If you lived in New York in the early 20th century, and you wanted to hear the most popular music hits of the day, you only had to walk over to 28th Street and 6th Avenue -- Tin Pan Alley. As you moved toward 5th Avenue, you'd hear the cacophony of dozens of pianists banging out the greatest songs of the era, enticing you to enter their stores and buy sheet music from their publisher. And if you were lucky enough to walk down this legendary block in 1913, you might have heard the playing of a young George Gershwin. But times changed, and by the middle of the century, Tin Pan Alley was only a memory.
So where do people hungry for the newest songs of the musical theater go now? Where is the next George Gershwin cutting his ivory teeth? As a musical theater writer and fan, I've spent the last decade looking to Broadway for inspiration from the next generation of writers. But more and more I've found that some of the most exciting new musical theater writers are not debuting on Broadway, but on YouTube. I started to wonder: Has a new digital Tin Pan Alley begun to emerge, and what does it mean for the future of musical theater and Broadway?
I began to answer this question by looking at what some of my writer friends had accomplished in the past few years -- many of whom had never had a New York production -- and the results were impressive. Instead of waiting for a theater producer to come along and showcase their work, they were debuting their music on YouTube, and with the click of a button their songs were going global. For the lucky few, this worldwide exposure lead to sheet music sales -- and suddenly, these theater writers were making money from their writing without ever enjoying the benefit of a Broadway show. It's a model that hasn't been available to working artists in over 70 years.
"Tin Pan Alley was a purely commercial construct," says theater historian Larry Maslon. "A song didn't need a show to be successful: 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' was never in a show and was the biggest sheet music hit ever." Theater producer and historian Jennifer Tepper sees a similarity between the old way of selling sheet music and YouTube:
"Nearly a century after Tin Pan Alley, YouTube has its own song-pluggers, in the form of theater actors who are passionate about new work. They sing new tunes in a concert venue, and then they go out into the YouTube world."
So what does this mean for this new crop of writers rising through the ranks? For Drama Desk-nominated writer Joe Iconis, it means quite a lot. "I think it's raised awareness of my work in a general sense and has been the greatest promotional tool I've got to promote specific projects." Writers like Iconis began using YouTube as a way of promoting concerts of their work, much in the same way the movie industry started putting movie trailers on YouTube -- it was to build interest for an event. Iconis says, "I care about the one person who watches a clip of something and says: 'Huh. I'm intrigued enough to pay 10 bucks to see that live.'" But over time, writers wanted to use the Internet to sell more than just tickets -- they wanted to use it to sell sheet music.
In 2009 an email quickly spread around the musical theater writing community that posed the simple question: "How do we stop people from pirating our sheet music?" Writers are only too eager to share their songs with performers, but in an era where a PDF can be emailed to an exponentially-growing group of people, piracy was preventing the writers from seeing a dime.
The solution wasn't readily clear, but the writing team of Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk had a pragmatic answer -- they looked to iTunes, which had helped to legitimize the purchasing of digital music sales by making it safe and affordable. They discovered that when people have a reasonably priced and easy way to purchase what they want, they are less likely to steal it. So Kerrigan and Lowdermilk teamed with other young writers to start a sheet music website, NewMusicalTheatre.com, and developed the brilliant solution to keep the sheet music secure -- your PDF would be password protected, and that password would be the credit card number you used to purchase the music. Suddenly, artists could sell their sheet music, and no longer have to wonder if that one copy would turn into thousands -- and writers actually started to make money from their work. YouTube was no longer only about sharing your music or promoting events, it was a way to publicize sheet music and in turn earn enough money to write the next song or show.
"We make a significant portion of our living from our sheet music sales," Kerrigan says. "There's absolutely no way we could survive as artists without other jobs if it weren't for our sheet music." Lowdermilk adds, "The money we make from our sheet music sales is a primary income stream for us, and I believe we really do have YouTube to thank for it."
That being said, the results haven't exactly been a windfall. Iconis laments, "I think that a ridiculous amount of people in the world of musical theater have heard my song Blue Hair, but I've made very little money from that song."
In 2006, I wrote an Off-Broadway musical with composer Joshua Salzman called I Love You Because that has seen success in album sales, sheet music sales and licensing. A few years after the show closed we posted clips of it on YouTube and immediately saw an increase in all of these areas -- and now more people have seen the YouTube clips than ever saw the show in its Off-Broadway run. But even with this increased exposure, Josh and I still maintain day jobs. Internet-fueled success still isn't enough to make a living, and so the goal for many writers is to land the big show. As it was on Tin Pan Alley so many years ago, writers still want to get the attention of a Broadway producer.
And the big shots are taking notice. Broadway producer Ken Davenport looks to YouTube to stay ahead of the curve, "Everyone has a demo nowadays," Davenport says, "but new material seems to make it to YouTube faster than mp3, so I find it a great way to see what else composers are working on." But he stops short of saying that a hit writer on YouTube would necessarily be a hit writer on Broadway, "the audience on YouTube skews younger than the traditional theater audience, so YouTube response doesn't give you the best indication of how a traditional audience will respond."
Album producer and owner of Yellow Sound Label Michael Croiter constantly produces the work of new musical theater writers -- and he has mixed feelings about YouTube's role in the theater:
"Seeing a song on YouTube can be a huge commercial for the better sounding product that people can buy later. But people aren't experiencing the performer and the song live and in person anymore and that's the biggest concern I have with YouTube. Now, people sit at home with no people around them to experience the music as an audience."
But despite understandable apprehension in some corners of the theater world, the Internet is helping lesser-known artists go global. London-based theater producer Simon Greiff has produced several concerts of new work from emerging writers and has started the musical theater label SimG. "The only way I know about some of these performers is through the Internet," Greiff says. "If I see something I like, then I am more likely to produce a concert of someone's work, even if I've never met them."
It all seems very promising for writers and fans of theater alike. But the question still lingers: Is YouTube a launching pad for traditional theater success or just a new niche marketplace for fans of contemporary theater songs and sheet music? Put more simply: Has anyone actually made the leap form YouTube to Broadway? As of this fall the answer will be yes.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were YouTube sensations when they were in college at University of Michigan, because they fastidiously promoted their song cycle "Edges" on YouTube and Facebook. Its online popularity led to productions at other universities and eventually landed them a deal with the theater licensing company Musical Theatre International. This has led to licensed productions around the world -- all without ever having had a New York production.
"The Internet allowed our music to be heard and once the music caught on, we got our first agent. It was through our agent that we were brought in to write the music for A Christmas Story, which is coming to Broadway this fall. In the end, getting that 'traditional theater success' definitely started with just getting the music heard, and the internet allowed that to happen without having to make an expensive demo CD, or spend years developing a show to get it to New York."
When Josh and I recently released the cast recording of our new musical, Next Thing You Know, we made a music video of the opening number, and posted clips of the cast recording some songs on YouTube -- it's the primary way we are promoting the album. It seems the obvious thing to do now, but six years ago when I Love You Because opened Off-Broadway, YouTube was not even a year old and how to best use it to promote theater was still an unanswered question. What once was an exciting new way to spread material has become a matter of course for new shows -- all in the time it takes to write a musical.
So is this a new Tin Pan Alley or something all together different -- or a little of both? Whichever it is, the world of musical theater has entered the new century, and Tepper couldn't be happier about it:
"I like to think of how Irving Berlin would react if we told him a song he wrote five minutes ago could be seen and heard by someone in Australia, someone in Venezuela, and his mother in her kitchen, all at the same time, immediately. YouTube has revolutionized the way theater songs reach people."