The History of Tin Pan Alley

Nate Wooley
Big Band Tin Pan Alley
Tin Pan Alley in 2018

Tin Pan Alley exists both as a cultural construct, and as a physical place, the latter being a rough grouping of apartments, offices, rooms, spaces on West 28th Street between Fifth and Broadway in Manhattan. If you were to go there now, chances are you’d be underwhelmed by its mundane appearance. But, at the turn of the 20th century, this typical Manhattan neighborhood block represented a creative and commercial energy that was to have a hand in American music today. 

The end date of the Tin Pan Alley era is ambiguous, but most agree that 1885 marked the beginning of the era when Willis Witmark, founder of one of the first publishing houses to concentrate on popular over religious or classical sheet music, moved to the 28th street location from Manhattan’s entertainment district, then located about 14 blocks south near Union Square. The history of the name, Tin Pan Alley, is a mystery as well although there is an apocryphal story that the term was coined by Monroe H. Rosenfeld of the New York Herald comparing the constant sound of multiple pianos with questionable intonation on the block to children banging on tin pans. 

The story of how Tin Pan Alley grew on 28th street is one of fiscal innovation rather than artistic idealism. In the 19th century, copyright law was a bit anarchic. There wasn’t a robust central agency to protect the holders of copyrighted music until the establishment of ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) in 1914. In practice, this meant that if a piece of sheet music was released by Publisher A and became a hit, it could immediately be printed by Publishers B through Z, with little or no legal recourse available to the original publisher. Rather than battle it out in court to maintain their rights, publishers of the late 1800s chose to strike deals with their counterparts in other markets to produce alternate versions of their music; a New York publisher may have deals with publishers in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago to print and release the same song in different editions specific to that region. 

With this sense of cooperation in mind, a central headquarters of operation, like Tin Pan Alley, made it possible for deals to be struck with phenomenal speed in the pre-telephone era. And, more importantly, the concentration of publishers created a hub of songwriting activity, where freelance composers, as well as those with permanent positions with a publishing house, could work in a potent atmosphere of creativity. But, while it is clear that the level of songwriting from this time and place was phenomenal, producing such composers as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin amongst others, the primary goal of this artistic aggregation was less musical artistry than the transformation of music into commodity.

In a period before recorded music, the family parlor was the center of musical activity, and it was the amateur musician that kept instrument shops—and especially music publishers—in business. In the years after the Civil War, Americans were buying more than 25,000 pianos a year and about half a million people were learning piano by 1887. Based on a rough statistical record from the year, this meant about one in 29 households, nationwide, contained someone learning to play music at home.1 American music publishing in the late 19th century was fast becoming a viable industry.

And what did these amateur musicians want to play? Before Tin Pan Alley, the majority of sheet music sold in stores consisted of religious hymns and light classical pieces. American music publishers took the late 19th upsurge in amateur music-making, however, as a cue to invest in songs coming from the most popular entertainment form of that time: minstrel shows which incorporated musical influences from African slaves, as well as the Scottish, Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrant cultures. Composers for these shows integrated elements of jazz and blues, as well as earlier forms like cakewalk2 and ragtime3 music, into their pieces, which made them attractive to the audience learning piano in their homes. 

These tunes were based on a simple repetition of verses and a chorus, perhaps preceded by a short recitative to set the narrative scene.4 The harmonies were set out in an almost workman-like fashion and worked typically in the service of a singable, melody. This simplicity made these pieces easy for amateurs to perform and may have played some small part in the continuing popularity of Tin Pan Alley with later generations of singers and jazz musicians as themes for improvised variation, but more on that later.

First, back to how Tin Pan Alley helped to shape the music business in America. The organization of publishers in central areas allowed them to amass a certain amount of unified power that gave them access to US politics in order promote their business interests. In 1895, many of the publishers found in Tin Pan Alley banded together to for the Music Publishers Association of the United States, an organization, which is still active in American publishing concerns and, arguably, provided a framework for modern performing rights groups such as BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC.5

On the street level, Tin Pan Alley’s early attempts at mass marketing spawned one of its most widely storied and interesting subcultures: the “song plugger”. The “song plugger” was employed by a publisher to represent their wares by performing the organization’s most recent songs in public settings to increase popular interest. The “plugger” would travel to popular past-times such as sporting events and perform the song, demonstrating its qualities to a more-or-less captive crowd. This practice created a familiarity, which then evolved into demand in some ways similar to the way constant repetition of pop songs in video form on MTV. Many of these “pluggers”, songwriters such as Victor Youmans, Harry Warren, and George Gershwin, worked their way up the ranks to become vital components of the Tin Pan Alley song machine.

An even more aggressive of “plugging” was known as “booming”. Essentially “plugging” on steroids, “booming” used a crew of musicians that would infiltrate large to ceaselessly repeat a song the publishing house wanted pushed. The crew would perform the piece sometimes more than 30 times per event using a large metal horn to amplify the voice to crowds of over 20,000 potential customers. 

But, the best possible way to get their product to the widest audience was to get a star of stage or early radio to make one of the publishing houses’ tunes a hit. The right song, in the hands of the right singer, could mean the difference between hundreds of regional sales to thousands nationwide. And, so, each firm went to great lengths to court the entertainers most popular in the public eye; inviting them to their showrooms for private performances of new songs, the rights of which they would sometimes wave for the free promotion of the star’s performance. If a singer or actor demanded a change to the composition, making it fit better with their musical ability or public persona, the in-house composer would happily make the adjustments on the spot.

At its height, Tin Pan Alley was producing thousands of songs a year for the amateur musical public. The first hit of this era was Charles Pratt’s “Wait Till the Clouds Roll By” but the biggest smash by far was Charles K. Harris’s surprise “After the Ball” which, in 1891 grossed $25,000 a week (over $700,000 in 2019), eventually selling more than 5 million copies.6 Harris was one of the first songwriters to publish his own work, releasing “After The Ball” under his own steam after being offended by the very small amount offered for the song by the M. Witmark Company. The fact that the money from the song’s success went straight to the songwriter gave other composers the confidence to start their own firms, thus beginning to undermine the larger publishing system’s hierarchy.

1 Based on United States Census numbers from 1887 and assuming an average of four people per household.
A march like musical form, usually in 2/4 with alternating strong beats giving the music an “oom-pah” feel
3 Similar to a cakewalk in its duple meter but with a highly syncopated lead or melody line.
4 Although the recitative practice found greater traction after the move to musical theater with a narrative through-line in the 1920s.

The History of Tin Pan Alley