The Humbug and the Nightingale: What we can learn about music promotion from P. T. Barnum

My academic article, "The Humbug and the Nightingale: P. T. Barnum, Jenny Lind, and the Branding of a Star Singer for American Reception" was just published this week by Musical Quarterly. In it, I tell the story of how P. T. Barnum used strategies of branding to create the most successful music tour of the 19th century (read the full article here). The singer he brought to America was Jenny Lind. Lind was already a star in Europe, but was relatively unknown in America before signing a contract with Barnum.

Barnum did something unprecedented: he roused the media machine in the U.S. and kept it going for over six months straight before Lind ever stepped foot on U. S. soil. When she finally arrived, she was greeted with the most feverous accolades ever to be seen in New York City. 

Lind arrived on Sept. 1, 1850, and the next day, the papers reported that there were 40,000 spectators that came to the harbor to welcome her. 40,000! (The crowd got a little crazy--see Steve Waksman's article on Barnum, Lind, and crowd psychology for more.)

My article is of course academic in tone, but I tried to write it in such a way that it would be interesting and enjoyable to academics in other fields and interested lay readers. Here is a summary of the article, and an extended excerpt:

The Article in a Nutshell

  • Barnum's pre-promotional campaign was unprecedented in length and coherence, and is an example of branding. He and his team of media agents designed and deployed the "Lind brand," which I argue was founded on the three pillar attributes of celebrityartistry, and charity
  • Barnum deployed the Lind brand through the newspapers, generating editorials and fabricated reports. The broader media followed his lead.
  • This branded campaign had the effect of pre-setting the reception narratives so that they gravitated to the qualities of the Lind brand.
  • The implications of this include:
    • For musicology: how branding can be used as a tool of historical analysis in cultural musicology.
    • For music professionals: the technology we use now for music promotion has changed, but Barnum's strategies are surprisingly recognizable to us today.
    • For historians of advertising: though branding proper typically is said to have begun in the 1880s, musicians and other performers have used the strategies of branding far earlier.

 

Conclusion: Barnum’s Influence on Music Promotion [Article Excerpt]

Here is an extended excerpt from the article's conclusion:

Barnum’s motivation to mount a months-long promotional campaign was not born of altruism. “I had put innumerable means and appliances into operation,” Barnum later wrote, “for the furtherance of my object, and little did the public see of the hand that indirectly pulled at their heart-strings, preparatory to a relaxation of their purse-strings.”[i] Barnum’s candor reminds us that branding is not only a cultural interface, but a commercial one. The result of brand building often includes adding cultural value, but it always ends in the desire to make a sale.

Barnum’s promotion of Lind had an almost immediate influence on other impresarios. Max Maretzek, whose opera troupe found itself in direct competition with Lind at the beginning of the 1850–51 season, adapted quickly as a matter of survival. Maretzek eventually found his own prima donna from Europe to advertise, Teresa Parodi. As Katherine Preston recounts, Maretzek employed Barnum’s tactics without reservation, fabricating biographies, foreign letters, and eventually circulating rumors that Parodi had canceled her American trip due to a last-minute proposal of marriage from the desperate Duke of Devonshire (in reality, Parodi was already on a steamer traveling to America). It was this last piece of gossip that finally garnered media attention, and Maretzek was rewarded with a very successful opening to his opera season.[ii]

The influence of Barnum’s approach on later singers is also seen in the case of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. The first African American singer of opera to tour nationally in America, Greenfield was managed by Barnum protégé James H. Wood during her 1851 concert tour. As Julia Chybowski has shown, the promotion of Greenfield as “The Black Swan” was directly connected to Lind in its motivation and strategies.[iii] Though she does not describe it in terms of branding, Chybowski describes how Wood also attempted to promote Greenfield as a cultural phenomenon, and how her reception was more fraught with social and racial cultural politics than Lind’s.[iv]

No study of reception history is complete without considering the promotional practices that influenced reception. This is especially true in cases where active branding strategies were used, such as with the intentional cultivation of a coherent impression of a persona (composer or performer), composition, orchestra, instrument, recording (such as Victor Red Seal records), or other cultural commodity. Furthermore, Lind’s example shows that many components of her promotion are, mutatis mutandis, still relevant to today’s music industry. Barnum used the technology at hand (the dailies) to promote a coherent message (brand) to a particular audience (the American public) and appeal to their curiosity. Projecting forward to the twentieth-century music industry, other media that have carried branding messages include music magazines, press kits, liner notes, or, in the twenty-first century, websites and social media profiles. Though the technologies and cultural makeup have changed, the essential components of the promotion process remain. 

Every performer or composer who has risen to prominence has been either a great self-promoter or has had a champion. The self-promoters are led by Wagner, who shaped his brand over time through extensive writing and even through his operas, as Vazsonyi has shown.[v] More commonly, composers and performers in the Western world have benefitted from others who have championed their art and significance. Can we imagine Beethoven today without the branding strategies accomplished by E. T. A. Hoffmann, Bob Dylan without John Hammond, or Elvis Presley without Colonel Tom Parker? The work of branding in these and other cases is not merely a footnote to history, but a topic worthy of critical study in its own right.

The partnership between Barnum and Lind lasted until June of 1851, when the two parted ways amicably after ninety-three concerts. Lind continued touring in America, but without Barnum the tour was never the same. In April of 1852, Lind resumed performing after taking a short break to marry her pianist Otto Goldschmidt. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle responded with a rather negative welcome: “The Herald thinks it impossible to get up another Jenny Lind mania: first because Barnum is not associated with her; and, second, because she is no longer an angel.”[vi] They go on to reprint a passage from the Herald:

When Jenny Lind was an angel, it might do very well to get up an enthusiasm, and to put concert tickets at prices varying from ten to two hundred dollars. But the angel who enraptured us under the management of Barnum, has since changed her condition, and become a plain, sensible, discreet, married woman, with a loving husband, and the prospect of a large family of nine young cherubs for the future generation.[vii]

This cruel and misogynistic rebranding of Lind not as an angel but a “plain, sensible, discreet, married woman” casts a significantly different aura than did the characteristics of celebrity, artistry, and charity. What had changed? Not her voice, which was still strong, though it had withstood dozens of recitals. What had changed was her promotion, namely the removal of a skilled and experienced promoter, P. T. Barnum. As it turns out, the success of the Lind tour was not due only to musical talent, but also to Barnum’s ability to brand Lind’s persona for American reception. It took two—the Nightingale and the Humbug.

 

[i] Barnum, The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself, 315.

[ii] See Preston, Opera on the Road, 158–66.

[iii] Julia J. Chybowski, “Becoming the ‘Black Swan’ in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 67 (2014): 125–65. See 143–47 for a comparison of Greenfield’s promoted image vis-à-vis that of Jenny Lind.

[iv] Ibid. Chybowski argues that newspaper discourse cast Greenfield as an “exotic rarity” (125), a former slave who sang music that her audiences understood as “white.” The cultural frictions revealed in Greenfield’s audience conflicted perceptions of race, class, and gender, 147–57.

[v] Vazsonyi, Richard Wagner: Self-Promotion and the Making of a Brand.

[vi] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 24 April 1852.

[vii] Quoted in ibid.