Tin Pan Alley was a collection of music publishers and songwriters in New York City that dominated the popular music of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It originally referred to a specific place: West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the Flower Districtof Manhattan; a plaque (see below) on the sidewalk on 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth commemorates it.
The start of Tin Pan Alley is usually dated to about 1885, when a number of music publishers set up shop in the same district of Manhattan. The end of Tin Pan Alley is less clear cut. Some date it to the start of the Great Depression in the 1930s when the phonograph, radio, and motion pictures supplanted sheet music as the driving force of American popular music, while others consider Tin Pan Alley to have continued into the 1950s when earlier styles of music were upstaged by the rise of rock & roll, which was centered on the Brill Building. Brill Building songwriter Neil Sedaka described his employer as being a natural outgrowth of Tin Pan Alley, in that the older songwriters were still employed in Tin Pan Alley firms while younger songwriters such as Sedaka found work at the Brill Building.
In 2019, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission took up the question of preserving five buildings on the north side of the street as a Tin Pan Alley Historic District.The agency designated five buildings (47–55 West 28th Street) individual landmarks on December 10, 2019, after a concerted effort by the "Save Tin Pan Alley" initiative of the 29th Street Neighborhood Association. Following successful protection of these landmarks, project director George Calderaro and other proponents formed the Tin Pan Alley American Popular Music Project to continue and commemorate the legacy of Tin Pan Alley with various advocacy and educational activities.
On April 2, 2022, 28th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue was officially co-named "Tin Pan Alley" by the City of New York in a celebration featuring NYC City Councilmember Erik Bottcher, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and representatives from the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Flatiron/Nomad Partnership and the Tin Pan Alley American Popular Music Project which advocated for the co-naming.
Various explanations have been advanced to account for the origins of the term "Tin Pan Alley". The most popular account holds that it was originally a derogatory reference made by Monroe H. Rosenfeld in the New York Herald to the collective sound made by many "cheap upright pianos" all playing different tunes being reminiscent of the banging of tin pans in an alleyway.However, no article by Rosenfeld that uses the term has been found.
Simon Napier-Bell quotes an account of the origin of the name published in a 1930 book about the music business. In this version, popular songwriter Harry von Tilzer was being interviewed about the area around 28th Street and Fifth Avenue, where many music publishers had offices. Von Tilzer had modified his expensive Kindler & Collins piano by placing strips of paper down the strings to give the instrument a more percussive sound. The journalist told von Tilzer, "Your Kindler & Collins sounds exactly like a tin can. I'll call the article 'Tin Pan Alley'."In any case, the name was firmly attached by the fall of 1908, when The Hampton Magazine published an article titled "Tin Pan Alley" about 28th Street.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "tin pan" was slang for "a decrepit piano" (1882), and the term came to mean a "hit song writing business" by 1907.
With time, the nickname came to describe the American music publishing industry in general.The term then spread to the United Kingdom, where "Tin Pan Alley" is also used to describe Denmark Street in London's West End. In the 1920s the street became known as "Britain's Tin Pan Alley" because of its large number of music shops.
In the mid-19th century, copyright control of melodies was not as strict, and publishers would often print their own versions of the songs popular at the time. With stronger copyright protection laws late in the century, songwriters, composers, lyricists, and publishers started working together for their mutual financial benefit. Songwriters would literally bang on the doors of Tin Pan Alley businesses to get new material.
The commercial center of the popular music publishing industry changed during the course of the 19th century, starting in Boston and moving to Philadelphia, Chicago and Cincinnati before settling in New York City under the influence of new and vigorous publishers which concentrated on vocal music. The two most enterprising New York publishers were Willis Woodard and T.B. Harms, the first companies to specialize in popular songs rather than hymns or classical music.Naturally, these firms were located in the entertainment district, which, at the time, was centered on Union Square. Witmark was the first publishing house to move to West 28th Street as the entertainment district gradually shifted uptown, and by the late 1890s most publishers had followed their lead.
The biggest music houses established themselves in New York City, but small local publishers – often connected with commercial printers or music stores – continued to flourish throughout the country, and there were important regional music publishing centers in Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Boston. When a tune became a significant local hit, rights to it were usually purchased from the local publisher by one of the big New York firms.
The song publishers who created Tin Pan Alley frequently had backgrounds as salesmen. Isadore Witmark previously sold water filters and Leo Feist had sold corsets. Joe Stern and Edward B. Marks had sold neckties and buttons, respectively.The music houses in lower Manhattan were lively places, with a steady stream of songwriters, vaudeville and Broadway performers, musicians, and "song pluggers" coming and going.
Aspiring songwriters came to demonstrate tunes they hoped to sell. When tunes were purchased from unknowns with no previous hits, the name of someone with the firm was often added as co-composer (in order to keep a higher percentage of royalties within the firm), or all rights to the song were purchased outright for a flat fee (including rights to put someone else's name on the sheet music as the composer). An extraordinary number of Jewish East European immigrants became the music publishers and songwriters on Tin Pan Alley – the most famous being Irving Berlin. Songwriters who became established producers of successful songs were hired to be on the staff of the music houses.
