In 1885, soon after publishing his first song, Charles K. Harris opened his music publishing company in a storefront on Grand Avenue in Milwaukee. The sign he hung in the window read, “Charles K. Harris, Banjoist and Songwriter. Songs Written to Order.” It seemed as if he proclaimed that songwriting had suddenly turned pro, although talented professionals had been around for decades. You can't listen to “Oh, Susannah,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” “My Grandfather's Clock,” or the great songs of the Civil War without conjuring up the names of Stephen Foster, Henry Clay Work, and George Frederick Root. Their writing was polished and engaging, but songwriting didn't earn much in those days. Foster died penniless and alone in a New York hotel room in 1864, aged thirty-seven. Although art and commerce mixed together from the start, music publishing was much more haphazard then. It would change before the end of the century.
In 1892, Harris wrote and published “After the Ball,” a long, melodramatic tearjerker that weaves a tale of love lost and lives wasted. The public adored it. When it became the first song to sell a million copies of sheet music within a single year, Harris (and others) were convinced that the music business could earn publishers and songwriters a lot of money. A few years later, he moved his business to New York; other songwriters soon followed. Why not? Book publishing was there, Broadway and vaudeville were there, radio and recordings would soon be there, and now Tin Pan Alley was there as well. Only motion pictures left New York later on, and that was to chase the warmth and sunlight in California. It must have felt as if they were making movies at the end of the world.
Meanwhile, back east, Harris became one of the first publishers to set up shop on West Twenty-Eighth Street in what became known as Tin Pan Alley. Similar businesses often clumped together in Manhattan. Cutters worked from patterns in the Garment District, diamond merchants sold their wares (and still do) on West Forty-Seventh Street, Macy's and Gimbel's competed face to face in Herald Square, and songwriters did their piano thumping for the publishers who employed them in Tin Pan Alley. The songwriters had come from everywhere to make it in Manhattan and in the process, killed off the sentimental ballad. At the start, it was a young man's game.