Tin Pan Alley: Critiquing an Intermedial Network, circa 1900

Presentation by Keir Keightley (University of Western Ontario).

To this day, the idea of the “alley” can figure modernity’s production of concentrated or interdependent industrial zones (e.g. Automation Alley in Detroit, Silicon Alley in New York). But the first such usage involved “Tin Pan Alley,” as the sheet music publishing district on West 28th St. at Broadway came to be known, circa 1900. Its geographic location at the very heart of the New York theatre district was not coincidental but crucial to its effectivity. This paper explores how two networks of differing scale came to be mapped onto each other: the close-knit, local network of New York music publishers and New York theatres, through which publishers paid singers to sing new songs onstage; and the larger, transnational network of vaudeville houses that then disseminated these songs across the USA and Canada via touring performers, resulting in the first truly national and synchronized market for popular music.

Circa 1900, industrialized music (Frith 1987) involved a complex linking of song publishing, vaudeville performance and journalistic coverage (since newspapers were a key element of both local and national promotion) with piano manufacturing and sales. Vaudeville’s new, national networks facilitated the wide circulation of software (songs sold in sheet music form) that operated synergistically with domestic hardware, pianos (which reach a historical sales peak circa 1909). This industrial interdependence helps us understand how “Tin Pan Alley” named a new rationalization and centralization of songwriting, publishing, and promotion, one that occurred at the very moment various vaudeville theatres were being connected into circuits by so-called theatrical trusts (e.g., Keith-Albee, Orpheum, the United Booking Office, etc.).

The rise of the name “Tin Pan Alley” thus signals the recognition of a new prominence for industrialized music, but it also indicates a new disdain for this intermedial network. Taking its name, in part, from a common, late 19th slang term for the poor, rubbish-filled sections of frontier towns, “tin can alley,” the phrase “Tin Pan Alley” suggests a simultaneous awareness of the workings of these new networks of production and promotion and a disdain for the output as, precisely, trash. Here the network poetics of Tin Pan Alley reveal much about popular knowledge of the inner workings of media as well as popular anxieties about the growing rationalization, centralization, and power of the cultural industries at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Keir Keightley is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, where he teaches in the M.A. in Popular Music and Culture. His most recent publications are “Un voyage via barquinho…: Global Circulation, Musical Hybridization, and Adult Modernity, 1961-69” in Migrating Music (eds. Jason Toynbee and Byron Dueck, Routledge 2011), “The Historical Consciousness of Sunshine Pop” in Journal of Popular Music Studies (Fall 2011), and a reprint of his Media Culture & Society article, “Long Play” (2004), in the collection Popular Music: Copyright and Technology, edited by Chris Rojek (Sage 2011). The proposed paper is part of a new book project, to be entitled Tin Pan Allegory: Music, Media, Modernity.

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