October 8, 2019
Tin Pan Alley — Part III: The Reasons for Its Rise and Fall
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 Rise of Tin Pan Alley
There are five key factors in the rise of Tin Pan Alley.
After the American Civil War, over 25,000 new pianos a year were sold in America and by 1887, over 500,000 youths were studying piano. As a result, the demand for sheet music grew rapidly, and more and more publishers began to enter the market.
During the last fifteen years of the 19th century, New York began to emerge as the center of popular music publishing. This happened primarily because New York was becoming an important center for the musical and performing arts. As such, much of the talent was in New York City, and it was where one could immediately see trends and changes in musical style.
Up until the early 1890s, 14th Street had been the center of theatre and the music publishing business. Then, the theatre district shifted uptown along Broadway stretching from 23rd to 34th Street. Between roughly 1880 and 1920, this area was the heart of the New York theatre district and dozens of theatres with minstrel and vaudeville troupes offered shows nightly. The music industry followed the theatre district to NoMad in the area around 28th Street.
This was critically important to the rise of the Alley, because New York was the capital of theatre and vaudeville, which was seeing tremendous growth nationwide and 28th Street was in the center of it all. Theatres were constructed across the country in great numbers beginning in the 1890s. Circuits opened theatres with names like Strand, Lyceum and Orpheum in towns and villages everywhere. All were supplied talent by booking agencies such as William Morris and Keith-Albee, most of which were located in New York City. (In fact, William Morris was located on 43 West 28th Street.) Each year, before they set out to troop across the country, vaudeville performers would stop at publishing houses for songs they might use to freshen up their acts.
A somewhat incidental but likely factor was the subway stop on 28th Street. During the heyday of Tin Pan Alley the subway was elevated, but it did stop at 28th on Broadway at the very heart of Tin Pan Alley, as it still does today.
The rise of Tin Pan Alley was a product of changing times. Major technological, economic and social developments created an expanding industry of popular culture in the early 20th century that allowed Tin Pan Alley composers to operate on a truly national level.
The End of Tin Pan Alley
Something as special as Tin Pan Alley could not exist forever, and the significant technological and social changes that had created it would soon move on and pass it by. There were five factors in the decline of Tin Pan Alley.
The theatre district moved on again from the NoMad area to its current location (roughly 42nd to 50th Streets).
Although some Tin Pan Alley songwriters successfully became Broadway show writers (Showboat was written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II and Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin), the business began to change. It became increasingly difficult for songwriters to pitch and place single songs in the more tightly organized new shows, as they had done in the vaudeville shows.
Sheet music became less popular as the means to reproduce music as recordings became more readily available and radio and TV became popular. In 1877, Thomas Edison invented his phonograph which played cylindrical records, and by 1897, the record industry began to sell flat discs commercially. These flat disks were an invention of Emile Berliner, who also invented the gramophone on which to play them. By 1908, the gramophone and its flat discs became the public’s preferred machine and playback device. It wasn’t until the 1920s that record sales enjoyed enough popularity to interest Tin Pan Alley. The record companies needed Tin Pan Alley’s output, and Tin Pan Alley needed the additional plug capabilities of continual, permanent performances.24 The publishers also did not mind the two-cents-a-copy royalty given them by the record companies after the copyright law of 1909 was enacted. While the creep was steady, it was not until after the Second World War that the record industry would fully replace the Alley as the mainstay of the music business.
Simultaneous with these events, radio promoted music sales nationwide and worldwide, and increasingly, it was the performance, not the sheet music that sold. With the coming of rock and roll, the transition was complete, and recorded performances became the most important aspect of popular music, rather than sales of the song itself. Popular music, which had been originally created for adults who went to vaudeville shows, theatres, nightclubs and saloons and who bought sheet music to sing and play, became dominated by teenagers. These youngsters were largely unskilled in instrument playing when compared to their forebears and valued recorded music more than the than the written music and words.
When sound technology hit the movies in 1927, with the transformative success of The Jazz Singer, the first full length motion picture with synchronized dialogue, the deed was complete. Suddenly, the movies could not only talk, they could sing. The real action for songwriters began shifting to Hollywood, where vertically integrated shops hired songwriters to move West and work for the film studios.