Flip the Script: The Dulcet Tones of Tin Pan Alley

Flip the Script: The Dulcet Tones of Tin Pan Alley

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Tin Pan Alley is the designation given to the collection of music publishers and songwriters that developed and dominated the music publishing industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, located on Manhattan’s West 28th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue. Known as the “King of Tin Pan Alley,” Irving Berlin was one of many songwriters to discover his fame and fortune in the traditional home of American popular music. Though Tin Pan Alley is widely recognized as a significant era in American music, the name itself retains an air of mystery; it likely derived from the cacophonous sound of multiple pianos, all playing different tunes in close proximity at the same time. Several more specific origins have been suggested, but the first official reference to Tin Pan Alley has been lost to time and tradition.

By the late 1800s, the introduction of stricter copyright laws led to the initial centralization of music publishing in many of the larger American cities as songwriters, composers, and lyricists sought mutually beneficial relationships in a newfound era of creative security. Starting in Boston and expanding to Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cincinnati, music publishing eventually found its permanent home in the hustle and bustle of New York City, centered in the entertainment district in Union Square. Witmark was the first of the major music publishing houses to relocate to West 28th Street, and they were joined by most of their peers by the late 1890s; their collective presence would draw the best performers of vaudeville, Broadway, and the developing American music industry for the next half-century as Tin Pan Alley flourished and thrived.

Before the advent of film and radio, music was introduced to America through live performances and the distribution of published sheet music, which was largely accomplished by the music publishing nexus in New York City. Many of the publishing firms were founded by former salesmen, who brought their energy and expertise with them as they forged a new sales niche in music advertising. The centralized location of the major music firms drew songwriters, lyricists, and composers, eager for a chance to play (and sell) their tunes to the music executives. Each publishing house employed a team of songwriters to continually develop new hit songs, which would in turn be sold to vaudeville performers to be used in their live acts; less popular performers would pay for the rights to perform a new song, while the biggest stars would be given free copies of the sheet music or a small fee for their performances, to advertise and popularize the latest hits. “Song pluggers” were performers employed by the music firms and charged with promoting sheet music sales by demonstrating the new songs at public events or as traveling salesmen. A particularly aggressive form of song plugging known as “booming” was also common: song pluggers would purchase numerous tickets to a show or event and loudly (and repeatedly) proclaim their new song for all to hear, in hopes that the tune would worm its way into the ears of the audience and increase demand for the sheet music.

Tin Pan Alley initially specialized in the melodramatic ballads and comic novelty songs popular on the vaudeville stage, with heavy influence from European operettas in the last years of the 19th century. The 1900s introduced ragtime to popular music with Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”. Irving Berlin later experimented with and expanded on the genre with the publication of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911, which sparked an international ragtime music and dance craze, wholeheartedly embraced by the residents and executives of Tin Pan Alley.

Tin Pan Alley Plaque

A plaque designating the original location of Tin Pan Alley in Manhattan, NYC.

The 1920s brought another major musical shift with the popularization of jazz and blues, paralleled by massive change in the musical and entertainment habits of the U.S.: the decline of vaudeville, the beginning of the American musical theatre tradition and the establishment of Broadway, and the introduction of sound in film with The Jazz Singer in 1927. Some identify the decline of Tin Pan Alley with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, when the phonograph and radio largely replaced sheet music and became the primary aural entertainment of the age. Others believe that Tin Pan Alley subsisted well into the 1950s, through the introduction of folk and country in the 1930s and the big bands and swing music of the 1940s, until the reorganization of the music industry in the 1950s brought radio DJs to the forefront of music advertising and distribution, officially replacing Tin Pan Alley as the driving impetus behind American musical development.

Some of the greatest names in American musical history rose out of Tin Pan Alley. Recognize anyone?

  • Milton Ager
  • Thomas S. Allen
  • Harold Arlen
  • Ernest Ball
  • Irving Berlin
  • Bernard Bierman
  • George Botsford
  • Shelton Brooks
  • Nacio Herb Brown
  • Irving Caesar
  • Sammy Cahn
  • Hoagy Carmichael
  • George M. Cohan
  • Con Conrad
  • J. Fred Coots
  • Gussie Lord Davis
  • Buddy DeSylva
  • Walter Donaldson
  • Paul Dresser
  • Dave Dreyer
  • Al Dubin
  • Dorothy Fields
  • Ted Fio Rito
  • Max Freedman
  • Cliff Friend
  • George Gershwin
  • Ira Gershwin
  • E. Y. “Yip” Harburg
  • Charles K. Harris
  • James P. Johnson
  • Isham Jones
  • Scott Joplin
  • Gus Kahn
  • Bert Kalmar
  • Jerome Kern
  • Al Lewis
  • Sam M. Lewis
  • F. W. Meacham
  • Johnny Mercer
  • Theodora Morse
  • Ethelbert Nevin
  • Bernice Petkere
  • Maceo Pinkard
  • Lew Pollack
  • Cole Porter
  • Andy Razaf
  • Harry Ruby
  • Al Sherman
  • Lou Singer
  • Sunny Skylar
  • Ted Snyder
  • Kay Swift
  • Edward Teschemacher
  • Albert Von Tilzer
  • Harry Von Tilzer
  • Fats Waller
  • Harry Warren
  • Richard A. Whiting
  • Harry M. Woods
  • Jack Yellen
  • Vincent Youmans
  • Joe Young
  • Hy Zaret

For more like this, check out the Play Guide for Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.