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October 24, 2019

Tin Pan Alley – Part IV: Its Lasting Significance

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.

One cannot put a value on the treasure of classic American songs that were born on these two short blocks of 28th Street or the careers of some of the country’s finest composers that were nurtured here. That being said, in many ways the surprising, long-term legacy of Tin Pan Alley is the astounding inventiveness that gave us many of the marketing techniques we take for granted today.

The publishers of Tin Pan Alley were always at the forefront of attempts to improve U.S. copyright laws and they made a tremendous lasting contribution to American music when, lead by Victor Herbert, they found The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1914 to aid and protect the interests of established publishers and composers.  Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and John Philip Sousa were among the founding members. Today, a hundred years later, this organization is the leading U.S. performing rights organization representing over 470,000 songwriters, composers and music publishers.

The New Business Models Invented in Tin Pan Alley

 The trailblazers of Tin Pan Alley created the modern music marketing industry. Developing an entirely new business model that would influence marketing until today, these visionaries made so many leaps forward it is hard to capture all of them. Here are just some of the profound changes they introduced.

Up until the rise of Tin Pan Alley there were no paid music writers, lyricists, publishers or producers, but the Alley changed all that.  This is not to say that popular songs were not written and published, but nobody was hired expressly to compose and write music on demand for a mass audience. Publishers on Tin Pan Alley soon understood the wisdom of having their staff composers and lyricists create special material for a star’s exclusive use in order to promote sales of the sheet music. If a vaudevillian needed to spruce up an act or an impresario his new revue, they would go directly to the publishers for songs written to specifications. Publishers recognized the value of having a star sing their songs, so they would allow stars to use them at no cost, simply to get exposure for the songs and increase demand for the sheet music. (Second- and third-rate performers often paid for rights to use a new song.)

To know what songs would sell sheet music, publishers began doing market research to find out what people wanted to hear. The market was surveyed to determine what style of song was selling best and then the composers were directed to compose in that style. Once written, a song was actually tested with both performers and listeners to determine which songs would be published and which would be discarded.

Publishing houses found new ways of hawking their wares.  The object of the new style of marketing was to get a song heard by as many people as possible.  Publishers invented the “song plugger.”  These were pianists and singers who made their living demonstrating songs to promote sales of sheet music. Most music stores had song pluggers on staff, while other pluggers were employed by the publishers to travel and familiarize the public with their new publications. Among the ranks of song pluggers on 28th Street were George Gershwin and Harry Warren.22 Nightly, songwriters on 28th Street made the rounds to dozens of cafes, music halls, saloons, and theaters, pitching songs, getting them sung by performers, and devising creative methods to ensure that the songs were recognized.  Sing-alongs, free sheet music distribution, staged events (in which a songwriter pretended to be part of an onstage act) – these were just a few of the plugging/marketing techniques initiated by the Alley.

Songwriters themselves became active marketers of their music. Aspiring songwriters came to 28th Street to demonstrate tunes they hoped to sell. Unfortunately, if they were unknowns with no previous hits, the name of someone with 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 (including rights to put someone else’s name on the sheet music as the composer).

Composers, who became established producers of successful songs, were hired to be on the staff of the music houses. Others were hired by publishers on an ad hoc basis to create songs of a type which a rival publisher was selling and which the public was currently buying. Some songwriters became so successful that they founded their own publishing firms, such as Harry Von Tilzer and Irving Berlin. [In fact in about 1904, when Irving Berlin, was 16 he went to work for Harry Von Tilzer as a plugger.]

It was also here in Tin Pan Alley that  publishers and writers first learned how to sell their music using newspaper advertising that made grandiose statements and claims.

One of the essential weapons developed for this new marketing arsenal was what we call “packaging” today. Tin Pan Alley publishers recognized early on that the song’s cover played a very important role in the selling of popular sheet music. From the mid-1890s, publishers took great care with their covers. Sometimes a combination of photograph and illustration was used; sometimes a performer’s photograph appeared on the cover. A performer’s photograph on a cover served as an incentive for the performer to retain the song and to encourage fans of the performer to buy the sheet as a souvenir. Whatever the motivation, by the turn of the century cover art was a significant element in helping to sell copies of sheet music.  Today, these covers are collected and prized for their creativity and beauty.  Interestingly, they are often comprise the only extant photographs of some of the places and people of this era, giving the covers added desirability, importance and value.

Plaque at the corner of 28th Street and Fifth Avenue commemorating Tin Pan Alley.