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Tin Pan Alley and Its Publishing Houses

This week, we present a study on the Tin Pan Alley publishing house:

M. Witmark & Sons.


Popular American sheet music reached its heyday in the term:
Tin Pan Alley.

Custom has it that Monroe Rosenfeld coined the term in one of his articles for the New York Herald Tribune. A colourful story is told of how he was impressed during a visit to Harry Von Tilzer’s offices at 42 West 28th Street. Old brassy pianos filled the streets below with sounds of clanging tin pans as he walked along. However it might have happened, the term was destined to become a label for one of the most colourful periods of American History - not only a generic name for sheet music publishers, wherever they were established.

The fact that production of pianos and player pianos had reached record heights in 1899, when more than 350,000 were made, had something to do with the appeal of the term since it clearly defined the type of piano sounds of the period. Practically everyone was learning to play either the Pianola or the Victrola, virtually anyone could play a player piano or a record machine. It is also true that very few local publishers could produce Hits on their own territory after 1899. Their maximum regional sales could not top a thousand copies so potential hits had to be bought out by the Tin Pan Alley giants with their distribution channels virtually guaranteed.

The geographic area of Tin Pan Alley could be best described as that englobed by West 28th Street between Broadway and 6th Ave. in Manhattan. For over 70 years, music publishing was synonymous with Tin Pan Alley, located around the Exchange Building at 145 West Forty-Fifth Street with its 13 floors of small to medium-sized music publishing firms.

The sheer number of songs copyrighted by these publishers is not fully appreciated. The T.B. Harms catalogue contained over 25,000 songs when Harms died in 1906 and it was taken over by Max Dreyfus and Jerome Kern. There were many smaller companies that held real jewels in their catalogue, Joe Morris Co., Von Tilzer, Gus Edwards and the first Black-owned publishers, Gotham-Attucks Music Co.

To a great degree, the new methods of "pushing" or "plugging" songs and promotion in general had opened the door for these younger houses, but also the taste in popular music had changed by the end of the 19th century.

First of all, it must be said that the people that started these new firms were well versed in what the public wanted. They were salesmen. They did not hesitate to pay top dollar to the songwriters and the cover artists. There is one theme that runs through the history of Tin Pan Alley publishers though; for the most part, they all had songwriting experience and were embittered by the meager royalties they had received for their first pieces published by the old establishment.

If they did not have the money to pay professional pluggers directly, they went through jobbers, or sheet music wholesalers such as A.H. Goetting of Springfield, Mass. who owned Enterprise Music Supply Co. of New York, or Sherman & Clay of San Francisco, who eventually published their own pieces. A song might go through a series of hands before it became a hit. For example, "Smiles" was first published on a shoestring by its composer, Lee S. Roberts of Chicago - and sat on the shelf. It was then picked up by Mose Gumble, Jerome h. Remick’s extraordinary manager and professionally plugged into the 3 million copies hit.

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The story of these Tin Pan Alley publishers is actually the story of each individual firm and the characters that started them. From Will Rossiter, whose failure to find a publisher for his song, "Sweet Nellie Bawn", pushed him into the publishing business, becoming one of the most innovative on the market, to Joe Stern, necktie salesman, and Ed Marks, corset salesman, who both started on the proverbial shoestring on 14th St., their stories are the story of the American Dream. While Vaudeville was in its heyday and Broadway flourished, they saw the start of the movie industry and hooked onto its need for sound as a complement to the images and content.

One of the main achievements of Tin Pan Alley publishers was breaking the hold on sales of sheet music by the musical instrument and music stores. Sheet music was expensive at the end of the 19th century at 50 cents and when Woolworth’s opened their music counter at a dime a copy and Macy’s opened their sheet music section, all the department and dime stores followed, to say nothing of the nickelodeon flickers.

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One of the factors influencing the rise of new Tin Pan Alley publishing was the founding of the Music Publishers Association of the United States on June 11, 1895 which pushed forward reform of copyright laws. Among these changes was the extension of a copyright to music for 40 years with a 20 years renewal after that. In 1897, another change took place in copyright laws, adding the word "musical’ to the old 1856 Drama law and requiring that all public performances obtain the permission of the copyright owners, although it took many years to enforce this law.

The business was also plagued with problems, often similar to those it has today: counterfeits (hawked in the streets at half the legal price, often printed in Canada, or photoengraved such as those made by Couchois), accusations of monopolistic tactics, friction between publishers and music teachers, between publishers and recording companies, fighting among members of the Trade associations (resulting in the formation of new ones) and among the unions involved in the business (typographers, etc. )...

The 1909 act which reformed copyright laws brought a certain calm in the business, allowing it to grow more or less constantly in the years that followed.