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frlogo4.JPG (4715 bytes)REUTER'S FOCUS REPORT
English Report Summaries-Available German Titles


THE VIOLIN HOAX:
Its Psychological Dimension

 Copyright Fritz Reuter and Sons, Inc. 1990, 1996-2001 All rights reserved
By Fritz Reuter, Jr.

 

Most confidence games are built on human frailties... . Lies were the foundation of my schemes. A lie is an allurement, a fabrication, that can be embellished into a fantasy... . Truth is cold, sober fact, not so comfortable to absorb. A lie is more palatable. The most detested person in the world is the one who always tells the truth, who never romances.

-Joseph Weil, in "Yellow Kid" Weil: The Autobiography of America's Master Swindler.

In previous FOCUS REPORTS, we have examined violin marketing in terms of a triune concept of fraud: vandalism, bribery, and deception. The three components of this unholy "trinity" admittedly overlap. They are not rigidly separate. Yet our earlier analyses have emphasized vandalism and bribery.

2. This article will stress component number three, deception. We will, therefore, devote a much-enlarged amount of our attention to the psychological aspects of those operations which insiders often refer to as The Great Chicago Fiddle Scam.  And it is no accident that this article's epigraph is provided by Chicago's -- perhaps the world's -- most famous and successful twentieth-century con artist.

3. If we are to illuminate the psychological dynamics of the Fiddle Scam, however, we first need to review the historical background -- the social and economic circumstances in which the now-infamous scheme/scam took form. For, sad to say, it is not an isolated development. It has a lot in common with other stratagems for separating "marks" from their money -- differing only in the degree to which it was systematically elaborated. And, perhaps, in the way that it appealed (and still appeals) to victims' honorable motives. Con artists' greed is usually successful because it is worked out through swindles dependent upon the greed of those who are swindled. On this score, the Fiddle Scam may be unique!

4. In any case, let us recall the American scene toward the end of the 19th century -- roughly 100 years ago. The Industrial Revolution was well under way, and the seeds of commercial and industrial growth had truly begun to flourish in the United States of America. As part of this expansion, immigrants streamed forth into the west. They were intent upon settling the land. At the same time, great railroads stretched across the continent, and open-hearth fires glowed in steel mills which pounded and poured forth the sinews of a growing nation. The clatter of mechanized shuttles was almost unbearably painful, but it turned out beautiful woolens in quantities which had been heretofore unimaginable.

 

5. There were many abuses, and there's no need to deny it. But the scene was alive, pulsing with vitality. At the same time, subsisting as parasites which required the life blood of this young nation, were quacks and snake oil salesmen. They carried on exactly as one would expect, peddling their cure-all potions said to decimate "cancer and indigestion, trichinosis and tapeworm, and every other ill bedeviling man and beast." On more exalted levels of finance, con men of another sort relieved guileless investors (and, admittedly, some not innocent of guile) of their monies by way of stock and land "promotions." In significant ways, the Robber Barons of the new industrial age were different from the Managers, Boesky-like Insider-Traders, who have come to dominate social and economic life in the late twentieth century. The Robber Barons (so named in "honor" of their medieval predecessors) were men with serious ends in view--and were, thus, notably different from those I have spoken of as today's Managers. Even having said all this, however, one may fairly add that the Robber Barons of the new industrial age proved the truth later immortalized in Will Rogers' biting quip regarding their corrupt beginnings: "If you can build a business up big enough, it's respectable." In other words, the Robber Barons were con men of a sort.

 

6. Amid this vital American scene, the chief concern of many Americans was to employ their energies in exploiting the continent -- and, as we have already suggested, each other.

7. Chicago -- widely acknowledged as the typical large city within the U.S. -- manifested the vitality, the exploitation, and the influence of industrial corporate development with exceptional force. Not surprisingly, the Encyclopedia Britannica's 1982 edition characterizes Chicago in just such terms. "A by-product of Chicago's growth on the raw frontier of US industry," we read, "was its reputation as a city in which 'anything goes'... . Of course Chicago, 1990, is not literally identical to Chicago, 1900 or even Chicago, 1930. What is significant for us, however, is the substantive continuity that has persisted amid change -- much of it fairly superficial. It is no exaggeration to remind ourselves that Chicago has become a by-word for Mafia violence, numerous scandals involving corrupt businessmen and politicians, and varied perversions of private and public institutions. Today's "Graylord Scandal" headlines -- directing the public's attention to diverse judges' and lawyers' involvement in bribe taking and extortion -- are a prime example of the problem. To public view, these persons had been so-called pillars of the community. While in reality, the "pillars" have often turned out to be (if covertly) pillars of sand -- hardly reliable as structural supports!

8. Is the magnitude and pervasiveness of such corruption shocking? Yes and No. For Chicago is in some ways -- indeed, in some negative ways! -- unique. In the words of a University of Chicago theologian, commenting upon this city's social environment: "Someplace else it might be shocking . . . Children grow up here knowing things are rigged and fixed."

