Steven Van Zandt once said, when introducing his classic jam “I Am A Patriot,” “Being a good patriot means you question every motherfu–er, everywhere, every time. Make sure your country stays your country.” Loving something doesn’t mean you can’t question it. With that in mind, I’ll note that I’ve been a Bruce Springsteen fan for more than 30 years. I’ve been to at least 30 of his concerts. I’ve often noted that he (and his team) has built his persona — his brand — up to a point where he has nearly impossible expectations to meet with every decision he makes. And that leads fans (and detractors) to have their knives out, ready for any misstep. It’s been that way for years. In Springsteen-themed debates, I usually stick up for the man, both out of love for his music and out of admiration for the choices that he and his team make.
When people were mad that he ditched the E Street Band and New Jersey in the ’90s before recording the Human Touch and Lucky Town albums, I thought, “Can’t an artist progress and try something different?” When he sold his publishing for a reported $500 million, some saw it as a sellout. I wrote about it and learned that there are sometimes good reasons for artists to do that, beyond the money. And when people complained about him doing an exclusive “Best Of” album for Walmart in 2009, despite his pro-union stance (a stance which Walmart did not agree with) …. well, I didn’t have a good retort. Bruce himself admitted to The New York Times that it was a bad decision: “It was a mistake. Our batting average is usually very good, but we missed that one. Fans will call you on that stuff, as it should be.”
Well, you know where I’m going with this. Bruce Springsteen and his management’s decision to use “dynamic pricing” for his upcoming tour has led to this moment: the best tickets are for sale on Ticketmaster for $4,000 or more, as you’ve surely heard by now. It is probably the biggest misstep in the eyes of many of his fans, in a nearly fifty-year career that has seen very few of them. He was right when he said that their “batting average is usually very good.” This move feels like it was bases loaded, one out, bottom of the ninth, they’re down by one and Bruce hit into a double play and then flipped off the crowd before heading for the dugout in his final at-bat.
To be fair, there’s been a lot of breathless news coverage over the “dynamic pricing”; many of these reports ignore that these high-priced tickets are only about 12% of the available seats. They also ignore the fact that there are more affordable tickets to his shows (mainly for terrible seats). Full disclosure: I bought a pair of seats last week: two tickets in the upper level behind the stage, for $149.50 each. And as everyone knows, Ticketmaster tacked on the usual nonsensical service charges, bringing the grand total to $385. It wasn’t too long ago that this would have been the cost for the two of the best seats in the house.
This is a bad look for Springsteen. The way he’s been perceived has always been important to him, in a way that it hasn’t for other perennial arena and stadium headliners like Fleetwood Mac or The Who. Besides Springsteen’s incredible catalog, and his mind-blowing marathon performances, Bruce’s mythos is about how he (and his team) has built him up to be a larger-than-life figure, but one who is still, on some level, is one of “us.” And the perception that he still cares about “us.” If Elton or the Eagles sell tickets that cost thousands of dollars, it isn’t seen as a betrayal of what they stand for; for them, it’s par for the course. But there’s a specific bond between Bruce Springsteen and his audience… this was the subject of the 2013 documentary Springsteen & I. Springsteen’s team helped to promote that doc. Click the link to the trailer; it’s on Bruce’s official YouTube channel.
Bruce himself has talked about a concert ticket purchase being a “contract” of sorts, between him and the fans. He has talked about his shows being a kind of “church.” Having been to many of those shows, I can vouch that on a good night (and they’re almost always amazing), his shows transcend regular concerts. My first show was for the Tunnel of Love tour in 1988; I’m too young to have seen the legendary shows of the ’70s. Some of my favorite shows have been seeing Bruce in his 50s and 60s. He breathes rarified air: with a deep catalog that any artist would kill for, he still plays new music and (unlike many of his peers) it still resonates. Each tour is different, and he has always pushed the limits, first to three-hour shows, and on the last tour, he hit four hours. It’s not just the marathon length: it’s the power of his performances. I saw five of his ten shows at Giants Stadium on The Rising tour in 2003. That album and tour were part of the post-9/11 healing process for many.
On his 2012 tour, he did an epic version of “My City Of Ruins” nightly. What had started as a song about Asbury Park’s rebirth, and later became a song about New York City after 9/11, was now a rumination of friends and loved ones who are no longer with us. As Bruce often said during the song’s long intro, “We’re here on a mission that we pursue, night after night, year after year! We’re here to manifest the joyous power of rock and roll music and shoot it straight into your heart! We’re here to wake you and shake you and take you to higher ground! And we’re here because we need you to take us there! Because we can’t get there by ourselves!” He knows that his audience is an essential ingredient in what he does; some of the audience may be millionaires, but many aren’t, and won’t ever be.
