Abstract: Selling through the Ear: Tin Pan Alley, Song Plugging, and the Formation of the Modern American Soundscape

David Suisman


If people hear a song, that [is] advertisement. If they do not hear it, there is no way of selling it. In a few words, music publisher Jean Aberbach summarized the principle behind the sophisticated and complex promotions apparatus underpinning the popular songwriting and music publishing industry known as Tin Pan Alley at the turn of the twentieth century. Seen in historical perspective, the Alley's "song factories" (as the <em>New York Times</em> called them in 1910) are generally known for "standardizing" and "mass producing" popular song. Less understood, however, has been the innovative and systematic way Tin Pan Alley created local and national markets for its products. Tin Pan Alley represents one of the most influential yet least studied components of the so-called culture industries in their formative period. However, Tin Pan Alley's strategies and systems for "plugging" sheet music diverged from the familiar narratives of industrialization and commercialization in two major ways. First, song-plugging was more interactive than other forms of promotion (e.g., print advertising or, later, radio), in that it depended on actively engaging audiences