"Song pluggers" were pianists and singers who represented the music publishers, making their living demonstrating songs to promote sales of sheet music. Most music stores had song pluggers on staff. Other pluggers were employed by the publishers to travel and familiarize the public with their new publications. Among the ranks of song pluggers were George Gershwin, Harry Warren, Vincent Youmans and Al Sherman. A more aggressive form of song plugging was known as "booming": it meant buying dozens of tickets for shows, infiltrating the audience and then singing the song to be plugged. At Shapiro Bernstein, Louis Bernstein recalled taking his plugging crew to cycle races at Madison Square Garden: "They had 20,000 people there, we had a pianist and a singer with a large horn. We'd sing a song to them thirty times a night. They'd cheer and yell, and we kept pounding away at them. When people walked out, they'd be singing the song. They couldn't help it."
When vaudeville performers played New York City, they would often visit various Tin Pan Alley firms to find new songs for their acts. Second- and third-rate performers often paid for rights to use a new song, while famous stars were given free copies of publisher's new numbers or were paid to perform them, the publishers knowing this was valuable advertising.
Initially Tin Pan Alley specialized in melodramatic ballads and comic novelty songs, but it embraced the newly popular styles of the cakewalk and ragtime music. Later, jazz and blues were incorporated, although less completely, as Tin Pan Alley was oriented towards producing songs that amateur singers or small town bands could perform from printed music. In the 1910s and 1920s Tin Pan Alley published pop songs and dance numbers created in newly popular jazz and blues styles.
A group of Tin Pan Alley music houses formed the Music Publishers Association of the United States on June 11, 1895, and unsuccessfully lobbied the federal government in favor of the Treloar Copyright Bill, which would have changed the term of copyright for published music from 24 to 40 years, renewable for an additional 20 instead of 14 years. The bill, if enacted, would also have included music among the subject matter covered by the Manufacturing clause of the International Copyright Act of 1891.
The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) was founded in 1914 to aid and protect the interests of established publishers and composers. New members were only admitted with sponsorship of existing members.
The term and established business methodologies associated with Tin Pan Alley persisted into the 1960s when innovative artists like Bob Dylan helped establish new norms. Referring to the dominant conventions of music publishers of the early 20th century, "Tin Pan Alley is gone," Bob Dylan proclaimed in 1985, "I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now."
During the Second World War, Tin Pan Alley and the federal government teamed up to produce a war song that would inspire the American public to support the fight against the Axis, something they both "seemed to believe ... was vital to the war effort".The Office of War Information was in charge of this project, and believed that Tin Pan Alley contained "a reservoir of talent and competence capable of influencing people's feelings and opinions" that it "might be capable of even greater influence during wartime than that of George M. Cohan's 'Over There' during World War I." In the United States, the song "Over There" has been said to be the most popular and resonant patriotic song associated with World War I. Due to the large fan base of Tin Pan Alley, the government believed that this sector of the music business would be far-reaching in spreading patriotic sentiments.
In the United States Congress, congressmen quarreled over a proposal to exempt musicians and other entertainers from the draft in order to remain in the country to boost morale.Stateside, these artists and performers were continuously using available media to promote the war effort and to demonstrate a commitment to victory. However, the proposal was contested by those who strongly believed that only those who provided more substantial contributions to the war effort should benefit from any draft legislation.
As the war progressed, those in charge of writing the would-be national war song began to understand that the interest of the public lay elsewhere. Since the music would take up such a large amount of airtime, it was imperative that the writing be consistent with the war message that the radio was carrying throughout the nation. In her book, God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War, Kathleen E. R. Smith writes that "escapism seemed to be a high priority for music listeners", leading "the composers of Tin Pan Alley [to struggle] to write a war song that would appeal both to civilians and the armed forces".By the end of the war, no such song had been produced that could rival hits like "Over There" from World War I.
Whether or not the number of songs circulated from Tin Pan Alley between 1939 and 1945 was greater than during the First World War is still debated. In his book The Songs That Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, John Bush Jones cites Jeffrey C. Livingstone as claiming that Tin Pan Alley released more songs during World War I than it did in World War II.Jones, on the other hand, argues that "there is also strong documentary evidence that the output of American war-related songs during World War II was most probably unsurpassed in any other war".
Leading Tin Pan Alley composers and lyricists include:
Tin Pan Alley's biggest hits included:
Irving Berlin was an American composer and lyricist. His music forms a large part of the Great American Songbook. Berlin received numerous honors including an Academy Award, a Grammy Award, and a Tony Award. He also received Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Gerald R. Ford in 1977. Journalist Walter Cronkite stated he "helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives".
Harry Von Tilzer was an American composer, songwriter, publisher and vaudeville performer.
