Sheet Music, Player Pianos and Tin Pan Alley
by Louis Rastelli Vol. 3 No. 1 2004

The phenomenon of popular “hits,” i.e. songs written specifically for the general public (and not taken from the theater, operas or derived from traditional folk songs), was born in the late 1880s. Though this coincided with the initial spread of phonographs, these hits were not in record form, but in sheet music form. The first “million-seller” in history was the song After the Ball, which came out in 1888 and eventually sold over 5 million copies of its sheet music! Before that, a song was considered to be a huge seller if it sold 100 000 copies of sheet music. As with many of the popular songs of the day, After the Ball recounted a tragic romance in cornball fashion.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, sheet music was still the dominant song format by far. (While the first record to sell a million copies, a Caruso recording, came out in 1904, this was unusual—and naturally, even if people bought the sheet music of the song he sang, they couldn’t sing it as well as Caruso! Only in the mid-1920s did the recorded versions of hit songs first outsell sheet music versions.)
During this first Golden Age of Tin-Pan Alley classics, all the big department stores and “dry-goods” chains such as Woolworth’s had a section for sheet music. Often this section would contain a piano, and the store would hire a (usually female) pianist to demonstrate songs to prospective sheet-music buyers (the human equivalent of a listening-station in a record store.) The big song publishers, who pioneered many of the dirty tricks later used by record companies, would often provide “payola” to such demonstration-girls in order to push whatever current hit of theirs needed pushing.
Song publishers at the time would pay Broadway playwrights and the bigger touring theatre groups to integrate new songs of theirs in their plays, much as today’s major labels insert new songs into the soundtracks of new movies. (In a way, it’s even worse today because today’s majors—Sony, Universal etc.—own both record companies AND movie studios and cross-promote everything with impunity.) As always, through all of this, the actual songwriters usually got a very small piece of the pie.
Piano rolls were also big sellers around this time. Player pianos were developed and became popular at the same time that phonographs started getting popular, and they were in many ways a similar phenomenon. They are the prime reason we have almost no piano records from the 1880s to the early 1920s: pianos sounded like crap on records, but a piano roll played on a quality piano sounded (naturally) like a real piano. Very high-end piano players, called “reproducers,” were manufactured, often installed inside luxurious grand pianos and utilizing all kinds of levers and settings which helped reproduce the finer nuances of a piano virtuoso. To this day, only the very rich own these devices, while old player pianos can still be bought for $200 on Ebay.
The economics of the piano roll industry was much like that of the record or sheet-music industry: companies paid artists a flat fee for their one performance, and paid no further royalties even if many thousands more copies sold than they expected. Just as today, only the biggest artists with either name recognition or who are shrewd enough to cut a good deal, could cut a good deal. However, just as today, most record companies didn’t feel so bad about that because they were the ones, in the end, who lost money when a record was a dud and didn’t sell. (The artist got paid the same either way.) They could explain to any unhappy artist that if he wanted to take out a huge bank loan and make his own records, he should go right ahead. As with today, though, most artists were more artist than businessman, and weren’t about to start their own companies.
Aside from covering their risks, extra profits were used early on by some of the record and sheet music companies to help keep a stable of reliable talent on hand by “developing” new or unknown artists, i.e. letting them make a few duds while honing their talents. Later the talent-development aspect (or A&R, which stands for Artists & Repertoire) would become a key part of the record industry (and the losses incurred from it would become a key part in how the industry still hides profits and avoids taxes…) Artists often would have chosen an instant payoff over gradual royalties anyway, though most would spend it quickly and have to keep writing more songs all the time to make a living.
The Golden Age of “Tin-Pan Alley” tunes roughly spanned the years 1895 – 1910, when it was better for a songwriter to toss off fluffy, throwaway pop tunes than to spend time on anything enduring. Only the record company or publisher benefited from enduring classics. The term “Tin-Pan Alley” originally referred to a stretch of West 28th Street in New York City, which in the 1890s was home to many of the larger song publishers. Apparently a local journalist working on a story about this row of song hucksters visited the songwriter Harry Von Tilzer, who had muted the piano in his office with strips of paper. (This was a common practice in talent agencies and such offices– instruments were muted so that neighboring offices wouldn’t complain about noise.) The journalist remarked that the muted piano sounded “like a tin pan,” and titled his resulting newspaper article “Tin Pan Alley.” The name stuck (more to the music than the area) ever since.
Some still use the term “Tin Pan Alley” to describe the hit and star machine of the major labels of today. Certainly, an unbroken line can be traced from those days, when “song pluggers” and big publishers “made” hits and stars, to today’s majors, who use their unprecedented influence in overlapping media spheres to fill the world with music that is disposable almost by design.
Still, compared to the vacuousness of today’s music, it can be extremely refreshing to listen to records from even the biggest stars who recorded for Victor or Colombia in the teens and twenties.