Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the term “Tin Pan Alley,” and what does it mean? I’m guessing it has to do with the Great Depression (the first one, not the current one). — Nathan Keyes.
Depression? Bummer. But you know, whenever I’m depressed, it always makes me feel better to go over to the poor part of town, ask around until I find a few forlorn investment bankers, and slip them a few trillion dollars. Just seeing their little snouts light up in joy makes it all worthwhile. Actually, it occurred to me awhile back that being stuck on a small farm in the middle of nowhere, as we are, may soon have its advantages (provided, of course, that we can figure out how to raise something besides cats). Where do you get pepperoni seeds?
Onward. “Tin Pan Alley” is a popular term for the music industry, especially the songwriting and publishing part of it (as opposed to the recording industry). Linguistically, the term “Tin Pan Alley” is a “synecdoche” (sih-NEK-doh-key), a figure of speech in which a specific thing or place stands in for a broader category, as the term “Wall Street” stands for the world of high finance and the stock market in general or “Hollywood” stands for the movie industry. Like Wall Street, Tin Pan Alley is a real place in New York City, specifically a stretch of West 28th Street, where, at least in the first half of the 20th century, music publishers had their offices and many of the great songwriters plied their trade.
Though a pan made of tin certainly conjures up images of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the New York songwriting district has been known as “Tin Pan Alley” since at least 1903. An article published that year in The World (a long-defunct New York newspaper), uncovered by etymologist Barry Popik, noted that at that time the songwriters themselves were trying to promote the classier term “Melody Lane” for the area, but “Tin Pan Alley” had already caught the public’s fancy.
Tin Pan Alley owes its name, logically enough, to a bit of late 19th century musicians’ slang. A “tin pan” or “tin-panny” was a cheap piano, so-called because its shallow, tinny tone was likened to beating on a tin pan. If you can imagine a summer’s day on Tin Pan Alley in the early 1900s, filled with the cacophony of “tin-pannies” wafting from the open office windows of a hundred music publishers, you’ll see why “Tin Pan Alley” was such a perfect name for the New York music business.
If you’ve ever had a hankering to see Tin Pan Alley proper (usually considered to be West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues) in person, you’d better act fast. As of late 2008, five of the Victorian brownstone buildings that remain of the original Tin Pan Alley are up for sale, probably destined to be demolished to make way for another glass and steel monstrosity. Of course, with real estate prices now plunging, you might be able to snag at least one of the buildings for, as they say, a song.