In the first decades of the 20th century, a two block stretch of 28th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, dominated popular music and launched the Great American Songbook.
Imagine a time before Pandora and Spotify, before terrestrial radio, and before the large scale circulation of recorded music of any kind. This was the scenario in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Prior to the advent and popularization of phonographs and radio transmission, music was an exclusively live offering whether heard at home or at public gathering places. Pianos became an ever-present fixture in front parlors across the country, and hundreds of thousands of school children were subjected to dreaded piano lessons.
In this heyday of live music performance, sheet music became an increasingly profitable commodity, and music publishing quickly became centralized in New York City, primarily along 28th Street. Then the heart of New York’s Tenderloin district, the area was filled with music halls, gambling parlors, nightclubs, and houses of ill repute — all perfect venues for music publishers pushing their wares.
Bronze plaque commemorating Tin Pan Alley near the corner of West 28th Street and Broadway (Image: Wikimedia)
Sheet music of the Tin Pan Alley era was peddled by “pluggers” who would play the latest songs in the publisher’s showrooms, music stores and in the red light locales to drum up interest and sales. In fact, it was the “din” caused by the pluggers along 28th Street that earned the district its Tin Pan Alley moniker as critics likened the ruckus of dozens of pianos playing at once to the sound of tin pans banging together.
Something akin to market research and consumer testing was employed to create songs that would resonate with the public and success wasn’t measured in album sales or concert tickets, but in copies of sheet music. It’s said that more popular music was created in the first decade of the 20th century than in the entirety of human history before, with many songs selling millions of copies of sheet music.
The music publishers of Tin Pan Alley at 45 West 28th Street (Image: Wikimedia)
Some of the world’s most popular songwriters, including Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Fats Waller and Scott Joplin, were part of these early days of Tin Pan Alley and most of us can hum several of the early works published along 28th Street, such as “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to “Give My Regards to Broadway.” Eventually, the term Tin Pan Alley would designate not just the boisterous section of the Tenderloin, but an entire genre of popular music that would go on to become American standards.
“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” published by The York Music Co. at 40 W. 28th St. (Image: Library of Congress)
By 1910, most music publishers had followed the entertainment trade uptown to Times Square and the Theatre District. Today, the modest row houses on the north side of 28th Street that were home to the publishers of the Tin Pan Alley still exist, now housing mobile phone accessories shops and knock-off perfume peddlers. Their future fate is undetermined, swinging precariously between a destiny of demolition in favor of new development or salvation via historical landmark designation. Only time will tell.