What Musicians can Learn from Steve Jobs about Charisma

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As my musical charisma project has been developing, I have been making a collection of public figures who provide good case studies for some the processes my research has identified. Steve Jobs was pretty high on the list right from the start, and in the light of his premature passing last week, I’d like to share my notes with you. Most tributes have been about how he changed the way we listen to music; I’d like to suggest that by studying him we can also learn some useful lessons for how we make music.

First, staging is important. Yes, it was the products that the Apple fans bought, but the relationship they formed with the products started with the highly-crafted presentations Jobs would give to launch them. And, yes, the products needed to deliver the user-experience he promised, but the promises were the things that mattered. Indeed, you could say that the promises were the product – the gadgets were merely the commodity.

We like to think that the music ‘speaks for itself’. But it can only do that within a framework of understanding that allows us to share expectations of the messages of which it will speak. The much-vaunted intuitiveness of Apple’s products has likewise been understood in very carefully crafted contexts of meaning.

Second, the principles are more important than the products. People became fans of Apple gadgetry not simply because they thought any particular item was a useful bit of kit, but because they responded to an underlying set of principles that they experienced as embodied in them all. People who championed Apple products did so not because they wanted to increase the success of a company, but because they felt that by doing so they were championing a cause.

(Q. How can you tell if someone has an i-phone? A. They tell you.)

Charismatic performers also have this sense of representing a set of principles. Maria Callas’s cause was dramatic truth; Glenn Gould’s a pure, ahistoricised art. People sought out performances and recordings of each not just for the particular work performed, but for the distinctive approach each took across all their work. We might also note that both of these artists also support point 1. For all their belief in directness of communication in performance, they each made significant and sustained efforts to frame their work so we knew exactly how to make sense of it.

Third, people commit their hearts more readily to David than to Goliath. I’m not saying that people wouldn’t love Apple products for their own sake, but the whole PC-versus-Mac context infused fandom with a particular set of meanings. (Interestingly, this sense of crusade continues to run through products in which competition against Microsoft is no longer really relevant.)

This is a key point. Charisma is not simply about doing something especially well. So virtuosity, interpretive genius, all the things that we see as special, even magical talents, won’t in and of themselves create a charismatic encounter. You also need a critical edge. Nigel Kennedy’s exquisite playing becomes charismatic in the light of his attacks on his fellow violinists.

Fourth, as Weber points out in the study that still acts as the starting-point for all sociological studies of charisma, the charismatic leader has to continue to demonstrate their powers. Because their authority is founded on a quasi-magical belief on the part of their followers, they have to keep producing miracles. You can’t just invent the ipod then stop; if your myth is founded on innovation, you had better keep innovating.

Musicians knew this one already. We know we’re only as good as our last performance. And it’s a tough choice if the creative juices start running dry: do you split up the band (and/or die young), or do you recede into has-been-hood?

The last thing to note here is the way, when you start talking about charisma, you get this ambiguity about whether you’re talking about the outstanding individual, or the group they represent. I have been talking about Steve Jobs and Apple pretty interchangeably. He had a bit of help from other people in getting these products out to market, though – even if most of them remain anonymous to fans.

And this is a classic way of thinking about charismatic groups. There is a colourful leader who is identified with the values and achievements of the group, and all other individuals involved get pretty much elided with the group identity. You see this with musical leaders too of course. Sometimes it’s built into the name (the Robert Shaw Chorale, the Glenn Miller Orchestra), others it’s just how the pairing works in the popular imagination (the CBSO in the Simon Rattle era).

This relates back to my question about whether an ensemble can be charismatic. Looking at the example of Steve Jobs and Apple, I’m inclined to think that, yes, it can be, but it is possibly inevitable that the charisma power will be attributed to the single named individual.

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