In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Daniel Goldmark of Case Western Reserve University revisits the music of Tin Pan Alley and explains why buying music by the song isn’t a new idea.
Daniel Goldmark is associate professor of music at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He teaches courses on American popular music including Tin Pan Alley and the history of Rock and Roll, as well as film music and Hollywood cartoons. He is the series editor of the Oxford Music/Media Series, and is the author and/or editor of several books on animation, film, and music, including Tunes for 'Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon. He holds a Ph.D from UCLA.
Dr. Daniel Goldmark – Music of Tin Pan Alley
Imagine being able to find songs from your old favorites to new songs with racy lyrics; ethnic songs and local hits; dance crazes and movie themes—and all costing basically the same. While this sounds like iTunes, what I’m describing is how people were able to buy songs in the form of sheet music more than 100 years ago. Technology notwithstanding, the American music industry hasn’t changed much since it first took off in the late 19th century.
Back when the music business was based almost entirely in New York City, pop songs were written to be sold for people—mainly women—to play in their homes, as well as songs for musicals and shows. Most of the publishers cranked out their songs just a stone’s throw from the theatres—and beer gardens and dance halls—where they hoped people would hear these popular tunes of the day being performed and want to buy a copy of the sheet music to take home with them. So many publishers ended up in the same block—28th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue—that this geographic music-producing nucleus got its own name: Tin Pan Alley. And while the theatres and publishers moved further north in Manhattan, Tin Pan Alley stuck as the name used to describe the cookie-cutter, mass production style of writing pop songs that conjure up images of love and mother and invariably featured words like “moon,” “croon,” “tune,” and so on. A 1929 Broadway play by George Kaufman and Ring Lardner satirized what many saw as the musical pap Tin Pan Alley produced: the play was called June Moon.
Nowadays we still have large companies cranking out songs that they hope will either ride the popularity of current musical tastes or possibly become a trendsetter and start a new craze. Tin Pan Alley publishers laid the groundwork for the modern music industry by flooding the market with thousands of forgettable songs in the hopes that just one would become a hit.