In a prior post we looked at Richard Wagner’s invention of modern mass persuasion for his new and infinite music, and the critical reception this marriage of persuasion and art received – Nietzsche hated it! Our old Blog friend sang the song of icy disdain striking the key note: Wagner is inSincere. Such is the price any persuasion maven pays when he combines the Dark Art with any authentic human action. Accepting in the way of all mavens – hey, it’s never about me, so haters keep on hating – we can now ask: How did Wagner invent Practical Pack Persuasion? Start with a new technology and its maturity.
Gutenberg’s printing press created the first mediated communication networks through which smaller numbers of sources could send print messages that would reach and influence larger numbers of receivers dispersed over time and space. Books, the first print format, tended to reach only a small set of high WATT receivers, but when sources developed what we now call newspapers, Gutenberg’s printing press created the first identifiable mass mediated networks with relatively rapid dissemination of messages.
For the sake of argument, I’ll say that 1850 marks the maturity of these mass mediated networks, with streams of ink creating the web of the mass information society. From this network, the opportunity for practical pack persuasion arose. Sources could rapidly reach and change huge groups of receivers in, by historical standards, incredibly short time periods, weeks, sometimes, days.
If you assume that people have a human nature and they carry that human nature with them across all faces and places, times and rhymes, you must conclude that some people tried to figure out how to use this new toy for their own purposes. Stated another way, what and how folks are hyping as Web 2.0 today is what and how Richard Wagner, the classical music composer, invented 150 years ago.
I point you now to the book, Richard Wagner: Self-Promotion and the Making of a Brand, by Nicholas Vazsonyi and published through Cambridge University Press in 2010. Vazsonyi takes the time to read through the voluminous Wagner literature to determine how Wagner created an industry for himself and in so doing paved the way for other persuasion mavens.
Vazsonyi sees in Wagner’s machinations from 1850 what everyone knows today as the New New Thing. Wagner used persuasion and media to:
1. create an image;
2. execute PR;
3. build a niche and make a brand;
4. use his work (music) as a marketing tool;
5. construct a controlled network.
Through the rest of this post, I’ll focus on three elements, Image, PR, and Network.
To create Image, Wagner wrote fictional accounts of a young composer struggling in the early 19th century who fortuitously meets and befriends Ludwig Beethoven. These thinly disguised stories clearly hid Wagner in plain sight as the struggling young talent who meets with the great and aging Icon. The stories were constructed to show the Great Man passing on his legacy to the younger man in the pursuit of a new idea, the music drama, creating the highest form of art ever known.
The main themes of this story show the line of succession for greatness, the struggle of a genius against the forces of reaction and jealousy, the creation of a new “German” art, a rationale supporting the Art for Art’s Sake Movement, and the need and existence of an avant-garde. Wagner thus created a huge space for himself and his work with this Image of the New New Thing both as a new art and a new artist.
Best of all, this Image is so new that it requires not only a new taste, a new style, a new way, but also demands someone new to explain, produce, and distribute this new taste. From the fictional hand of Beethoven to the real mind of Wagner, these stories carve out a huge creative and marketing space for Wagner. Thus, Wagner invents both a new way, the means to achieve it, and a new role to explain it all.
From a strategic persuasion perspective the most interesting element of this Image is the “German” art theme. Wagner wanted to persuade on, of all things, classical music and in particular opera, not exactly mass market then as now. But, by calling for a German Art, Wagner defined a population of receivers that included not just the traditional audience for this product, but all Germans. You need to realize the cleverness of this theme by returning to 1850. Germany as we understand it today did not exist; it was more an idea while the reality was a collection of provinces operating in an old style aristocracy. During Wagner’s life, the nation of Germany arose and he hitched his creative space and marketplace to that nation.
Consider this in a contemporary perspective. Imagine there is an Arab artist who has big dreams for herself. She can easily and obviously see the major political changes rocking the Arab world every day as we are seeing now with Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and who knows tomorrow. Imagine that she starts calling her art the New Arab Art fit for the New Arab Life now emerging. That’s the bet that Wagner made in 1850.
PR or Events as Persuasion
Publicity nowadays is such a commonplace that parents stage events to promote their children, but in 1850 the action was restricted to royalty or dictators. Wagner realized that the New Media open this door for mere commoners, even great ones like himself. Wagner capitalized on two public events, one a burial and the other a Beethoven concert, to megaphone himself and his approach.
Unless you are a classical music maven, the name Carl Maria Weber probably hits a mulligan for you, but in his time, Weber strode that world as a Great, especially in emerging Germany. He died in England while making money and was buried there. A group of Weber’s devotees found this both unacceptable and unGerman and started a fund to bring Weber’s remains back to Germany for a proper burial of a hero. Wagner supported this idea, but also saw it as an opportunity to hitch his smaller star onto the trail of a greater comet.
Wagner carefully worked himself into the group planning this event so that he knew of all the details, but he took things one step further – he ensured that the press also knew of all these details and that the press always spelled his name right in every article about Weber’s return. And, when the actual procession arrived in Germany, Wagner handled all the grubby mechanical details of the ceremony, leaving the more famous to be with the body while Wagner printed all the notices and wrote music to accompany all the activities. Thus, Wagner put himself squarely within the huge publicity spotlight that followed Weber’s body from England to his new and final resting place in Germany.