 

9. Granted, Chicago has many positive features. It may, nevertheless, have been the city's "unattractive" aspects which proved themselves genuinely attractive to one Patrick Joseph Healy. Thus, in 1864, Mr. Healy made his move from Boston to the "city of broad shoulders" and deep pockets. Here, he threw in his lot with a Mr. George W. Lyon. They became the firm of Lyon & Healy. And, as such, they were destined to make their enterprise the largest music store in the world. Their inventories truly touched upon "Everything in Music," as they proudly advertised until their corporate demise.

10 "Behind every great fortune there is a crime," wrote the great French novelist, Honore de Balzac. This may be unequivocally true of many of the great fortunes. But with the firm of old Lyon & Healy, we should probably focus less upon crime (at least in the strict sense) than upon flimflam. Also, we should probably render a certain kind of tribute -- since the Lyon & Healy flimflam involved considerable originality. It was no garden variety scam, since the Lyon & Healy fortune was the product of something euphemistically called "creative merchandising and financing." Over the years, their "creative merchandising" of musical instruments -- effected through ingenious pricing and selling methods -- expanded to become a pattern of racketeering activities. The pattern was powerful enough to shape and influence the whole music industry, especially the aspect of the business which focused on old and antique violins. The same pattern also shaped the industry's standards of success . . . standards which have remained intact right up to the present.

11. To adequately illustrate the depth of this pattern's influence, I want to describe its make-up, the way it works, and the nature of its impact upon one segment of the musical instrument business. It is probably quite obvious that I am referring to what is generally known as the "The Great Chicago Fiddle Scam."

CREATIVE MERCHANDISING: The Inner Logic of Its Evolution

12. The inner logic of creative merchandising’s evolution is intimately tied, at every stage, to development of what is almost always called the "professional discount."

- Stage 1 -

13. Here, the professional discount is simply a rebate -- a rebate on new, list-price merchandise purchased by professional musicians. And, when described in this way, the discount or rebate seems acceptable enough.

 

14. What lies behind it may be another matter. In the violin business, the professional discount's development appears to trace back to the original enterprise of Lyon & Healy. In its primitive form, here is how it worked. The "professional discount" -- and note the word discount -- -- was simply a built-in mark-up that a manufacturer included in the "list price" or listed sales price which was to be charged by the retailer. This kind of advance fixing of an item's list cost was protected by Fair Trade, or price maintenance, legislation. In other words, the law enabled manufacturers to both set and enforce the retail sales price of their trade-mark or "branded" goods. So the "discount" was to be understood as a specially-protected deduction from the list price -- a deduction that was to be appreciated as a professional courtesy and, simultaneously, as a spur to the emergence of product loyalty among stringed instrument teachers and musicians.

15. These rebates became the unofficial, yet well-established, standards within the music industry of the time. There were basically two levels of "consideration," depending upon whether one was acquiring products sold under their national brand name or, in contrast, products bearing a house label, one of the dealer's house brands. In either case, the commodity at issue is a mass-produced instrument, bow, set of strings, accessory, etc. -- bore an explicitly fixed retail catalog price. For nationally-advertised brand-name merchandise, however, the "consideration" expressed as a so-called professional discount went as high as 25% -- but no higher. For house-brand items, in contrast, the professional discount (i.e., rebate) went as high as 40% of the list price.

- Stage 2-

16. At this point, the professional discount has been transformed. No longer a rebate to the buyer; it is now a kick-back (equivalent in size to the prior stage's rebate or professional discount) paid to the matchmaker. The matchmaker has "earned" it by, so to speak, "delivering" the buyer to the seller.

17. The arrangements of Stage 1 are fairly straightforward and defensible. Those of Stage 2, though they require the ignorance of the buyer, deprived the music business of its relative innocence. Truly, they corrupted it.

18. Applying Stage 2, "Creative Merchandising" now took on a novel dimension -- a distorted and distorting dimension. Yes, sellers of new, mass-produced instruments were still sellers of instruments. But now their business rested heavily upon a secret network of musicians and others -- particularly musician-teachers -- who were routine participants in a scheme. What scheme? Basically, we're talking about a form of bribery. For the kickbacks had to be earned. Musicians who were also teachers became what we have called matchmakers, secret salesmen-promoters for the actual sellers of instruments. Once the pattern gained ground, musicians and teachers came to expect "theirs" -- their "gratuity," "fee," call it what you will, they were splitting the profits of their mutually engaged swindle. They more-or-less openly extorted "commissions" from the sellers of instruments, since the prominent performers and teachers -- once they had gotten on to the pattern set by some sellers -- came to see themselves as matchmakers, and their matchmaking activities as legitimately "billable" services. "Kickback," one can imagine them saying, "is a distinctly unpleasant term. Since we are both professionals, let us speak of my share of the profits as fees for services rendered. My commission."

