During the golden age of American popular music Tin Pan Alley was the traditional location of America's music publishing industry. Until the mid nineteenth century, American music publishers had been scattered over the country and all published church music, music instruction books, study pieces and classical items for home and school use. Popular music presented a small side line by comparison. All this changed after the Civil War when printing and distribution of sheet music became an established business. New Vaudeville replaced the Minstrel Shows and young people wanted to play the new tunes which presented a clear commercial opportunity. From 1885, a number of music publishers traded in the same district of Manhattan and by the end of the century, a number of important publishers had offices on 28th Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway.
New York soon emerged as the epi-centre of popular music publishing and began setting musical trends and changes in musical styles. The music houses in lower Manhattan were lively places, with a steady stream of songwriters, Vaudeville and Broadway performers, musicians and song pluggers. When New York Herald reporter Monroe Rosenfeld was contracted to write a series of articles about New York he referred to the district of thumping tin pans, or "Tin Pan Alley" and the name stuck. Tin Pan Alley produced a succession of songs many of which became commercially successful and part of American culture. Charles Kassell Harris's After The Ball (1892) for instance sold over five million copies.
When new songs were written they were tested by performers and listeners. It was common to use the studio cleaners or "Old Greys," and the Old Greys whistled it as they worked, this was taken as a good omen. When a song passed the "Old Grey Whistle Test," professional song pluggers promoted the new songs to music shops and encouraged well known performers to sing their songs to expose it to the public. Song pluggers were pianists and singers who performed the works as promotion. Lesser know vaudeville performers would pay for the rights to perform new songs in their act while famous stars were given free copies of publisher's new numbers or paid to perform them. Composers were always engaged under contract and retained exclusive rights to their composer's works. For example Stephen Foster was probably the most successful song writer with his works generating millions in sheet music sales, but the composer saw little of this and died in poverty. He was not alone.
Copyright laws were literally non-existent in the United States, and many competing publishers printed their own versions of whatever songs were popular at the time. When copyright protection laws were introduced songwriters, composers, lyricists, and publishers started working together for their mutual financial benefit. The biggest publishers were in New York but small local publishers continued to flourish in New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis and Boston. When a tune became a significant local hit, the rights were purchased by one of the big New York firms. Unknown composers were most vulnerable and a common practice was to add the name of someone within the firm was added as co-composer to keep a higher percentage of royalties within the firm. Alternatively songs were purchased outright for a flat fee, which usually including rights to put someone else's name on the sheet music as the composer. Some song writers successfully established themselves and were hired by the music houses. The most successful was Harry Von Tilzer and Irving Berlin, who both founded their own publishing firms.
Tin Pan Alley thrived on producing melodramatic ballads and comic novelty songs that amateur singers or small town bands could perform from printed music. At first European operettas were very influential on American songs which led to the golden age of the ballad. Later Tin Pan Alley embraced popular rag time styles starting with "Maple Leaf Rag" by Scott Joplin.
Soon Blues then Jazz were added but many of the characteristics of jazz and blues could not be captured in conventional printed notation. During the 20s and 30s, Tin Pan Alley manufactured jazzy and blues like pop-songs and dance numbers which launched a new musician called Louis Armstrong.
Ever popular theatre fused minstrel, vaudeville, musical comedy, revues, burlesque and variety to become the Broadway production. Theatre sheet music sold incredibly well and when in the mid twenties, talkies were introduced this provided a completely new commercial venture. In the thirties folk and country music was introduced to mainstream audiences, then later big bands and swing music defined the music scene for the next two decades.
By the 40s publishers were importing Latin American sounds from Brazil, Mexico and Cuba with English lyrics to appeal to the mass audience.
By the beginning of the 50s, radio play and disc jockeys became more prominent, and records were being produced for sale to the public. People listened more than played and Tin Pan Alley was no longer in charge of the promotion of a song. By 1945 sheet music sold less well as records took over and by the mid fifties, Tin Pan Alley day was spent as Elvis Presley reinforced the song's performance was far more important than its publication.
The collaboration between publishers, song writers and song writing teams however created the greatest popular songs of America’s musical history. Now obsolete Tin Pan Alley remains synonymous with the most prolific and diverse period in American popular music.
Worth a listen:
After the Ball
Shine on Harvest Moon
Give my regards to Broadway
Let me call you sweetheart
Maple Leaf Rag
Alexander’s Rag time band
Mammy The Jazz Singer,
Pennsylvania 65 000
Second hand rose
Singin' In The Rain
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes