place? Is it a concept? Was there really a Tin Pan Alley?
In this article we will answer those questions and hopefully give you some insights into the development of the American music publishing industry during the golden age of American popular music. Yes, Virginia, there really was a Tin Pan Alley and it was the popular music publishing center of the world from around 1885 to the 1920's. Before that though, all of the important publishers of American music were scattered over much of the country. Some were in New York but others were in Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Boston and Baltimore. To the left is a photo of the Whitney Warner publishing house in Detroit taken around 1900. All of these early publishers played important roles in the printing and distribution of sheet music and none had any monopolies on success. Most music publishers also published church music, music instruction books, study pieces and classical items for home and school use.
Left: A Typical home music parlor from
the early 20th century
Among the most successful were Thomas B. Harms (Harms, Inc. started in 1881) and Isadore Witmark. M. Witmark & Sons published their first sheet music I'll Answer That Question Tomorrow in 1885. Over the years, publishers came and went but arguably, every major music publisher in America had a presence in what would become Tin Pan Alley at one time or another. Others that were mainstays of the Alley were, Irving Berlin, Inc., Shapiro, Berstein & Co., Remick Music Co., Robbins Music Corp, and E. B. Marks Music Company. These visionaries concentrated almost exclusively on popular music, and the key to their success was their use of market research to select music and the use of aggressive marketing techniques to sell the product.
Song composers were hired under contract giving the publisher exclusive rights to popular composer's works. The market was surveyed to determine what style of song was selling best and then the composers were directed to compose in that style. Once written, a song was actually tested with both performers and listeners to determine which would be published and which would go to the trash bin. All of a sudden it seemed that music was becoming an industry more than an art. Once a song was published, song pluggers (performers who worked in music shops playing the latest releases, akin to playing new CD releases in a record store today) were hired and performers were persuaded to play the new songs in their acts to give the music exposure to the public. By the end of the century, a number of the more important publishers had offices on 28th street between 5th Avenue and Broadway. This street (28th) became known as "Tin Pan Alley." Precisely who was the first to establish themselves in the area known as Tin Pan Alley is not known for sure but it was most probably Leo Feist, a corset salesman who had a penchant for writing catchy leyrics. In 1897 Feist rented a room at 1227 Broadway and with a piano and a partner (not named in the source) began the music publication business with his first song, Does True Love Ever Run Smooth. According to William Fisher in One Hundred and Fisty Years of Music Publishing In The United States (Oliver Ditson, 1933) "that one room office grew into two buildings." Fisher furthermore said:
" The Alley's strident songs and nervous dance tunes, its blurbs and ballads and banalities are as evanescant as the encircling smoke in which they are ground out in accordance with constantly changing recipies. In one essential however, there is no change, for this frankly commercial pursuit involves a ceaseless and eager following of the taste of the crowd - the indiscriminate and undiscriminating crowd - an inseperable part of the American scene."The photo below is taken at the corner of 5th Avenue and 28th Streets, New York ca. 1900. Exactly why the area came to be called Tin Pan Alley seems to be fairly well documented, yet still smacks of an urban legend. Nonetheless, the name is attributed to a newspaper writer named Monroe Rosenfeld who while staying in New York, coined the term to symbolize the cacophony of the many pianos being pounded in publisher's demo rooms which he characterized as sounding as though hundreds of people were pounding on tin pans. According to the story, he used the term in a series of articles he wrote around the turn of the century (20th) and it caught on.
During these same early years, vaudeville replaced the
minstrel show as the most popular form of stage entertainment. These
shows had a great appetite for music and the publishing houses were
more than happy to help out as enormous amounts of money were to be
made from the sale of songs popularized by these shows. In the first
two decades of its existence, Tin Pan Alley produced a succession of
songs, remarkable from a commercial standpoint and for their endurance
in American culture. The market potential for songs was enormous, even
by today's standards. Charles K. Harris's After The Ball (1892)
sold over five million copies! Large numbers of songs from this period
became widely known and are a part of our traditions even today. (Below: A sheet music cover artist works to create the
beautiful covers we preserve today. ca. 1900)
(Below: A sheet music cover artist works to create the beautiful covers we preserve today. ca. 1900)
Songs like: In the Good Old Summertime (1902), Give My Regards To Broadway (1904), Shine on Harvest Moon (1908,), Down by the Old Mill Stream (1910) and Let Me Call You Sweetheart (1910) are still sung today and their melodies could probably be sung by just about anyone you might ask.
The lyrics of music from this period suggest that the USA was a peaceful, happy and prosperous place. The many songs about the past describe warm memories of happy and innocent times in rural or small town settings. The persistent image of the "Gay Nineties" as one of the happiest and least troubled times in American history has been derived largely from these songs. Compare those images to today's music which is mostly in an urban setting with very disturbing and violent images.
Regardless of the happy times the music connotes, we cannot forget that Tin Pan Alley was not about love peace and happiness, it was about selling songs. The times certainly had their share of troubles and life was not a bed of roses then anymore than now. There were no altruistic desires on the part of the publishers to solve the problems of society nor were they attempting to create a happy world. They were simply about trying to create and sell music that people bought. Their chosen method during that time was to provide musical entertainment that allowed people to escape the realities of the hardships of life and their own life's troubles.
(Below: the music demo showroom at Whitney Warner, Detroit, ca. 1900)
Interestingly, I think many of us might have wanted to believe that the music of those years was of a kinder, gentler time and that the music evolved simply through the fates of artistic imagination. Yet, I realize that the composers and lyricists of the times were as much a victim of the system as they were driving it. We have to face up to the fact that art for art's sake is wonderful but that most of the composers and publishers of the period were much more interested in feeding themselves than creating a body of art that was valued as art versus a commercial success. How revealing to me to realize that the music of the times was not as much a reflection of the times as it was a reflection of people's desires for how the times and their life should be. Is it possible that that the beautiful music we see in our collection and displayed here on our site is nothing more than the result of creative and clever marketing?
No, it is not only that. The music and art we share with you represents a fusion of art and commercialism and as well, represents the triumph of art and talent over commercial interests. Sure, the publishers directed things but as always, it was the talent and creativity of truly creative human spirits who made the concept come alive.
Then of course, there are the people, you, me and all of the professional amateur musicians of the world. Just plain folks like these men from the turn of the century who love music and play it for the entertainment of others. Our tastes, our abilities are what have ultimately shaped the music of the past and present. In the end, we owe a great deal to the visionary publishers and marketers of Tin Pan Alley. Without the Harms' Whitmark's and Watterson's of the age, our world would be much different. Regardless of their profit motives (I firmly believe that profit motives are not evil and are the primary reasons for progress and opportunity in our country. Most of us can thank a rich man or woman for our job and what we have), the publishers of Tin Pan Alley not only established an industry that continues in grand tradition but they also are responsible for the beautiful music and covers we enjoy today. They deserve our thanks and respect for the fine works they had a hand in creating.
In 2003, (July 13) the Times published anarticle by Christopher Gray titled "Streetscapes/West 28th Street, Broadway to Sixth; A Tin Pan Alley, Chockablock With Life, if Not Song." In that article Gray described the area as "the creaking brownstones and small commercial buildings on West 28th Street between Broadway and Avenue of the Americas are dusted with decades of soft decay. A little group of green-painted buildings, in particular, have sagged into the most picturesque kind of decrepitude." Gray provides some interesting histories of some ofthe various buildings in what is left of Tin Pan Alley. The article was still available on line as of March, 2009 at the NYT site here.
As time passes, so too often does our history and in October of 2008, what remains of Tin Pan Alley (part of which is seen in the photo at left) was put up for sale and the buildings will most probably be razed to make way for "progress." According to the New York Times and other publications, "Much to the dismay of tenants and preservationists, five of the buildings on West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue - a block that for 60 years was the heart of the songwriting industry - have gone up for sale." All of the buildings are still occupied, many as apartments despite the age and condition of the buildings. One tenant whose apartment floors sloped a radical five inches said. "She thinks the future of the row is not a real estate question, but an engineering one ''It's just a question of how long they can stand up'' she says." Today some of the tenants, who currently pay approximately $1,000 a month for 1,000 sq-ft, have hired a lawyer and plan to ask for $1 million per apartment.The buildings, at 47, 49, 51, 53 and 55 West 28th Street, are being sold as a group for - hold on to your hat in these cacophonous economic times - a mere $44 million."
Rick Reublin, March, 2000, Updated March, 2009
Some photos displayed in this essay are from the Smithsonian collection of American historic photos. A source for some of the text discussion is from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the New York Times and One Hundred Fifty Years of Music Publishing in the United States. See our references page for details.
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