The Importance of Tin Pan Alley to the Music Community
Written by: Jennifer Turnbow, NSAI Senior Director of Operations

While on a recent business trip in New York, my ears perked up when I heard a familiar term on the local nightly news: Tin Pan Alley.  For the American songwriter Tin Pan Alley is where it all began, it’s the first home to the American songwriting profession where roots were sown, and it is revered by the music industry.  Unfortunately, the context for the news reference of a location that I considered hallowed ground was nothing I thought I would ever hear: should we protect or tear down Tin Pan Alley?

I am the Senior Director of Operations for the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), an organization founded 52 years ago by a small group of professional songwriters in Nashville as an advocacy organization.  Over the years, the organization has grown and now in addition to advocacy and community outreach, we also host a number of educational programs and have chapters in nearly 100 cities across the globe.  We exist for one constituency only – songwriters.  Our mission is to advocate, celebrate and educate on their behalf.  One of the ways that we honor that mission each year hearkens back to our heritage in Tin Pan Alley – part of my role at the organization is to produce an annual festival called Tin Pan South where we feature nearly 400 songwriters during 100 shows around Nashville over the course of 5 nights.  It is the largest songwriter festival of its kind and has been a staple of the Nashville music scene for 27 years.  It is an homage to Tin Pan Alley that we take very seriously.

It is impossible to talk about the history of American music and specifically that of songwriters without referencing the iconic names that came out of Tin Pan Alley.  Songwriters like Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Fats Waller are integral to the story of the modern-day songwriter.  Tin Pan Alley itself and the “vibe” it created with songwriters and music publishers coming and going out of buildings and organically running into each other while new original music constantly poured out of windows above inspired Music Row in Nashville as well as the songwriter communities that grew up in Los Angeles in beyond.  While some may say that all of Tin Pan Alley that remains are dilapidated buildings that could be moved aside to make way for lucrative high-rises, what I believe actually remains is a part of American history where important music lives in the walls of those dilapidated buildings.  Tearing down Tin Pan Alley would serve to erase that significant part of history from one of America’s greatest exports, its music.

While I am saddened by the prospect of demolishing Tin Pan Alley, I have to say it doesn’t particularly surprise me.  Songwriters have long been disregarded.  They are the least paid in the creative process and the history of how songwriters are treated shows a blatant disregard for the people behind the process. NSAI’s work over the years has been with a mission to change that, and we have made amazing strides toward valuing songwriters in the modern era.  People revere their music, but rarely take the time to respect the people and their creative talents from which it came.  Destroying Tin Pan Alley destroys the history of the American songwriter. It disrespects those creative geniuses who gave us American standards like “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “Moon River.”  The music you love; that you dance to on your wedding day; that you hum along to during your parent’s funeral; the soundtrack to which you live your life is made possible by a songwriter whose name you have likely never heard, but to whom you owe a debt of gratitude.  Preserve the legacy of the songwriter – save Tin Pan Alley!


Jennifer Turnbow

Senior Director of Operations – Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI)
Director – Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival

Libby Oellerich

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