Tin Pan Alley refers to a specific stretch of pavement in New York City, and a specific time period. West 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. And from the mid- 19th through the early 20th centuries.
At the start of this period, music copyrights were more fluid than they are now. Each region of the country had their own publishing houses and put out the sheet music for that area. Keep in mind, these are the days before radio, or even records, and most houses had a piano, and someone who could play it.
One of the big changes that New York brought to the market was a shift to vocal music that wasn’t classical or religious. Originally, the publishers were situated in the entertainment district of New York, but eventually they moved uptown.
You may be wondering, if this is before radio or records, how did people even know about this music? There are a few ways that you could hear new songs. The publishers hired song pluggers, whose job it was to travel to stores (department stores sold sheet music as well as music stores) and perform the songs. Having a good voice wasn’t essential, what was essential was volume and the ability to engage with the shoppers
Along with the song pluggers, there was Vaudeville. Even little towns were on some sort of Vaudeville circuit. A really good example of a Vaudeville singer was Ethel Merman. Not a good singer, by any stretch of the imagination, but, whoo boy, was she loud. She could wake up someone dozing in the farthest balcony and get them excited about what she was singing.
These performers would come to New York in the course of their travels and would come to Tin Pan Alley to get new songs. One of the most famous of these composers was Irving Berlin. Most of his music, but especially his early works, have the Tin Pan Alley feel to them.
Why was it called Tin Pan Alley?
No one knows for sure. There is a lot of speculation. The most plausible theory comes from a story about Harry von Tilzer (composer of Bird in a Gilded Cage, and Under the Anheuser Bush). Harry had modified his piano by placing paper strips down the strings to achieve a more percussive sound. A reporter interviewing him said it made the piano sound like a tin can. He entitled his article Tin Pan Alley.
When Tin Pan Alley died out is also debated. Some people say that it died out during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Others say that happened right after WWII. Bob Dylan said that he killed off Tin Pan Alley in 1985. (Seems a bit grandiose, even for a Nobel laureate!)
After Tin Pan Alley
I agree with the people that hold that Tin Pan Alley just became concentrated into the Brill Building. Before WWII, many publishers had moved slightly uptown to the building at 1619 Broadway. By 1962, the building contained 165 music businesses. While a lot of these were publishers, there was so much more there.
Last month, I wrote about a song called See You in September. It was written after lunch on a Friday. By 4:30, they had the finished song. The song was pitched to a couple of agents. But 8 pm, it was accepted by The Tempos. By Monday it was recorded and by Friday, only a week after the song was written, it was being played on the radio and was a hit. The speed of all this was made possible by the fact that everything was contained in the Brill Building. The writers worked there. The agents were there, the recording studio was there.
When Carole King wrote It Might as Well Rain until September, she worked at the Brill Building. She recorded a demo of the song to be pitched to Bobby Vee. Later, when producer Don Kirshner heard her demo, he had it released as a single. Everything from the writing to the demo, pitching, and to the final decision to release the demo as is to the public happened within this one building. (There were actually a couple of buildings that used this format, but they go under the collective title of the Brill Building)
The biggest influence of this style of publishing, was to take the emphasis off of the singer. They could be easily replaced. The publishers brought the power back to themselves. There was a format that the writers followed to target a song for the new teen audience, and they churned out hit after hit. One part of this format was to take the composition to its most basic, simplest version. The composers were essentially dumbing the music down for the teen audiences. This gives us the idea of the 4-chord pop song.
By the mid-1960s though, the performers started writing their own songs, or conversely, some of the writers started singing their own songs. Carole King, and Neil Diamond are among a long, long list of Tin Pan Alley writers who started recording their own songs. It was this movement, and yes, Bob Dylan was a part of it, that finally put an end to Tin Pan Alley.
I will admit that I really like some of the music from this period. I love Carole King, and Neil Diamond. Burt Bacharach and Hal David were right there writing things like Do You Know the Way to San Jose. While I may think that some of these songs are schlock now, I loved them at the time. And they still hold a place in my heart.
Do you have a favorite Tin Pan Alley song? What do you think about the movement taking power away from the publishers and putting it in the hands of the performers? Where do you think the music industry is going now? Have I asked enough questions? I’ll be posting some songs from the Brill Building and the original Tin Pan Alley this week on my Minnich Music FaceBook page this week, so be sure to check them out.
Until next time!