Former renter in Greenwich Village, waiting out the turnaround in Manhattan's midtown. Working on a blog-to-book project about my NYC/NJ ancestors. Everyday I'm amazed by what I find with Ancestry and in old newspapers.

Archived posts

July 11, 2019

My romp through Tin Pan Alley, Pt. 1

Everyone comes to New York with a dream. Armed with a copy of The Songwriters' Success Manual, I set out for the city in 1976 to sell my songs. I knocked on doors of music publishers whose addresses I found in the phone book, about fifty in the city at that time. I made the rounds with my reel-to-reel tapes and lead sheets and got listening appointments with RCA, United Artists, ATV and others. I came close--they listened to all three songs on my tapes--but the wide-ranging feedback was confusing ("it needs a stronger hook," "you're better at writing music," "you're better with lyrics"). What was I doing wrong? I stopped by ASCAP for advice and was told "You can't make a living writing songs. Go to college." I thought about it, told my parents, and after a year they made me go back to college.

The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it.

--F Scott Fitzgerald

College courses in classical music didn't make me a better songwriter, but I never stopped asking myself, How did music publishers pick their songs? Irving Berlin, George Cohan, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin got their start as song pluggers with Tin Pan Alley publishers on 28th Street, the racket of piano-playing earning the street its name. I read somewhere they traveled along the rooftops and fire escapes of the Tin Pan Alley buildings to get from publisher to publisher. The music business in 1976 was very different--most performers wrote their own songs--but there was still a demand for hit singles for solo singers and jazz artists and "professional managers" hustled them. I saw a place for myself with music companies and sought out a job as a part-time floater at Warner Communications to make connections. What a place! College was stuffy, but at Warner I met music lovers who shared my passion for pop music and concerts.

Irving Berlin, "Alexander's Ragtime Band"
One summer I worked at Warner Bros. music publishing and saw how sheet music and songbooks were produced. I learned all my repertoire from sheet music and had been buying it for years at Schirmer's and CT and NJ music stores. So I loved seeing where it all came from. Staff arrangers transcribed bestselling records and voiced them for piano/vocal sheets and songbooks and school bands. I admired they could take it from tapes and notate it with ease. I knew I would never reach that level of musicianship, but they were happy to talk about the music they liked: big bands, jazz and their own projects. They expanded my horizons, but I didn't get to see how new songwriters were signed. The professional department, where it happened, was a small office on a separate floor with a very small studio for demos. Frankly, I don't think it was all that active. Warner Music was a big company. They acquired "catalogs" and publishing rights to songs and albums already climbing the charts.

How were new songs discovered? What did talent scouts listen for when they picked new songs? I had to get into a record company's A&R department, and if I couldn't get inside as a part-timer at Warner I would have to get there when I graduated. Those jobs were hard to get. More about my experiences in Part 2 next week.

You may have heard that Tin Pan Alley is under threat of demolition. If you appreciate this special time and place in New York, here's a link to the Historic District Council's video about their efforts to save the remaining buildings on 28th Street. I hope you'll be moved to add your voice to the growing number of supporters. 

July 23, 2019

What Is A&R? "My romp through Tin Pan Alley," Part 2

How are new songs found by record companies? What do talent scouts listen for when they pick new songs? 

Once I saw from my summer job in music publishing that the Tin Pan Alley shop for new songwriters didn't exist, I set my sights on getting into an A&R department. 

Attending college in NYC was an opportunity to work at Warner Communications and make contacts, and upon graduation in 1980 I landed a job in A&R (artists & repertoire) at Warner's international label, moving to Columbia Records' domestic A&R department a few months later. It was life-changing to see out how they listened to music and signed new talent. A&R people came from backgrounds of all kinds: some were DJs or music reviewers and some were musicians who had played in bands. It was competitive, with unhappy days at the office when new signings didn't catch on, but it was a privilege to work for an iconic label; an A&R job was a steady paycheck and a better life than a musician's on the road.

Without question, longtime A&R people were essential to the label: they knew how to talk with established artists--Springsteen, Dylan, Billy Joel--and had gained their trust. Younger A&R men covered new talent in the field, following musicians and sounds in their areas of expertise; they were coolhunters and competed with other labels to attract new talent. Picking music and making hits was nothing like the way you're taught in music school. All kinds of music was played in the office; it was a Tin Pan Alley of dueling record players. It was confusing to try and keep up with it all. It seemed like 20 new albums a week came across my desk. I screened tapes by new artists and songwriters and went to concerts and clubs almost every night. I loved it but was overwhelmed. Working there was changing my ear. I stopped writing songs and focused on finding talent, but what was my area of expertise? The A&R men told me "focus on what you like." My tastes were rooted in traditional sounds by trained musicians, but I became more appreciative of imaginative artists who captured you with style and personality, even sounds that were abrasive. 

As far as songs go, these raw recordings of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Robert Hazard and the songwriters' demo of "Like a Virgin" are intriguing. The songwriters and producers of both songs were early in their careers and had known each other from playing in clubs. A good song doesn't need an elaborate demo, and new songwriters often get their break with emerging artists. 

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