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 and radio finally surplanted sheet music as the driving force of American popular music, while others consider Tin Pan Alley to have continued on into the 1950s when earlier styles of American popular music were upstaged by the rise of rock & roll.
Tin Pan Alley was originally a specific place, West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.
The name "Tin Pan Alley" was originally derogatory, referring to the sounds of many pianos all playing different tunes at the same time in this small urban area, producing a cacophony comparable to banging on tin pans. With time this nickname was popularly embraced. It came to refer to the USA music industry in general.
Origins of Tin Pan Alley
In the mid 19th century copyright control on melodies were poorly regulated in the United States, and many competing publishers would often print their own versions of whatever songs were popular at the time. Stephen Foster's songs probably generated millions of dollarss in sheet music sales, but Foster saw little of it and died in poverty.
With better copyright protection laws late in the century, songwriters, composers, lyricists, and publishers started working together for their mutual financial benefit.
The biggest music houses established themelves in New York City. 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, Illinois, New Orleans, Louisiana, Saint Louis, Missouri, and Boston, Massachusetts. When a tune became a significant local hit, however, rights to it were usually purchased from the local publisher by one of the big New York firms.
Tin Pan Alley in its Prime
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 somone else's name on the sheet music as the composer). Songwriters who became established producers of commercially successful songs were hired to be on the staff of the music houses; the most successful of them, like Harry Von Tilzer and Irving Berlin, went on to found their own music publishing firms.
Song pluggers were pianists and singers who made their living demonstrating songs in order to promote sales of sheet music. Most music stores had song pluggers on staff; other pluggers were employed by the publishers to travel around and make the public familiar with their new publications.
When Vaudeville performers played New York City, they would often visit various Tin Pan Alley firms in order to find new songs to add to their acts. Second and third rate performers often would pay for rights to use a new song, whereas famous stars would be given free copies of publisher's new numbers or even payed to publicly perform them, for the publishers knew this was valuable advertising.
Initially Tin Pan Alley specialized in melodramatic ballads and comic novelty songs, but it quickly embraced the newly popular styles of the Cakewalk and Ragtime music. Later on elements of jazz and the blues were incorporated as well, although less completely, as Tin Pan Alley was oriented towards producing songs that any amateur singer or small town band could perform from printed music. Since the improvisations blue notes and other effects in pure jazz and blues could not captured in conventional printed notation, Tin Pan Alley gave the public jazzy and bluesy pop-songs and dance numbers. Much of the general public in the late 1910s and the 1920s did not know the difference between these commercial products and authentic jazz and blues.
Tin Pan Alley's Influence on Law and Business
A group of Tin Pan Alley music houses formed the Music Publishers Association of the United States on June 11, 1895, and successfully lobbied the United States Federal Government to extend the term of copyright for published music to 40 years, renewable for an additional 20.
The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) was founded in 1914 as an organization to mutually aid and protect the interests of established publishers and composers. New members were only admitted with sponsorship of existing members. By the end of the 1910s, it was estimated that over 90% of the sheet music and phonograph records sold in the USA payed royalties to ASCAP.
Leading Tin Pan Alley composers included: