How Tin Pan Alley transformed the popular music industry

I want a girl. Tin Pan  Alley songTin Pan Alley represents the apex of the sheet music industry in the United States. The term refers to publishers concentrated on 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.

They raised marketing and commercialism to unprecedented sophistication.

The popular music industry traces its history back to 18th century London. Thomas Arne and other composers wrote songs specifically for a mass audience. No one had cared so much about an unsophisticaled audience before.

Simple in harmony and structure, these songs followed a predictable pattern. British music publishers issued thousands of songs and song collections.

Connoisseurs may have scoffed, but popular songs made composers and publishers alike more money than they could have earned with more sophisticated music.

American music and music publishing before Tin Pan Alley

Battle cry of freedom. Before Tin Pan Alley

Hit song from Root & Cady of Chicago

American popular music started out sounding British. It branched out by assimilating the influence of Scottish, Irish, Italian, and Negro slave music. Blackface minstrel shows dominated American theater for much of the 19th century, beginning in the 1840s.

Until about 1885 America’s music publishers operated out of stores. They sold instruments and accessories, too.

The most important were in various large, mostly Northern cities. Many had reciprocal agreements with stores in other cities to sell each other’s music.

Cities in other parts of the country and smaller northern cities also had music publishers. But they were less well known and had a smaller geographical reach.

These companies sought to satisfy the musical needs of all segments of their city. They published popular music, of course. They also published classical music, church music, and musical instruction books.

Until the invention of the phonograph and radio, people who wanted to enjoy music had two choices. They could attend live concerts, if any. Or they could sing and play it themselves. The number of homes with pianos proliferated after the Civil War. Americans bought more than 25,000 pianos a year. About 500,000 young people were studying piano by 1887.

More and more publishers entered the market to take advantage of the demand for sheet music. Unlike the older, established publishers, they specialized in popular music. At the same time, New York was becoming America’s leading musical and performing arts center.

Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart pioneered a new kind of musical theater. Their shows often featured songs of British-born David Braham, in the 1870s. These three urban-born men wrote shows New Yorkers loved. The rest of the country took little notice.

Minstrel shows poked sometimes vicious fun at black people to entertain a predominantly white audience. The Harrigan and Hart shows took a sympathetic view of an ethnically diverse society. Irish, Germans, and blacks, for example, might not have always had an easy relationship, But on stage, they were all good people and found ways to resolve their differences.

Vaudeville shows offered by Tony Pastor and others departed even further from mistrel shows. They dispensed with the convention of having the entire troupe on stage for the entire show. Both minstrel shows and vaudeville consisted of a series of unrelated songs, dances, comic sketches, and other acts. Vaudeville performers, however, took the stage only for their own numbers.

The birth of Tin Pan Alley

Buildings of Tin Pan Alley, 1910

Buildings of Tin Pan Alley, 1910

T.B. Harms set up shop as a publisher exclusively of popular songs in Manhattan in 1881. Its first big hit, Charles Pratt’s “Wait Till the Clouds Roll By” is now acknowledged as the first Tin Pan Alley hit.

Other publishers, including Willis Woodword and M. Witmark, soon followed. The popular music industry became more profitable than ever before.

These new publishers with their new specialization in popular songs also introduced new business practices. In particular, they conducted market research to choose which songs to publish. Then they marketed them aggressively.

They kept a stable of song writers under contract, dictated what style they should write in. They demanded exclusive rights to their work and paid them as little as they could get away with. Popular music thus became even more industrial and less artistic than before.

Witmark offended Charles K. Harris when he offered only a pittance for a song.  When Harris wrote a new song called “After the Ball,” he decided to publish it himself. He founded his company in Milwaukee, but soon moved it to New York.

A cover issued when the song was already famous

A cover issued when the song was already famous

The song turned out to be an unprecedented hit. It soon grossed $25,000 per week and eventually sold 5 million copies. Harris’ success inspired other song writers to found their own publishing companies.