Albert Von Tilzer was an American songwriter, the younger brother of fellow songwriter Harry Von Tilzer. He wrote the music to many hit songs, including, most notably, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game".
William Jerome Flannery, September 30, 1865 – June 25, 1932) was an American songwriter, born in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York of Irish immigrant parents, Mary Donnellan and Patrick Flannery. He collaborated with numerous well-known composers and performers of the era but is best remembered for his decade-long association with Jean Schwartz with whom he created many popular songs and musical shows in the 1900s and early 1910s.
Fred Fisher was a German-born American songwriter and Tin Pan Alley music publisher.
George Gard "Buddy" DeSylva was an American songwriter, film producer and record executive. He wrote or co-wrote many popular songs, and along with Johnny Mercer and Glenn Wallichs, he co-founded Capitol Records.
Lew Brown was a lyricist for popular songs in the United States. During World War I and the Roaring Twenties, he wrote lyrics for several of the top Tin Pan Alley composers, especially Albert Von Tilzer. Brown was one third of a successful songwriting and music publishing team with Buddy DeSylva and Ray Henderson from 1925 until 1931. Brown also wrote or co-wrote many Broadway shows and Hollywood films. Among his most-popular songs are "Button Up Your Overcoat", "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree", "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries", "That Old Feeling", and "The Birth of the Blues".
M. Witmark & Sons was a leading publisher of sheet music for the United States "Tin Pan Alley" music industry.
Andrew Benjamin Sterling was an American lyricist.
The Great American Songbook is the loosely defined canon of significant 20th-century American jazz standards, popular songs, and show tunes.
Roy Kenneth Turk was an American songwriter and lyricist, he frequently collaborated with composer Fred E. Ahlert – their popular 1929 song "Mean to Me" has become a jazz standard. In 1926 collaborated with Lou Handman on his best known song the 1927 hit song Are You Lonesome Tonight? made famous by acts like Elvis Presley. He worked with many other composers, including for film lyrics. Turk was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.
A song plugger or song demonstrator was a vocalist or piano player employed in the early 20th century by department stores, music stores and song publishers to promote and help sell new sheet music, which was how hits were advertised before good-quality recordings were widely available. Music publisher Frank Harding has been credited with innovating the sales method. Typically, the pianist sat on the mezzanine level of a store and played whatever music was sent up to him by the clerk of the store selling the sheet music. Patrons could select any title, have it delivered to the song plugger, and get a preview of the tune before buying it.
Edward Ray Goetz was an American composer, lyricist, playwright, theatre director, and theatrical producer. A Tin Pan Alley songwriter, he published more than 500 songs during his career, many of them originally written for the New York stage. His songs were recorded by several artists, including Judy Garland, Al Jolson, and Blossom Seeley. He was active as both a lyricist and composer for Broadway musicals from 1906 through to 1930, collaborating with artists like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Sigmund Romberg, and A. Baldwin Sloane to create material for the theatre.
Waterson, Berlin & Snyder, Inc. was, during the 1920s, one of the largest music publishers of popular sheet music in the country. The firm was based in New York City. What began as the Ted Snyder Company in 1908 evolved into Waterson, Berlin & Snyder, Inc., in 1917 when its founder, Ted Snyder (1881–1965), took on two partners – Henry Waterson (1873–1933) and Irving Berlin (1888–1989). Berlin had been Ted Snyder's staff lyricist since 1909.
T. B. Harms & Francis, Day, & Hunter, Inc., based in the Tin Pan Alley area of New York City, was one of the seven largest publishers of popular music in the world in 1920. T. B. Harms & Francis, Day & Hunter, Inc. was one of seven defendants named in a 1920 Sherman antitrust suit brought by the U.S. Justice Department for controlling 80% of the music publishing business. The seven defendants were:
George William Meyer was an American Tin Pan Alley songwriter. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1884. He graduated from Roxbury High School, and began working in accountancy for Boston department stores, before moving to New York City in his mid-20s.
Frank Harding (1864-1939) was a Tin Pan Alley music publisher, who was credited with creating the method of selling music called plugging. Harding paid singers to sing his published songs in shops and beer halls to get them known and attract customers. Composers such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin later got their starts as pluggers. He was active from the 1880s through the 1920s.
Max Dreyfus was a German-born American music publisher, arranger and songwriter. Between the 1910s and 1950s he encouraged and published the work of many of the writers of the so-called Great American Songbook, and was president of Chappell & Co., Inc. American office, the world's largest music publishing firm.
Monroe H. "Rosey" Rosenfeld was an American songwriter and journalist.
"My Old New Hampshire Home" is an 1898 song that was the first popular hit of composer Harry Von Tilzer, with lyrics by Andrew B. Sterling.
"We used to think of Tin Pan Alley, which is what they called Denmark Street years ago when all the music publishers were there, as rather old-fashioned," recalls Peter Asher