 

19. Respectable corruption had been institutionalized, and honorifically renamed. As for the procedure itself, the adjectives simple and lucrative both apply -- and to both sides, the matchmaker and the dealer. (But forget the buyer!)  The matchmaker, having a prearranged "understanding" with one or more dealers, sends his students to them -- "recommending" them as a trustworthy source for new instruments, accessories, rentals, and repair services. The student confidently makes his purchases at catalog list price. No "professional discount" to him -- since he is, after all, merely a student. But the "professional," the matchmaker, is not to be forgotten. His recommendation or referral (call it whichever you prefer) merits a commission -- i.e., kickback -- equal to the rebate explained in our account of Stage 1.  And all of this happens, please note, without the buyer's knowledge.

- Stage 3-

20. By now, the inner logic of "creative merchandising" is approaching its fulfillment. Now we are dealing with old and antique instruments at arbitrarily fixed prices. No longer is the "professional discount," already transformed from an "allurement" for buyers into an under-the-table kickback to middlemen-matchmakers, locked in at the 25%-40% maximum. Now it's negotiable. It is, quite literally, a negotiated percentage -- having no limit -- of a dealer/matchmaker -- fixed sales price. The greed of the matchmaker may, in consequence, have as much to do with an instrument's price as the greed of the seller -- not to mention the estimated purchasing power and gullibility of the buyer himself.

21. To clarify, a slight expansion is required. Speaking of "creative merchandising" in a relatively informal sense, stages 1 and 2 may be said to characterize practices common to the selling of nearly all musical instruments by nearly all dealers -- in nearly all places. Stage 3 is casually spoken of, at least by many, as the "Chicago Fiddle Scam." As the name implies, the casual cast of the usage is matched by the precision of this scam's locale.

22. Mike Royko, America's most remarkable iconoclast, once suggested that ubi est mea? (or "where's mine?") could fittingly replace the more dignified motto on the City of Chicago's Great Seal. And the third stage fits especially well with its place of origin, with what we earlier termed the less attractive aspects of  Chicago as a social environment. The Chicago Fiddle Scam is not an import. It was developed and refined (then exported!) by the "Chicago strain" of what we have, in earlier FOCUS REPORTS, described as Musician-Dealers. They gave distinctive and enormous emphasis to the vending of old and antique violins. (Cf. the stress, in Stage 1 and Stage 2, upon new, commercially mass produced instruments.)

23. Who were these master marketers or musician-dealers? Lyon & Healy, as we have earlier mentioned, were the great originators. At the same time, we should not omit old William Lewis & Son, Kagan & Gaines, Kenneth Warren & Son, Carl Becker & Son, (more recently) (Sons of Ron Hubbard), William H. Lee & Co. Inc., A440 and Augustino J. Napoli, among others. The point, of course, is not the names but the scam itself. Its core elements are much like those found in all sting operations, confidence rackets, shell games, and other cons. So the Chicago Fiddle Scam not only draws upon generic methods of bribery and extortion. It tends to include, in addition, a sweeping conspiracy of deception and fraud -- a conspiracy which is difficult to chronicle in detail. It is confusing at best, especially to the uninitiated. But amid all of the Chicago Fiddle Scam's multiple unethical or even illegal ramifications, two things remain uppermost: the hype bestowed upon the ever-dwindling supply of  antique instruments, and the variable or "sky is the limit" character of the kickbacks upon which the scam relies for its ongoing success. "My services merit more than 40%. Let's talk this over."

 

CREATIVE MERCHANDISING AND THE CHICAGO FIDDLE SCAM:
Its Historical Development

24. The year 1889 witnessed a most remarkable event in the history of Creative Merchandising. Lyon & Healy had just formed their department of old and antique violins. Understandably, they needed someone to head it. Seeking a person with fitting credentials, the partners decided to hire one Mr. J. C. Freeman -- a former cow-puncher and pony rustler -- as their budding "expert." Thus did Mr. Freeman come to rule the Department of Old and Antique Violins.

25. After just one year, he was sent on his first of many buying trips to Europe -- trips which, in particular, took him to London. There, while visiting the world renowned firm of W. E. Hill & Sons -- the very firm which had appointed Lyon & Healy as its accredited agents for new Hill violins and bows -- Mr. Freeman made a far-reaching discovery. Invited to attend the auctions at Christie's, Sotheby's, Phillips and other houses -- all of them, flea markets of the noble and rich, as well as the wholesale source frequented by violin dealers and connoisseurs of antique violins -- he was able to observe, in person,  that people bought violins, violas, and cellos at auctions (1) without even playing them, and (2) most often paying more for these old instruments than they would have for ones which were new and playable.

