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Tin Pan Alley

What was Tin Pan Alley?

This term designates a group of music producers and composers who dominated the American music industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The term was born around 1885, when several music publishers settled in an alleyway in Manhattan, New York. The name was taken from the loud sound that some performers’ pianos made when they taught their works.

Gene Austin – Ain’t She Sweet (1927)

This song was composed by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen, and it helped typify the Roaring Twenties. It suceeded greatly and was a crucial piece of music within the Tin Pan Alley repertoire.

In its early days, Tin Pan Alley specialized in producing musical scores that could be performed by amateur singers or small groups in villages, focusing on melodramatic ballads and comic songs (novelty songs). Later on, it expanded its repertoire to other popular styles such as ragtime, cakewalk and vaudeville, whose performers would come to these companies looking for new songs to incorporate into their performances. Due to their complexity, jazz and blues were only incorporated in a superficial  way.

How important was it?

The Tin Pan Alley companies succeeded in improving copyright protection laws. Because of this, composers, lyricists and music publishers began to work towards mutual economic benefit.

In the 1920s, it became a genre of its own, which stood as a synonym for American popular music. It was used for films and musicals, improvised by jazz musicians and sung by great voices like Ella Fitzgerald.

Fred Astaire and Judy Garland – Easter Parade (1933)

This is the version of a song composed by Irving Berlin, one of the few Tin Pan Alley composers who was responsible for both the lyrics and the music of its songs.

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A group of companies, most of them from Tin Pan Alley, founded the Music Publishers Association of the United States in 1895 with the aim of protecting copyright. Later in 1914, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was born, banning future members who were not endorsed by other members. By the end of the 1910s, 90% of the production of sheet music and sound recordings sold in the USA paid royalties to ASCAP. Tin Pan Alley alredy dominated the music industry.

How did it evolve?

The figure of the composer gained importance. His music sheets could be played by different performers without losing his sign. It was based on elegant sounds which would go from simple songs to big symphony works.

It soon turned into an imaginary line which would go from Broadway theatres to Hollywood movies. The golden quintet included George Gershwin, Jerome Kem, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers.

George Gershwim – Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

This is a recording of this composition in which the author himself plays the piano accompanied by an orchestra. He was a member of the Tin Pan Alley’s golden quintet, in its most educated aspect.

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The artistic and industrial importance of the Tin Pan Alley companies fell dramatically at the beginning of the Great Depression in the 1930s. During this period, the phonographic and radio industries began to replace the score publishing companies as the engine of the American music industry. However, it continued to exert some influence until the 1950s, when rock and roll began to develop and was replaced by the Brill Building.

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