July 11, 2019 History
Tin Pan Alley — Part I: Tin Pan Alley’s Name and Accomplishments

28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was the epicenter of popular music at the turn of the 19th/20th Centuries and became famous around the world as Tin Pan Alley.  This four-part series explores: 1) Tin Pan Alley’s name and accomplishments; 2) its musical styles and composers 3) the social forces and technological developments that caused it to rise and fall; and 4) its lasting significance for our culture and business models.

The Origins of the Name Tin Pan Alley

The term “Tin Pan Alley” originated as the name for the strip of row houses running between Fifth and Sixth Avenues on 28th Street. It is no exaggeration to say that these blocks are where the American popular music industry began and saw its most prolific and diverse output. The name for this block gained such fame that it became the figurative term for the whole of the U.S. music business. Today, “Tin Pan Alley” identifies neighborhoods around the world where musicians gather, such as Denmark Street in London.

“Tin Pan Alley” probably derives from several sources. Those of us who are older may remember using pots on New Year’s Eve as noisemakers up and down our block. This is a practice that actually began in Europe as a way of marking a marriage and was termed shiveree, charivari, skimmington or tin-kettling.

“Tin pan” was also used in the late 19th Century to describe a mediocre piano especially one ill-played by an amateur.

These usages likely led to the first application of the term to the music scene on 28th Street in an article that appeared on May 3, 1903 in The World (New York). The writer attempted to capture the sound of the cheap uprights playing different tunes as writers hawked songs to publishers or publishers hawked them to musicians and show producers. He wrote: “It gets its name from the tin-panny sounds of pianos that are banged and rattled there by night and day as new songs and old are played over and over into the ears of singing comedians, comic-opera prima donnas and single soubrettes and ‘sister teams’ from vaudeville. Now, ‘Tin Pan Alley’ is considered a term of reproach by the Tin Pan Alleyites. They prefer to designate it as ‘Melody Lane.’ But that is a poetic fancy that those who go down that way to hear the ‘new, big, screaming hits’ do not indulge in.” [Note: Some hold that Monroe Rosenfeld, alternately identified as a out-of-town reporter and musician, named the street.]

Unprecedented Creativity in Music, Lyrics, and Graphic Arts

Regardless of who named this stretch of 28th Street, it became home to America’s most notable music publishers at the turn of the 19th/20th Century. In the first two decades of its existence, Tin Pan Alley produced a succession of songs, remarkable from a commercial standpoint and for their endurance in American culture. The market potential for songs in those days was enormous, even by today’s standards. Charles K. Harris’s “After The Ball” published in 1892 sold over five million copies, and numerous songs from this period became widely known and are a part of our traditions today.

The outpouring of artistry from Tin Pan Alley was not limited to the music and lyrics produced, but also included the incredible sheet music cover art that is still cherished today. (As evidenced by the pieces used for illustrations in these articles.)

Moreover, many people are unaware that one of the truly creative aspects of the street was the new business models that it pioneered. [These will be discussed in Part 4.]

 

Timeline

Some place the start of the Tin Pan Alley era in 1885 or 1890 and claim that it was over as early as 1909 (According to phone records and some facsimiles of sheet music covers, it would seem that most of the music publishers left the block by 1909.). Others extend the Tin Pan Alley era to the early 30s and even to the 50s.

Some claim the first music publisher to move to the block was Leo Feist, a corset salesman who had a penchant for writing catchy lyrics. In 1897, Feist rented a room at 1227 Broadway and with a piano and a partner began the music publication business with his first song, “Does True Love Ever Run Smooth.“ According to William Fisher in One Hundred and Fifty Years of Music Publishing In The United States (Oliver Ditson, 1933) “that one room office grew into two buildings.” Others claim it was M. Witmark and Sons, who moved uptown from 14th Street to 49-51 West 28th Street in 1893, nearly four years before Feist, becoming the first publisher to set up shop in the block.

A Street Guide to Tin Pan Alley Publishers (PDF)

 

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