26. Since he had come from the New World, from a nation lacking the renowned auction houses and the array of objects of fine art so abundant in cosmopolitan London, it takes effort to imagine how Mr. Freeman must have felt. He was probably puzzled, in spite of the advantages conferred by his experience as a rustler. It must have seemed unusual that people would buy old items, especially musical instruments, without even playing them or hearing their sound when played by someone else . . . and that the same people would, to top things off, willingly pay exorbitant prices.

27. To Mr. Freeman it must initially have seemed a remarkable spectacle. He could witness old clocks and other time pieces being auctioned off -- even when they kept time inaccurately, or didn't work at all. He could marvel at furniture -- ornate and old-fashioned pieces from past periods -- selling successfully at auction, though the buyer frequently didn't bother to sit in the chairs, etc. Were he living today, he would probably be similarly astounded and amused. For he could easily learn that an old and rather slow automobile, a "Duesenberg," did in fact fetch the hammer for $1,045,000.00 (at auction: Sotheby's, 1990) -- or that an uncomfortable wing chair of 1770, an authentic Chippendale, brought $2,750,000.00 (again, at auction: Sotheby's, 1988).

 

28. However, Mr. Freeman's background as a rustler (and, perhaps, his acquaintance with the many confidence schemes which flourished in America's Old West?) must have enabled him to resolve his perplexities with reasonable speed. Having a background as a keen observer of animal and human behavior and traits, Mr. Freeman apparently came to realize that old and antique violins were acquired for reasons other than their utility or intrinsic value as musical instruments. That people paid absurdly high prices because the prices were absurd, that wealthy amateur players -- imitating the landed nobility -- were acquiring the instruments as collectors' items, status symbols, fetishes, relics, sham trophies and conversation pieces. Without the benefit of having read Thorstein Veblen, the great economist, Mr. Freeman understood that such people were engaged in "conspicuous consumption." Without the dangers of hunting big game, they were "bagging trophies."

29. Mr. Freeman was not a stupid man. And his observations apparently led him, pretty quickly, to envision the possibilities of a great scheme . . . or scam. He seems to have seen the promising prospect of recycling the abundant supply of old violins, making astounding profits from, so to speak, turning "lemons" into "lemonade." Given the mental aberrations which arise from snobbery, Creative Merchandising -- in its ultimate form -- could make virtually unplayable instruments into the most coveted of treasures. For the scheme would be firmly grounded in the universal human traits of vanity and greed -- supplemented by the simple ignorance of the majority of speculators on the "violin market." In time, this scheme -- and the insights which made it possible -- would eventuate in Lyon and Healy's great fortune.

30. Though the obstacles to giving this scheme concrete reality were, one must grant, many, they were not numerous enough to defeat Mr. Freeman. With ingenuity befitting a former pony rustler and cow-puncher whose one-year conversion into an "expert" on antique violins had to bemuse his staid and proper English tutors, Mr. J.C. Freeman found a way. The "method" he discovered was about equivalent to successfully selling ancient used cars to prosperous blind and first time buyers -- with the help of the buyers' driving instructors. In this fashion, the sightless buyers came to believe that their acquisitions were not simply more expensive than new cars, but that they cost more because they were functionally superior to the new products of advanced engineering.

31. The dynamics of the Freeman-Lyon & Healy method are best appreciated when viewed in context of the major obstacle that the method confronted -- and overcame. A simple, self-evident observation had to be overturned. People with perfect vision had, in effect, to be convinced that black is white. Let us therefore describe the obstacle and the sequence of ingenious means by which it was surmounted:

THE PRINCIPAL OBSTACLE: ENTROPY

 

32. This is a known and established axiom, derived from a universally observed law, and verified both scientifically and in everyone's experience:

ENTROPY: disorder is the means of change by which all things known to man, especially all mechanical devices, increasingly wear out with age -- and therefore function less efficiently as they become older.

33. Mr. Freeman had to find a way to convince not only the individual buyer, but also the public at large, that the opposite was true when violins were at issue, that old violins (because of their age) functioned and therefore sounded better than newly created master-made instruments.

34. Other, secondary obstacles, which derive from the PRINCIPAL OBSTACLE, also had to be overcome, especially the following:

- Derivative Obstacle 1 -
The Diminishing Sound of Aging Violins

35. A technique had to be developed and instituted to temporarily increase the vibrations of worn-out, fatigued, old and antique instruments -- a technique which would cause the buyer to be amazed and convinced, also, that old violins are functionally equal or even superior to contemporary master-made ones.

36. It is a known fact that only in the hands of an expert violin maker and restorer can old and antique violins be genuinely preserved and revitalized -- that only such skilled hands can restore the instrument to a physical condition and tonal quality approximating those envisioned by the original maker. Such restoration is crucial if the violin is to remain an object desired by serious antique violin collectors -- and this kind of restoration takes time and admits no compromise or short-cut.

 

37. A speedy, time-efficient way had to be found to temporarily revitalize the sound of old and antique violins.  (Cf. the Principle of Reversibility, discussed in our Summer 1985, and September 1988, Focus Reports.) They could not. at least in the show room, sound worn out and fatigued with age: they had to sound loudly, since loudness -- especially today -- is taken by many players as "proof" that an instrument has a good sound. To maximize profits (consideration #1 in this scam) much of the work was to be done by barely skilled woodworkers. Moreover. a technique had to be found which would be something like the "doping" which is practiced in various sports and in horse racing. There had to be a way to effect a temporary increase in instruments' resonance -- much like the prohibited use of drugs to temporarily increase the strength and speed of horses and athletes. As of the moment, steroids are "the way to go" for many athletes. But the superb athlete, like the superb violin, may become a permanently disabled physical wreck very shortly after delivery of an artificially stimulated "peak" performance.

38. This hurdle was overcome by malpractice -- an unethical, destructive process called "re-graduation" or the irreversible thinning and changing of the graduations and pattern of thicknesses of instruments' top, back and sides-(again. see our Focus Report of the Summer of 1985).

- Derivative Obstacle 2-
Fiduciary Relationship Between Teacher and Student/Parent

39. A subterfuge had to be devised to profit from the naturally cultivated fiduciary relationship between the student and teacher -- a relationship involving trust, loyalty, even admiration. The teacher was seen as a confidential career counselor, most often acting in loco parentis. With seeming justification the student/parent reposed his confidence, faith and reliance in the educator, whose aid, knowledge, and truthful advice or protection was sought, especially in the purchase of an instrument. The tuition-paying student/parent had to be kept ignorant of a simple fact: the music teacher's deepest loyalty was to the seller or dealer.

40. One of the most successful common denominators -- which persuades individuals to prostitute their allegiance to high professional principles -- is the all pervasive GREED for money and/or power. A highly unscrupulous but profitable conspiracy between the violin teachers and the sellers or dealers had to be developed, to swindle an unsuspecting class of customers out of their monies. By secretly splitting the profit of the dealer's sale to a student, the teacher now was beholden to the dealer -- committed to do his bidding. The selling of violins became a typical confidence game. With dealers leaving the selling of violins purposely the domain of their secretly employed teachers, they in turn converted the students' misplaced trust in their advice into huge mutual profits. The student became the proverbial sucker, one of whom is said to be born every minute. Since both teacher and dealer had each other over the barrel, so to speak, it almost came to be the perfect scam: The recycling of an ever-growing number of physically degenerated instruments, at arbitrarily set and ever-increasing prices and profits.

- Derivative Obstacle 3-
Basic Human Intelligence, Perception and Logical Reasoning

 

41. A number of emotional fixations had to be instituted to brainwash the uninitiated buyers and general public into accepting the violin as the quintessential "blind item" -- an object for which knowledge of facts (comprising the usual or chief means of guidance or judgment in purchase of an object) is lacking. Keeping the purchaser ignorant and illiterate, as well as at the mercy of his matchmaking teacher, this collusion would greatly empty the field of previously listed obstacles. This, in turn, would increase the lucrative profits enjoyed by the fiddle scam's insiders.

42. Through an all-pervasive propaganda campaign based on the "Big Lie," this new "Priesthood of the Initiated Ones" in the "Violin Mysteries" conspired, through a hidden psychological agenda, for buyers of violins to remain blinded to reality, as far the purchase of violins was concerned.  This priesthood consisted of an Illuminati-like core, infiltrating scores of violin and music related organizations to propagate their mysteries. The challenge was to eliminate the buyer's judgment from the picture -- without his realizing it! -- and to make the matchmaking teacher's judgment take over in decisions regarding the value of old and antique violins. Since these are, now in an almost-classical sense, mystical "blind" items -- articles for which there is no commonly-understood standard of evaluation -- this ignorance had to be compounded. The consumer was NOT to be educated by facts; truth had to remain hidden within the "all knowing" initiated priesthood for the scam to work. Violins must be purchased "blindly," through sightless belief in the power of the oracle-like pontificating of the priesthood of violin teachers and their handlers, since only they were versed in all the mysteries of understanding fine sound.

43. A two-pronged psychological shell-game -- to distort buyers' normal frames of reference, and to intensify and compound the public's ignorance of how to buy a violin -- was to evolve.

44. First, regarding stringed instruments: The buyer must be made to believe that the "skyrocket" price he is rendering up for an old or antique violin is, in fact, rendered to secure beauty of sound. That the price is determined by the sound of the violin and based on this. That only the teacher can tell if the price is right. The buyer must be inundated with fables. lies and mysticisms, like the long lost "Secret of Stradivarius," etc. (Cf. topics discussed in "Finally Found: The 'Secret' of Stradivarius" and "Violin Mythology: A Psychoanalytical Goldmine" in the September 1986 Focus Report.)  Statements like: The sound of the violin determines the price, violins always increase in value because they are getting better with age, etc., are just some of the many absurdities which buyers learned to regurgitate.

