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Tin Pan Alley is the name given to the collection of New York City music publishers and songwriters who dominated the popular music of the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The name originally referred to a specific place: West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, and a plaque (see below) on the sidewalk on 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth commemorates it. This block is now considered to be part of Manhattan's NoMad neighborhood and the Flower District.
The start of Tin Pan Alley is usually dated to about 1885, when a number of music publishers set up shop in the same district of Manhattan. The end of Tin Pan Alley is less clear cut. Some date it to the start of the Great Depression in the 1930s when the phonograph and radio supplanted sheet music as the driving force of American popular music, while others consider Tin Pan Alley to have continued into the 1950s when earlier styles of American popular music were upstaged by the rise of rock & roll.
The origins of the name "Tin Pan Alley" are unclear. The most popular account holds that it was originally a derogatory reference in the New York Herald referring to the sound made by many pianos all playing different tunes being exactly like the banging of many tin pans in an alleyway. With time, this nickname was popularly embraced and many years later it came to describe the U.S. music industry in general. According to Katherine Charlton, the "term Tin Pan Alley referred to the thin, tinny tone quality of cheap upright pianos used in music publisher's offices."
By extension, the term "Tin Pan Alley" is also used to describe any area within a major city with a high concentration of music publishers or musical instrument stores – an example being Denmark Street in London's West End. In the 1920s the street became known as "Britain's Tin Pan Alley" because of the large number of music shops, a title it still holds.
In the mid-19th century, copyright control on melodies was not as strict in the United States, and competing publishers would often print their own versions of the songs popular at the time.
With stronger copyright protection laws late in the century, songwriters, composers, lyricists, and publishers started working together for their mutual financial benefit.
The biggest music houses established themselves in New York City. Small local publishers (often connected with commercial printers or music stores) continued to flourish throughout the country, and there were important regional music publishing centers in Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Boston. When a tune became a significant local hit, rights to it were usually purchased from the local publisher by one of the big New York firms.
Aspiring songwriters came to demonstrate tunes they hoped to sell. When tunes were purchased from 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). Songwriters who became established producers of successful songs were hired to be on the staff of the music houses. The most successful of them, like Harry Von Tilzer and Irving Berlin, founded their own publishing firms.
"Song pluggers" were pianists and singers who made their living demonstrating songs to promote sales of sheet music. Most music stores had song pluggers on staff. Other pluggers were employed by the publishers to travel and familiarize the public with their new publications. Among the ranks of song pluggers were George Gershwin and Harry Warren.
When vaudeville performers played New York City, they would often visit various Tin Pan Alley firms to find new songs for their acts. Second- and third-rate performers often paid for rights to use a new song, while famous stars were given free copies of publisher's new numbers or were paid to perform them, the publishers knowing this was valuable advertising.
Initially Tin Pan Alley specialized in melodramatic ballads and comic novelty songs, but it embraced the newly popular styles of the cakewalk and ragtime music. Later on jazz and blues were incorporated, although less completely, as Tin Pan Alley was oriented towards producing songs that amateur singers or small town bands could perform from printed music. Tin Pan Alley manufactured jazzy and bluesy pop-songs and dance numbers. Much of the public in the late 1910 and the 1920s did not know the difference between these commercial products and authentic jazz and blues.
A group of Tin Pan Alley music houses formed the Music Publishers Association of the United States on June 11, 1895, and unsuccessfully lobbied the federal government in favor of the Treloar Copyright Bill, which would have changed the term of copyright for published music from 24 to 40 years, renewable for an additional 20 instead of 14 years. The bill would also have included music among the subject matter covered by the Manufacturing clause of the International Copyright Act of 1891.
The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) was founded in 1914 to aid and protect the interests of established publishers and composers. New members were only admitted with sponsorship of existing members.
During the Second World War, Tin Pan Alley and the federal government teamed up to produce a war song that would inspire the American public to support the fight against the Axis, something they both “seemed to believe… was vital to the war effort.” The Office of War Information was in charge of this project, and believed that Tin Pan Alley contained “a reservoir of talent and competence capable of influencing people’s feelings and opinions” that it “might be capable of even greater influence during wartime than [during World War I].” Due to the large fan base of Tin Pan Alley, the government believed that this sector of the music business would be far-reaching in spreading patriotic sentiments.
In the United States Congress, congressman quarrelled over a proposal to exempt musicians and other entertainers from the draft in order to remain in the country to boost morale. However, this was contested by those who strongly believed that only those who provided more substantial contributions to the war effort should benefit from any draft legislation.
As the war progressed, those in charge of writing the would-be national war song began to understand that the interest of the public lay elsewhere. In her book, God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War, Kathleen E.R. Smith writes that “escapism seemed to be a high priority for music listeners,” leading “the composers of Tin Pan Alley [to struggle] to write a war song that would appeal both to civilians and the armed forces.” By the end of the war, no such song had been produced that could rival hits like “Over There” from World War I.
Whether or not the amount of songs circulated from Tin Pan Alley between 1939 and 1945 was greater than during the First World War is still debated. In his book The Songs That Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, John Bush Jones cites Jeffrey C. Livingstone as claiming that Tin Pan Alley released more songs during World War I than it did in World War II. Jones, on the other hand, argues that “there is also strong documentary evidence that the output of American war-related songs during World War II was most probably unsurpassed in any other war.”
Leading Tin Pan Alley composers and lyricists include:
Tin Pan Alley's biggest hits included:
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