Later in the song, he introduces the E Street Band: icons in their own right, who we’ve seen playing with Bruce for decades, Steven Van Zandt, Max Weinberg, Garry W. Talent among them. And then he’d ask, “Are we missing anybody?” noting the obvious absence of late E Street members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons. He said to the audience, “If you’re here, and we’re here, they’re here.” It was a heavy moment and one that, with all due respect, you don’t experience at the Rolling Stones’ shows, the Who’s shows, or even Paul McCartney’s shows. Those artists are masters at live performance without a doubt: but it’s definitely a situation of “we are the performers, and you cheer for us.” Bruce does a very different thing. The Springsteen audience is part of the show, an active participant.
A few days ago, Backstreets, a Springsteen-focused website, wrote: “The artist has maintained that he understands the essential role of his audience. How, then, did we end up facing, in far too many instances, prices for tickets that exceeded normalcy, then departed from reality entirely by orders of magnitude? From our point of view, it boils down to the stark difference between inside and outside. So many fans who have always gone to the shows, who have always been part of This Thing of Ours, now can’t go, will not be inside, will not be part of the conversation, purely because they can’t pay the cost to see the Boss. Bruce Springsteen tickets have been historically and notoriously difficult to obtain. That’s the nature of the beast, with so many wanting to witness the power and the glory of rock ‘n’ roll and relatively few seats to hold them. But the issue has rarely been the money.”
Bruce’s manager Jon Landau may try to defend the pricing, telling The New York Times that “we looked carefully at what our peers have been doing. We chose prices that are lower than some and on par with others.” There’s a reason, though, that Bruce is held to a different — and higher — standard than his peers. Landau knows this: he worked for years to build this brand. And yes, I know that music fans don’t like terms like “brand” or “product.” But Bruce’s brand has only gotten stronger over the years, and part of that is how he’s always regarded his fanbase. Yeah, it’s hard to leave money on the table. And yes, it’s understandable that even someone as wealthy as Springsteen still might not like the idea of selling tickets for $250 and watching them pop up seconds later on resale sites for thousands of dollars. Be honest, you’d feel the same way. Why shouldn’t Bruce’s team make that money if people are willing to spend it?
But couldn’t there have been another option? With such a huge tour, Springsteen’s team could have had Ticketmaster require people to register for their tickets: you buy the tickets that you need, and if plans change and you can’t make the show, you return them for a full refund. No one’s going to lose money: the shows will always sell, and there will always be fans looking for last-minute tickets. Is there a way for scammers to get around those rules? Probably, but it at least gives all of the fans a shot at the best seats without forcing anyone to choose between spending for tickets or paying their rent or mortgage.
Bruce’s team has also seemed invested in courting a younger audience; that’s when he lowered his performance fees and played on festival lineups including Bonnaroo and Glastonbury; it’s one of the reasons he was excited to play the Super Bowl Halftime show. It’s why he collaborates with artists like the Killers, Bleachers, and Gaslight Anthem; it’s why he pops up on stage with Arcade Fire and Coldplay. Maybe offering more tickets at less than $100 might have made going to a Springsteen concert more attractive for younger fans who had never been to one of his legendary shows.
Of course, what’s done is done: the shows have gone on sale, money has been spent, it is what it is. Bruce and the E Street Band kick off their U.S. tour in February, and it will last through April; then they go to Europe through July. After that, they’ll return home for more dates in August and September of 2023. Bruce will be 73 by the time the tour kicks off; drummer Max Weinberg will be 72. Bruce probably won’t say it, but odds are, this will be the last big E Street Band tour, and yes, there’s a lot of money to be made off of that.
When Bruce puts those last shows on sale, we hope that he and his team consider that one of the reasons that people love him as they do is because he has never appeared to put money first. Bruce has been a massive star for about four decades, and none of his fans begrudge him the pink Cadillac, the blue Cadillac, the yellow Cadillac, and the red Cadillac; we know he’s not gonna be broke when it’s time for the ride in the black Cadillac. But hopefully, he’ll remember that some of his fans will never be able to afford any Cadillac; some may have fallen on hard times and had to sell theirs. These are tough times. But those people are the ones who yell the loudest when Bruce asks, “IS ANYBODY ALIVE OUT THERE???” Because those are the people who take Bruce and the E Street Band to higher ground, those are the people who make it more than a concert.