The Yanni Files

journalism

THE NEW YORK TIMES OP-ED PAGE January 17, 1998

The Yanni Files

DON’T MISUNDERSTAND: we’re still very, very proud of the entire Yanni concept, as proud as we were the day 20 years ago we dreamed it up. Do we begrudge the fact that our notion has become the most popular entertainment product on the planet? No — indeed, we’re deeply moved. Do we begrudge the fact that we don’t share in the current Yanni revenue stream? No, because money was never the motivation. The process that turned into ”Yanni” was a bar bet, a lark, a nutty what-if marketing experiment.

Friends often ask, If you had it to do over again, is there anything about Yanni you’d redesign or retool? And we always say, Yes — the hair. Back in 1978, when my friend Tibor first talked about inventing a character along these lines, Doug Henning and Tony Orlando were superstars; we knew that the dark shag haircut and the big, droopy mustache would work. The look became dated pretty quickly, but once it was integral to the Yanni brand — along with the billowy shirts and what we used to call ”the waterbed smile” — a relaunch was out of the question. After the New Coke debacle, there was no way we were going to risk a New Yanni fiasco.

But those were seat-of-the-pants decisions, choices made casually over kirs at Maxwell’s Plum. From there on, we introduced rigor into the creative process, starting with the name. We wanted unique; we wanted international, yet not particular-country-identifiable, and we wanted a word that didn’t mean something unsavory in any major language.

From our original, computer-generated list of hundreds, we presented six names to focus groups in Canada, Switzerland and Singapore. ”Smoofie” and ”Zazu” had high negatives; ”Rafi” and ”Radu” scored well only among children and fashion models; the focus groups liked Tin-tin, but we were unable to clear the rights for North America. ”Yanni” tested well in every country and among all age groups — and significantly better than either Yani and Yanni.

One of our wisest choices, in retrospect, was to create a virtually complete oeuvre before we even had hired a performer. Did we invent ”sampling” during the winter of 1978 in that recording studio in Westchester? All we know is, we and the White Plains Pops went in on Jan. 3 with dozens of eight-track tapes (the ”Planet of the Apes” and ”2001” soundtrack albums, a bootleg of the ”Wide World of Sports” theme song) and emerged two weeks later with 49 hours of brand-new Yanni music.

Despite everything, we also remain proud of our decision to hire and train three different men to tour simultaneously as Yanni. Although employing several Yannis at once ultimately led to our departure from the enterprise (interested readers may refer to the landmark National Labor Relations Board ruling, Yanni v. Yanni v. Yanni et al.), the multiple-Yanni concept was inarguably groundbreaking in non-animal live-performance entertainment. (As most people know, there are six Yannis on the current, 200-concert ”Tribute” tour, including the Uzbeki Yanni, who performs exclusively in countries of the former Soviet Union.)

Sure, we made mistakes. That first season of performances in Esperanto was an idea whose time had not yet come. The ”spiritual” component of the Yanni brand was part of the act we tried to phase out when the astrology craze faded; we just didn’t see the whole New Age thing coming.

In planning our ”Yanni: The Man of Peace Live at the 38th Parallel” concert special, we should have double-checked the North Korean promises of assistance, but once again the idea — Yanni plus international monument equals event programming — has been validated by the success of shows like ”Yanni: Live at the Acropolis.”

Pursuing our largely non-Yanni-related careers for the last decade, we have been content to watch, anonymous and silent, as our brainstorm succeeded beyond all imagining. But after the most recent PBS pledge drive, we decided we could remain in the shadows no longer. According to the Dec. 26 issue of the Public Broadcasting Report, the program ”Yanni: The Tribute Concert from the Taj Mahal and the Forbidden City” appears to have been more successful than any other PBS broadcast in generating pledges during 1997.

Yes, that makes us proud. But it also galls us: back in the early 80′s, during Yanni Phase One, when we proposed to PBS that they broadcast a Yanni program (”Yanni in Arizona: Live From London Bridge”), and we argued it would be great for fund-raising, a PBS executive actually laughed in our faces. ”What do you think this is?” he said as he ushered us out of his office. ”Some cheesy commercial network?”