45. Secondly, the insiders had to slyly attack those who resisted the crafty conspiracy. So, at the same time the buyer's own judgment was subtly rendered inoperative, it was likewise critical to denigrate the real expertise of genuine experts and collectors whose knowledge and experience makes them the only trustworthy judges of fine antique violins' value. By threats, by silent group boycott, by slandering the reputation of those who dare (like Der Spiegel of March 10,1986) to expose the "Violin Mafia," and by fanning the personal prejudices of potential customers against outsiders to the scam, the scam masters tilted the level playing field. They created a conspiratorial monopoly. "Exclusive Dealing Contracts," price discrimination and other unfair methods of competition ensured the conspiracy would flourish undisturbed across state and national boundaries, yes, internationally.

 

46. The ultimate challenge here involves persuading the buyer that the teacher (or whatever matchmaker is involved) is his unbiased mentor and authoritative yet understanding judge of just price. If the buyer has already been deluded into thinking that the inflated price he is paying is warranted by the instrument's tonal beauty, and also that the matchmaker is an unquestionable arbiter of such beauty, then three-fourths of the battle has already been won. The conclusion that the stated price is fair and just can be established in the buyer's psyche -- rather quickly, and with comparative ease.

CREATIVE MERCHANDISING AND THE CHICAGO FIDDLE SCAM:
Psychological
Grounds

47. Studies which seek to illuminate the power of lies and fabrications, fantasies and romances and myths, repeatedly return to a cluster of common concepts. Whether we're talking about the confessions of Joseph "Yellow Kid" Weil, or the penetrating studies of Sigmund Freud (his Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse of 1921, known in English as Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego) or even Wilhelm Reich (1933 saw the 1st edition of his Massenpsychologie des Faschismus or Mass Psychology of Fascism), we repeatedly encounter references to:

  • the demand for illusions and magic
  • the force of prestige as domination in disguise, prompting submission
  • the paralysis of individuals' critical faculty or judgment
  • the thirst for obedience, authority and the worship of "prestige" -- "a mysterious and irresistible power" (Freud) -- believed to stamp and identify The Leader, The Authority, The Expert, and so on.

48. Moreover, just as political empires have been created through the cunning manipulation of such conceptual-symbolic resources, so have financial "empires."

49. The group to be manipulated may be an entire nation, or a significant segment of the nation. But it may also be a professional group, a band of individuals united in their love for a common object (however poorly understood): intellectual excellence, spiritual achievement, even musical beauty.

50. The problem, of course, is not the existence of such common objects of love and aspiration. What is problematic is the distortions which intrude between individuals and groups and the goal on which their attention is focused. For the distortions distort the goal or object itself, and make those seeking to serve a goal -- whether it's a just and well ordered community or a revelatory performance of a great concerto -- victims of those who manipulate propaganda.

51. In these terms, so I would suggest, the musical community -- especially but not exclusively the Chicago musical community -- has often been victimized by those who are adept at manipulating the symbols and concepts of mass psychology. The manipulators' understanding of their schemes probably owes more to figures such as Freeman and the "Yellow Kid" than to a man like Freud. But, so far as the central point is concerned, the source of these understandings is less important than possible protection against them. And the only true protection, so far as we can tell, comes from insight and awareness. To understand the manipulative techniques is to be armed against them.

 

52. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica's 1982 edition (see Propaganda), "propaganda is the more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people's beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols…[and] a relatively heavy emphasis on manipulation distinguish[es] propaganda from . . . the free and easy exchange of ideas." If we're willing to go with this definition. then it is fair to say that the violin business has been infiltrated by massive propagandistic forces -- forces which Freud's discussion of "group psychology" (massenpsychologie) should illuminate. For, in seeking to understand the fiddle scam, we are primarily attending to men in a mass -- men in groups -- rather than to individuals whose judgment is unclouded by the pressure of communal symbols, expectations, and competition. The musical world and musical community are, after all, fairly self-contained worlds, communities, groups. Apart from what a musician actually needs to perform well as a musician, there is always the group's expectation that he "signal" his standing by the display of symbolic objects -- most commonly, old/antique string instruments with famous-maker names which may "speak" with greater resonance than the violins, violas, or cellos themselves. after all, fairly self-contained worlds, communities, groups. Apart from what a musician actually needs to perform well as a musician, there is always the group's expectation that he "signal" his standing by the display of symbolic objects -- most commonly, old/antique string instruments with famous-maker names which may "speak" with greater resonance than the violins, violas, or cellos themselves.

53. That's why musicians and their communities (or groups, masses) are so significant. Allow me to cite from the opening chapter of Freud's Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego:

54. It is true that individual psychology is concerned with the individual man and explores the paths by which he seeks to find satisfaction for his instinctual impulses; but only rarely and under certain exceptional conditions is individual psychology in a position to disregard the relations of this individual to others... Group psychology is therefore concerned with the individual man as a member of a race, of a nation, of a caste, of a profession... (emphasis added).