Before publishing any of these songs, these companies hired “song pluggers” to play them in the stores. The sound of all the pianos up and down the street gave it its nickname.

Performers wanted new material. Ordinary people wanted for new music to play at home. They visited the stores and listened to the new songs.

What these customers liked and didn’t like determined what the publishers would actually put up for sale.

Publishers found relationships with performers especially important. The vaudeville structure enabled individual performers to become stars in their own right. A popular entertainer successfully introducing one of their songs could guarantee enough sales to make a profit. Many sheet music covers, therefore, feature portraits of the singer who first performed the song.

The “Gay Nineties” has the reputation as one of the least troubled, happiest eras in American history. It wasn’t, but society was different from today’s. Now, audiences have a taste for cynicism and violence. The public of that era wanted music that made it feel good. People eagerly bought up anything that gave them a sense of warmth and happiness. Many songs dealt with sorrow or tragedy, but consumers preferred songs that allowed them to sympathize.

The heyday of Tin Pan Alley

Alexander's ragtime band. Tin Pan Alley sheet musicThe early 1880s also saw two mass musically significant mass migrations.  Much of America’s black population from the south to the north.  Many Eastern European Jews immigrated to New York. Jews and blacks interacted informally there.

Jewish immigrants had no history of regarding blacks with contempt.

Jewish song writers inherited the tradition of black-inspired songs from the minstrel show tradition. They composed theirs, however, on the basis actual experience with black culture.

In 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition took place in Chicago. Scott Joplin and other black pianists performed ragtime around the city. They did not actually perform at any of the fair’s venues, a racially mixed audience heard and liked their music. The vogue for ragtime crossed racial lines. Ragtime became a commercially successful genre in its own right.

Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911) did not capture ragtime rhythms very successfully. But he and his contemporaries eventually became quite good at them.

As George Gershwin worked on Porgy and Bess, he wanted to understand black culture. He spent the summer of 1934 at Folly Beach near Charleston, South Carolina. He especially wanted an accurate view of the language and style of folk music.

Berlin, Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and other Jews began to dominate Tin Pan Alley by about 1920. Latecomer Cole Porter, on the other hand, came from a Protestant heritage in the Midwest.

Porter recognized his position as one of the few non-Jews writing popular songs. He told Richard Rogers he had discovered the secret to writing successful theater music; “I’ll write Jewish tunes.”

Racial intolerance and anti-immigrant sentiment ran higher in the 1920s than any other time in history. It is truly ironic that this blend of Jewish and black influence came to dominate the American popular music industry at the same time.

The decline and demise of Tin Pan Alley

Swanee by Gershwin. Tin pan alley coverThree important changes in the late 1920s marked a turning point.

  • After Show Boat in 1927, musical plays with an actual story line and plot began to supplant vaudeville-style revues. It became more difficult for song writers to place single songs in a Broadway production. Success in Tin Pan Alley began to depend on the ability to write all the music for an entire musical play.
  • “Talkies” made it possible to synchronize moving images with speech—or singing—at the movies. The success of The Jazz Singer (1927) song writers had live near Tin Pan Alley to be successful. Many moved west to work in Hollywood. Some dominated both Hollywood and Broadway.
  • The rise of radio and phonograph records supplanted sheet music as the predominant means of consuming popular songs. These new media enabled completely passive enjoyment of music.

These changes did not affect the style of popular music. The Tin Pan Alley style continued to dominate into the 1950s, when rock music challenged and ultimately supplanted it. Perhaps Irving Berlin’s last musical, Mr. President (1962) marks its final death.

The popular music industry changed in terms of the format it sold. It continued to build on the same marketing sophistication.

Today the buildings that once housed most of the sheet music industry have deteriorated greatly. Will they be restored? Or demolished in the name of “progress”?

America’s music publishing industry: the story of Tin Pan Alley / Rick Reublin. The Parlor Songs Academy, updated March 2009.
Broadway and Tin Pan Alley / Tribeca Film Institute.
Yesterdays: Popular song in America / Charles Hamm (New York: Norton, 1983)

All images are public domain

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