Tin Pan Alley is the name given to the collection of New York City music publishers and songwriters who dominated American popular music at the turn of the 20th century. The name originally referred to a specific place: West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, and a plaque on the sidewalk on 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth commemorates it.
The origins of the name “Tin Pan Alley” are unclear. The most popular account holds that it was originally a derogatory term used in the New York Herald referring to the sound made by many pianos playing different tunes being exactly like the banging of many tin pans in an alleyway. With time this nickname was popularly embraced and many years later it came to describe the US music industry in general.
By extension, the term “Tin Pan Alley” is also used to describe any area within a major city with a high concentration of music publishers or musical instrument stores – an example being Denmark Street in London’s West End. In the 1920s the street became known as “Britain’s Tin Pan Alley” because of the large number of music shops, a title it still holds.
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. Its end is less clear-cut – some experts state it was the 1930s, while others insist that only the rock & roll era and rapid expansion of popular music put an end to the Alley’s greatness.
In the mid 19th century, copyright control on melodies in the United States was not strict, and competing publishers would often print their own versions of the songs popular at the time. With the introduction of stronger 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 themselves 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 centres 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.
Aspiring songwriters could also come in to demonstrate tunes they hoped to sell. When tunes were purchased from unknowns with no previous hits, the name of an employee of 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. This included rights to put someone else’s name on the sheet music as the composer.
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 knew it was valuable advertising.
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. Songwriters who became established producers of popular songs were hired by the music houses. The most successful of them, like Harry Von Tilzer and Irving Berlin, founded their own publishing firms.
Song-pluggers were pianists and singers who made their living demonstrating songs to promote sales of sheet music. Most music stores had song-pluggers on staff. Other pianists were employed by the publishers to travel and familiarise the public with their new publications. Among the ranks of song-pluggers were George Gershwin and Harry Warren.
The end of Tin Pan Alley is associated with the start of the Great Depression in the 1930s when the phonograph and radio supplanted sheet music as the driving force of American popular music, or with the 1950s when earlier styles of American popular music were upstaged by the rise of rock & roll.