55. And apropos of all we have observed of the power of symbols and lies decked out as alluring fantasies, Freud's comments in his next chapter are even more telling. In his own words:

56. A group is extraordinarily credulous and open to influence, it has no critical faculty, and the improbable does not exist for it. It thinks in images, which call one another up by association . . . and whose agreement with reality is never checked by any reasonable agency... . Inclined as it itself is to all extremes, a group can only be excited by an excessive stimulus (emphasis added).

57. Mention of "excessive stimulus" spontaneously calls to mind the massive mythology and merchandising-marketing hype which are intrinsic to the fiddle scam -- its very essence, and not at all accidental or adventitious.

58. In context of the fiddle scam, Freud's observations are so pointedly "on-target" that further quotation is certainly appropriate. After all, the scam we're looking at operates in (and on) a group:

59. A group, further, is subject to the truly magical power of words. . . [and] groups have never thirsted after truth. They demand illusions, and cannot do without them... .

 

A group is an obedient herd, which could never live without a master. It has such a thirst for obedience that it submits instinctively to anyone who appoints himself its master... .

The leaders [or masters have] a mysterious and irresistible power which he [Freud here refers to G. Le Bon, author of the 1895 Psychologie des foules] calls 'prestige.' Prestige is a sort of domination exercised over us by an individual, a work or an idea. It entirely paralyses our critical faculty, and fills us with wonderment and respect. It would seem to arouse a feeling like that of 'fascination' in hypnosis (emphasis added).

60. By now we're in wonderland indeed -- not because Freud's analysis is anything less than sober, but because the demand for more and more potent stimuli, the unconscious belief in magic, the demand for illusions, thirst for obedience, and paralysis of critical intelligence by the power of prestige -- because all these take us, as proud and trusting members of the musical world (a professional group, Masse), further and further from the physical realities of sound production. By now, indeed, something like the physics and mechanics of instrumental resonance must seem a dull subject indeed -- lacking, as the "Yellow Kid" would have put it, all "allurement."

61. That, however, is precisely the point. The phenomena we may consider as fiddle-scam hype are, like all bells-and-whistles extravaganzas, an almost-immediate eye-catcher -- pretty much like the "wonders" that enchant and dominate and loosen one's purse strings on the Midway of any circus or county fair. But we also know something else. The Giant Stuffed Teddy Bear or Wonder Elixir, that seemed like the prize at the center of the world while we were under the exciting spell of barkers and swirling neon, looks quite different in the ordinary light of the subsequent day. To again recall the "Yellow Kid": "The most detested person in the world is the one who always tells the truth, who never romances." Even so, the person we detest may become someone we honor -- if we are helped to see that the reality is actually more wonderful than the sham romance, the enchanting and paralyzing fable.

62. So it is in the world of music, no less subject to the enticements of mass psychology than any other world. Luckily, what awaits us when we go beyond illusion is not disappointment, but the rewards of craftsmanship -- the genuine (and non-magical!) art of master violin makers. The Great Chicago Fiddle Scam invites us to spend our lives on the Circus Midway, enthralled by the prestige of famous teachers and the like (i.e., matchmakers) and the prestigious, quasi-magical objects in the possession of men of magic, men whom adequate sums of money may one day appease (i.e., musician-dealers).

 

63. Thankfully, we don't have to accept the invitation. One's judgment need not suffer paralysis, and one need not be a victim of symbolically-magically induced domination. Awareness and insight--an understanding of the scam's inner logic, historical development, and psychological grounding -- make one immune. As we earlier remarked, to understand manipulative techniques is to be armed against them.

64. What is more, there truly is a positive side to all this. And the affirmation -- once its astonishing implications are firmly understood -- is affirmative indeed. There is, we have noted, a wide-spread conviction that instruments must be old -- preferably antiques -- if they are to rate as "fine concert instruments." In this article and previous FOCUS REPORTS, we have tried to suggest the contrary -- and to spell out in detail the evidence for our position. If one is seeking an instrument which will perform optimally, which will respond to the whole range of demands the player wishes to make, then there is good reason to look first at new, master-made instruments. (This would be obvious if we were talking about brass instruments, where myths such as the "Stradivarius mystery" have never evolved -- and where fine master-crafted trumpets, for example, continue to be available at truly modest prices.)  Master Gunther Reuter of our firm, Fritz Reuter and Sons, is acknowledged to be one of our time's premier violin makers. Yet he would be the first to tell you that he is not alone, that there are other fine modern makers as well.

