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What Is Tin Pan Alley?

Tin Pan Alley was an area of New York City near 5th Avenue and 28th Street known for its music producers, publishers and singer-songwriters during the early 20th century.
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  • Written By: J.L. Drede
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 01 December 2014
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Tin Pan Alley was an area of New York City in the United States (U.S.), near 5th Avenue and 28th Street. Many music producers, publishers and singer-songwriters set up shop in that area, and the entire group became known as Tin Pan Alley during the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. The group was considered the dominant force of popular music and music publishing in America at that time.

Music publishing existed in the U.S. before Tin Pan Alley, but it was not nearly as successful. With the lax U.S. copyright laws of the early 1800s, anyone could print out sheet music, regardless of who owned it, and sell it. When copyright laws strengthened during the end of the 1800s, musicians, composers and music publishing agents saw an opportunity and began to work together to produce as much music—and money—as possible. At the same time the piano was becoming more popular than ever before, with many families across the U.S. acquiring one for their homes. This in turn created a demand for sheet music, which in turn led to even more music publishing companies entering the business. By the end of the 1800s music publishing was a booming business, and Tin Pan Alley had become its epicenter.

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The songs of Tin Pan Alley were common fodder for Vaudeville performers as well, creating some of the first pop-music recordings of United States history. Many songs created during the heyday are still recognizable today, including Take Me Out To The Ball Game, My Blue Heaven, Oh by Jingo! and Give My Regards to Broadway. The list of recognizable names is even greater, and features such musical legends as Irving Berlin, Milton Ager, George Gershwin, and Hoagy Carmichael.

Why that particular stretch of New York City street was chosen as the focal point for the music publishing industry is unknown. Equally unknown is where the name Tin Pan Alley came from, although common theory, and most likely an urban legend, is that the name was dubbed by people who claimed the sound of all those pianos playing at the same time sounded like tin pans banging together.

The sounds weren't meant to last forever though, and while much of the musical landscape of 1900s America was directly shaped by the music coming out of Tin Pan Alley, it began to fall out of favor as time moved on. People stopped buying sheet music, preferring recorded music instead, and Vaudeville, which had served as a creative outlet for much of the music produced in Tin Pan Alley, was replaced by the movie industry. All that remains of the once bustling music area is a small plaque signifying its importance to both New York history and American history.

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