A few years after this event, Wagner staged another PR stunt that also attracted huge attention and further his career. You need to realize that Beethoven was long dead and revered, but his music, particularly his final symphony, the Ninth, was not widely played, accepted, and understood. Part of the problem was the sheer technical complexity of the music which made public performance both difficult and in many instances decidedly unpleasant for the audience. Musicians blamed it on problems with the music itself – Beethoven was getting old, you know, at the end – and as a result the Ninth did not hold much esteem.
Wagner, to his artistic credit, understood Beethoven’s music better than his peers and knew how to perform it in a way that showed its power and beauty. As Vazsonyi documents, Wagner pushed his symphony orchestra through a series of demanding rehearsals of the Ninth in preparation for this event. As with any New New Thing, there is always talent and hard work. But, Wagner went beyond the great grind to ensure that his celebration concert on the Ninth burst widely upon his audience.
You’ll recall in Image, that Wagner defined a German art for a new classical music form, a total art, that represented all Germans. Thus, Wagner aimed his New New Thing not at just the traditional long-hairs of classical music, but to any German with nationalistic stirrings. To alert and attract this new audience, Wagner placed a series of four sequential ads in a widely read newspaper just weeks prior to the concert.
Now, the persuasion maven move here is not the advertisements, but rather with where Wagner placed them for his new audience: in the Personals section. He knew that his audience would not be reading the Arts and Culture section, but instead were avid consumers of those ads that exemplify a gossip rag approach – titillating, naughty, sentimental, overwrought, just plain weird. Wagner placed these four anonymous ads precisely where his audience could be found. Each ad inveigled the reader about the concert, its meaning and value, importance and significance.
Wagner enhanced attention and value through providing free access to rehearsals and provided lectures accompanying these performances. Further, he added extensive notes to the actual concert program, explaining the symphony, Beethoven’s connection to German art, and how Wagner merged all into the new total art.
Of course, the concert succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest expectation and launched Wagner’s rocket. The concert attracted a sold out crowd, generated large sums of contribution to a featured charity, and drew continuing media attention weeks after the event.
Networks and Marketplaces
Wagner clearly thought not only about reaching and creating a mass audience, but also about binding that audience together in an active, pulsing network of people exchanging messages, goods and services, and stores of value like money or prestige. He built a public relations circle of musicians, promoters, and journalists who constantly produced pro Wagner stories, articles, headlines, pamphlets, and books. He helped form the first artistic associations or what we would call fan clubs today. Finally, he built his opera house at Bayreuth. Wagner’s new art required a new structure and this became the hub of Wagner’s wheel of persuasion.
Each element in this network construction seems small and relatively unimportant. So what is a couple of journalists regularly write fawning pieces in the New York Times of Germany? Who cares about the Berlin Fan Club? Realize that Wagner saw the higher abstraction inherent in the concept of Network and realized that the combination of these small elements created a Wagnerian Beast that was at once a marketplace for money and a network of information. Connection is money!
I view Wagner as an important case of applied persuasion because he actually changed the Other Guy to make his audience. Much market success attracts the Other Guy to do what the Other Guy already wants to do or has already done. Wagner did not settle for merely shifting the allegiance and action of a well-defined audience already in existence from one musical brand to another. Wagner created the audience. He drew them in with his skillful use of the Cascade. He literally invented a new kind of art and explained it to a new kind of audience in a way that attracted, united, and bonded sender and receiver, musician and listener. This is astonishingly difficult to achieve.
It also illustrates the difference between persuasion and marketing and between behavior change and making money. Please don’t see this distinction as value-laden, as if persuasion for behavior change is morally superior to marketing for money. Just realize that persuasion and marketing are different tools for achieving different outcomes. Marketing always works best within a well-defined environment of markets, goods and services, a means of exchange, and on and on. Persuasion works best with freely choosing Other Guys engaged in volitional behavior.
Wagner found a way to make money, but he started with persuasion to build his audience of new Other Guys. Consider as a current example (early 2000s) Steve Jobs at Apple. His various iGizmos have made a new audience and a new market. People who are not particularly gear headed have fallen in love with computers in their hands rather than their desktops.
Consider, too, Marc Andreessen’s attempts to invent Web 2.0 or the Social Web. As noted in this prior post, Andreessen is the dominant financial and marketing player in virtually all the major platforms of the Social Web. If you are paying careful attention you saw Andreessen working publicly and privately to build networks of senders and receivers (whether as VC with software guys or as Facebook with 500 million Other Guys), all united behind his vision of the Social Web. Andreessen has not achieved the success of Jobs or Wagner yet, but he’s on the path.
Note, now, the uncanny resemblence of Wagner’s machinations to everything you see in contemporary mediated persuasion. If you think because Wagner spoke German and lived in the age of Queen Victoria that the persuasion principles are different, you are no persuasion maven. Children love appearances and are always so deceived – Hello, Little Girl. Listen behind the Infinite Sound to hear the Eternal Music of Persuasion.
Finally, realize the conflicts that arise when you bring persuasion to an activity. In the prior post I noted Nietzsche’s dislike of Wagner’s work, disdaining him as merely an actor. Vazsonyi’s book is also revealing for the antipathy the author feels toward Wagner’s persuasion. Vazsonyi reeks with sincerity as he agrees with Nietzsche and disagrees with Oscar Wilde on the role of authenticity in public performance.
But, that is the price the persuasion maven pays to enter Valhalla with the gods of Wagner (YouTube clip).