65. As we like to remind our customers, Stradivarius himself made new violins.

66. The notion that Stradivarius' creations somehow or other "improved" with age is one of the more obvious, if widely circulated, credulities of a century dominated by Creative Merchandising -- as is the ploy of the "lost secret" of making violins. As a notion, it defies logic and science and simple common sense. A violin is an artfully crafted machine, but a machine nonetheless. The life of a machine, as all of us know, can be extended greatly by knowledgeable maintenance -- and cut short by ignorance and carelessness. Without a doubt, the kind of butchery which has often been inflicted upon old master-made instruments has frequently turned them into virtually unplayable, vastly devalued antiques. Of little worth to players or collectors. While careful repair and restoration have often given such instruments long, useful lives.

67. The simple point is that there is a limit. Death may be postponed, so to speak, but not eliminated. Eventually, even the most carefully-cared-for violin deteriorates to the point where it lacks the resonance and responsive range which any serious musician -- whether a soloist, a member of a major symphony, a freelancer, or a dedicated amateur -- has a right to expect. What then?

68. The current myth proclaims that success as a musician is impossible, regardless of one's dedication and education, unless one manages to obtain one of a rapidly-diminishing number of high priced, old, antique, master-made violins. As we have urged again and again, this may not be a solution at all. The antique ("doped up" to sound good for the moment) may be far inferior to a modern instrument -- if it's actual sounding and response we're considering, rather than the arbitrarily contrived pseudo dollar-value of an antique or phony trophy. Additionally, the antique -- even if, by some miracle of restoration, it can be returned to near-optimal capacity -- may be wildly beyond the reach of anyone other than another Insider or grafter.

 

69. What then happens is cruel and devastating -- especially because of the sort of "alleviation of distress" which unscrupulous matchmakers proffer. Performers, especially young performers, are tricked into believing that all is for naught unless they can get their hands on one of the few remaining antique or so called "World Class" instruments. They can have the finest teachers. They can practice from dawn to dusk. Their parents can stand behind them, offering encouragement at every step. None of this will count -- and it is particularly important, if the Great Chicago Fiddle Scam is to succeed, that the parents believe it -- absolutely none of this will count unless mom and dad come up with the fortune necessary to acquire the coveted antique, the matchmaker-approved Old-Master Violin!

70. Early in this discussion, we observed that most confidence schemes appeal to their victims' baser motives. The greed of the con man is met by, and meshes with, the greed of his mark. The "Pigeon Drop" swindle is a well-known, garden variety example. It depends upon the not-so-honorable desire to get something for nothing -- and fast! Here, we would urge, is the significant contrast. The benefit offered to the victim of the Chicago Fiddle Scam is, so to speak, a spiritual or psychic reward. True. the scam exploits the common human weaknesses illuminated by group psychology (especially that of Freud) -- but it appeals to its victims' honorable motives. The parents of a budding young violinist or cellist may have done their best to seek out good teachers, learning and performing opportunities for their child, etc.  Is it then greed which propels their search for an appropriate instrument? Not at all. And it is one thing to say that such parents (and their child) are in some sense ignorant. It is quite another to act as though the Fiddle Scam exposes parental bad character -- just because every other known scam exploits dishonorable greed.

71. It is neither the child nor the parents who are to blame, but the institutionalized matchmaker-dealer operation. It is that which should be blamed -- and exposed, and dismantled. It is the cause of much unnecessary anguish.

72. Take the situation described very recently by Dorothy DeLay, known as one of the world's most prominent violin teachers. In The Instrumentalist (43:12 [July, 1989]) she reports that, "there is much more than natural aptitude that has to go into the long training of a concert violinist. Solid family support must be there. . . I teach some children whose mothers bring them here to study for years and years while the fathers are working hard to earn a living back in Korea or China or Japan. The cost of a fine concert violin runs high into six figures, and many families carry two, and sometimes three, mortgages" (emphasis added).

 

73. This is blatantly unconscionable. For the sweetheart arrangements of matchmakers and dealers, supporting and supported by the antique-violin cum Mystery of Stradivarius mythology, subject decently motivated individuals to years of deprivation . . . all for the sake of a goal which could be attained without such suffering. Fine, master-made new stringed instruments may merit the adjective "rare" because of their physical and tonal beauty -- but not because they are remnants of a fast-diminishing finite supply. The Chicago Fiddle scam has gone on for, now, more than a century. Yet throughout the scam's every decade, fine new master-made violins have been available -- from both European and American makers

75. Stradivarius' original customers were in fact purchasing new violins. And the truest way of honoring Stradivarius' legacy is through the purchase of instruments crafted by those of today's master makers in whom his legacy remains vital. These masters were not, and are not, masters of deception, con artists. Perhaps without the scam's negative history, and without its manipulation of "group psychology," there would be no need to belabor the obvious. Stradivarius made new violins. And treating them like relics is not the way to honor his achievements. It makes more sense to acknowledge a master of the past by honoring the craftsmen of today, those whose work keeps Stradivarius' legacy alive.

 Copyright Fritz Reuter and Sons, Inc. 1990, 1996-2000 All rights reserved

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