4 Tin Pan Alley and Music Publishing

Unlike Europe, America did not have a 500-year history of notated music and a system of church and court patronage supporting. The music economy in the U.S. before 1900 was geared largely to providing for amateur performances in the homes of the growing middle class. We must constantly remind ourselves that before the spread of recording technology in the early 20th century, if someone wanted to enjoy music they would have to either make it themselves or convince somebody else to make if for them (often by paying them). So, the music industry catered primarily to those who wanted to learn to make music for their own entertainment, as that was typically the best or only option given the largely rural character of the country at that time. Some of that economy was devoted to providing amateur musicians with instruments on which to accompany their singing, primarily the guitar and the piano. But once one owns a guitar or piano, that instrument lasts for close to a lifetime, so the growth of the musical instrument industry was limited by the durability of its product. However, providing those musicians with the means to play an expanding repertoire of songs in a variety of styles through selling printed music was an industry with nearly limitless growth potential.

Another unique aspect of musical life in America was that the growing middle class began to demand its own culture, one not tied to the educated elite who exuded the pomposity of European taste from which the American middle class had always chosen to distance itself. Thus, the music publishing industry in America found its sweet spot of success in helping middle class Americans find their own culture, one that reflected the American spirit of commercial populism and freedom from European tradition. We must be careful, however, to also acknowledge that for many Americans, the European musical tradition, what we now call “classical music” was an alluring connection to the riches of European culture. Many Americans did and continue to embrace the European musical tradition despite the growth of American popular music. 

The new art of American popular songwriting eventually found its first “founding father” in the form of Stephen Foster (1826-1864), who wrote over 200 songs, several of which have become so identified with early American song that many assume them to be “folk” songs without authorship. Among Foster’s best-known songs are “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” “Oh! Susanna,” and “Camptown Races.” Unfortunately, and rather tellingly, Foster died an impoverished and destitute man in New York City. Tellingly because Foster’s lack of wealth is largely owing to the relatively unformed state of copyright law and the publishing industry when Foster was writing his songs (as we will learn later in this book), as well as his inconsistent and unsophisticated attempts to capitalize on his success. Had Foster lived just 50 years later, he likely would have earned a nice financial nest-egg for himself and his heirs through the copyrights to his songs, which were performed and recorded by a multitude of artist over the decades. But even if Foster didn’t make as much money as he should have, Foster is still a symbol of the emerging American commercial popular song industry. That industry has grown to become one of the most lucrative industries in the world for those who have the talent and persistence to find a seat at the table.

New York City was the financial and media capital of the U.S.A. in the 19th century, so it should come as no surprise that the U.S. publishing industry would find its home there. The particular area of the City in which the publishing companies began to congregate around 1885 was an area that has famously become known as “Tin Pan Alley,” a short stretch of West 28th Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway. The origins of the term Tin Pan Alley are disputed, but it certainly is connected with the unusual method by which these publishing firms would advertise their latest songs (or “plug” them, in the jargon of the day). We again must remember that we are talking about a time without records and without radio. The only way people would hear the latest songs would be to hear somebody perform them live, so the publishing companies did everything possible to increase the likelihood of that happening. One method was to place upright pianos in front of their offices and hire pianists (“song pluggers”) to play the latest songs for pedestrians walking past the building. Those inexpensive and likely poorly-tuned pianos apparently made a noise reminiscent of a tin pan. (This may have also been partly on purpose in an era when tacks were sometimes pushed into a piano’s hammers to increase the treble and volume of a piano in a crowded, loud room, such as a bar — thus the term “tack piano”.) Another possible source for the name is that the pianists hired to play these tunes put tin pans on their pianos to collect tips, which would also make a noise when passersby dropped coins in the pans. In any case, the term Tin Pan Alley stuck and is now recognized as not only the home site of the U.S. publishing industry in the late 19th century, but also the style of popular music that developed in conjunction with the industry.

The publishing companies that populated Tin Pan Alley were different from the other publishing companies in existence at the time, many of which had been publishing for over 100 years. These new companies published exclusively popular music (as opposed to classical or religious music), with songs written specifically to appeal to a mass audience of amateur music-makers who would sing and play the songs at home. This new breed of music publisher depended for their success on a new musical style, one that would be instantly appealing to a mass audience and easy enough to be sung and played by people with a limited level of musical training. The style that coalesced around these demands would become known as a “Tin Pan Alley” song, typically featuring an introductory “verse” followed by a “chorus” in AABA form (sometimes also referred to a 32-bar form due to each section of the chorus being 8 bars long).

The Tin Pan Alley business model and corresponding musical style became the dominant form of mainstream urban pop music in the United States from about 1885 lasting up until the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s. A whole style of singing and musical performance developed around the Tin Pan Alley form, giving rise to the some of the most successful music careers of the 20th century, including those of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland.

One of the more important aspects of the Tin Pan Alley popular song publishing business model that is important to keep in mind is the importance of the songwriter relative to the performer. In the Tin Pan Alley era, songwriters were as well known, if not often better known, than the singers who performed and recorded their songs. The songs and their composers were the real stars, and the performers just the vehicles for delivering those songs. It wasn’t until after recordings and radio performances became widely available in the 1920s that performers began to acquire celebrity status rivaling that of the best known songwriters. But the songwriters of the Tin Pan Alley era would always maintain their status as having contributed to what we now refer to as “The Great American Songbook.” (Note that there is not any actual book known as the Great American Songbook; that is only a phrase meant to refer to the hypothetical collection of all the most successful songs that were part of the Tin Pan Alley tradition.) Among the songwriters who gained and retain celebrity status from that era include George Gershwin, George Cohan, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter.

One of the most important dynamics in popular music of the 20th century was the change from the Tin Pan Alley paradigm to rock and roll in the 1950s. That process took over 30 years and involved the ascendance of non-mainstream musical genres from the rural southern states, particularly blues and country, to a position where they could challenge the lock on popular music held by the Tin Pan Alley songwriters and publishers. There were many players in that shift, but one of the most important was a record company executive and publisher by the name of Ralph Peer (1892-1960). 

Peer started as a record producer and A&R man (artists and repertoire) for the small record company Okeh Records. Peer was instrumental in producing the very first vocal blues recording by a black singer in 1920, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” which proved that there was a commercial potential for such records that defied the New York-centric Tin Pan Alley model. He was also personally responsible for the very first recordings of southern white musicians performing what we now call “country” music (at the time, it was called Old Time, folk, or hillbilly music). Those two genres, blues and country, would develop as alternative styles to Tin Pan Alley over the next three decades until they were combined into the hybrid of rock and roll in the 1950s. Peer’s persistence in promoting and commercializing southern, rural and non-white alternatives to Tin Pan Alley makes him a pivotal figure in the development of the modern popular music industry. 

One of the important aspects to Peer’s career is his success in producing commercially successful recordings of newly-composed songs, rather than treating southern music as part of an antiquated “folk” style. Peer wanted his records to sell and to compete in the marketplace with Tin Pan Alley. He was a businessman, not a musician. One of the important aspects of Peer’s  formula was recording songs that could be copyrighted so as to earn future royalties for his company and his performers, taking advantage of the same business and legal structures that supported Tin Pan Alley. Peer started his own publishing company, Southern Music Publishing, which became one of the most successful non-Tin Pan Alley publishing companies of the 20th century. In the chapters that follow, we will see how the nature of the publishing business and copyright law gave Peer the tools to compete with and eventually be part of the overthrow of the Tin Pan Alley dynasty.

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