When The Promise Is Broken: Springsteen & Us

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Springsteen & Us

In order to make sense of the present, sometimes you have to go back to the past. When The Rolling Stones wanted to charge eight dollars for their show at the Los Angeles Forum in 1969, there was considerable outrage and Rolling Stone ran the headline “The Rolling Stones Impose High Ticket Prices for U.S. Tour.” 

“Can the Rolling Stones actually need all that money?” San Francisco Chronicle rock critic Ralph Gleason asked. “If they really dig the black musicians as much as every note they play and every syllable they utter indicates, is it possible to take out a show with, say, Ike and Tina and some of the older men like Howlin’ Wolf and let them share in the loot? How much can the Stones take back to Merrie England after taxes, anyway? How much must the British manager and the American manager and the agency rake off the top?

“Paying five, six and seven dollars for a Stones concert at the Oakland Coliseum for, say, an hour of the Stones seen a quarter of a mile away because the artists demand such outrageous fees that they can only be obtained under these circumstances, says a very bad thing to me about the artists’ attitude towards the public. It says they despise their own audience.”

Concert promoter Bill Graham was so outraged he publicly called Mick Jagger a prick. Graham, who tragically died in a helicopter crash in 1991, might have other choice words if he lived to see dynamic pricing in which the fixed cost of a ticket changes wildly in front of your eyes with each click.

It’s been almost seven years since Springsteen has toured and the words of years past echo in anticipation of the greatest rock and roll show on earth. “We’re here tonight because what we need to do we can’t do by ourselves,” Springsteen has proselytized in onstage in the past. “We need you. We need you.”

This invocation speaks to the communal fervor t and the inexorable bond we have with the artist whose words, observations and inspiration help us make better sense of things around us and  of our own lives.  But all that got called into question as we got upended this week as tickets soared into the thousands. Where tickets that were available suddenly weren’t, only to come back later at prices with large multiples of their supposed fixed value. The two-way street that made the concerts such a fabric of our lives has priced out many unnecessarily who will bypass the tour for the first time and stay at home.

Like many in the larger Springsteen community, I was excited to sign-up for Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan program that purported to keep scalpers at bay and enable fans to get an access code for a pre-sale. Both my wife and I were “selected” and received an access code. Logging in nervous anticipation the morning of the Washington, D.C. pre-sale, there were already almost 2000 people ahead of me. 

“This never happens,” she said, a veteran of concert going. “We’re not going to get them.”

The blue dots showed tickets were available. But every time we clicked we lost time as the computer kicked back this standard message: “Sorry but someone has beaten you to this seat. Try again.”

Suddenly the screen went gray and all of the blue dots disappeared. There were no more tickets.

“Due to overwhelming demand for this show, ticket availability is now extremely limited, and some ticket options will be unavailable. You may find Platinum and/or Fan-to-Fan resale seats available. Resale seats often exceed face value.”

Then there were suddenly more tickets. The blue dots began appearing, darting in and out at prices that oscillate wildly. This continued past the pre-sale. By afternoon during the main sale, the tickets I could have gotten in the nosebleeds behind the stage were now going for four times the price they were just hours earlier.

I had already felt violated seeing so-called speculative tickets appear on Stub Hub before they went officially on sale at Ticketmaster.  Speculative tickets, I thought, are like alternate facts.

It felt like deception. The Ticketmaster algorithm felt sinister. I thought about the song “Magic,” inspired when someone in the Bush Administration  mocked truth and the public as a “reality-based community.”

In writing the song, he said: “We live in a time when anything that is true can be made to seem like a lie and anything that is a lie can be made to seem true.”

Now the deception was out in the open. Bruce Springsteen endorsed the scalping business that hurt his most loyal fans.

The silence from Springsteen over the past few days was deafening. And then Jon Landau issued a statement.

“In pricing tickets for this tour, we looked carefully at what our peers have been doing,” his manager Landau said to the New York Times “We chose prices that are lower than some and on par with others.

“Regardless of the commentary about a modest number of tickets costing $1,000 or more, our true average ticket price has been in the mid-$200 range,” he continued. “I believe that in today’s environment, that is a fair price to pay to see someone universally regarded as among the very greatest artists of his generation.”

To call it commentary is laughable if it wasn’t so disingenuous. Just read the Bruce boards on Facebook and Twitter and Backstreets. It  avoided acknowledgement of the fundamental issue of permissioning Ticketmaster to allow prices to rise so dramatically. 

After seven years off the road and being locked down, this was supposed to be a celebratory season celebrated in multiple cities. I craved that communal experience and life-changing inspiration that has been felt over the decades and is a soundtrack of my life. But if I was to write my Dear Jon letter, it would begin with “I didn’t want to be verified. I wanted to be sanctified.”

And there was no one better than Springsteen who has been steadfastly been guided by Jon Landau for close to a half-century. One can only imagine how Elvis Presley’s path might have been different with a partner like Jon Landau, himself a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When Bruce played on Broadway, Landau talked about the show it’s the artist and audience who create something together. He called it Bruce Springsteen’s magic trick, “creating the notion of ‘us,’as the audience was brought close together with himself.

This year marks fifty years since Landau’s book It’s Too Late To Stop Now was published, a collection culled from his record reviews and essays in Crawdaddy, the Boston Phoenix, and Rolling Stone among others that largely helped define the medium of rock criticism. The book also documents someone who was at a personal and professional crossroads–offering a lens into the restlessness that anticipated the life changing moment that would come two years later when he saw Bruce Springsteen for the first time.

When he wrote his foreword in February 1972,  Landau lamented the end of the Sixties and the end of a golden decade in which Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were once Gods but were no more. The future was uncertain but the will to experience new music was like a call to arms, hence his admonition “It’s too late to stop now.” And true to his admonition, there would be something. The  book precedes perhaps the most pivotal night of his life in 1974 when he went to the Harvard Square Theater in Boston and saw an emerging artist by the name of Bruce Springsteen. Landau then wrote the famous words heard around the world. 

“I saw my rock ‘n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.”

He’s done a fine job ever since. If Landau could be seen as being cautious and controlling in shaping Springsteen’s image, the passage of time has largely moderated that view. Landau has helped Springsteen create a steadfast vision and the artist has opened up with age. It would have been hard to fathom the 24-hour radio station E Street Radio with all of its outtakes, live tracks and odds and ends that are the soundtrack and convergence of the greater Springsteen community. Where Landau once sued bootleggers for illegally releasing live radio broadcasts, now we can buy box sets and downloads and streams at the flip of a click. Springsteen has been immersed in a multitude of projects that have reinforced his legacy. 

Sure there have been hiccups. The perception of the “firing” of the E Street Band in the Nineties when Springsteen was drifting. And when he wanted to get them back together, there were stories that it was presented as a lowball offer to get back in like they were new hired hands. There was a ticket snafu with Ticketmaster ten years ago. Most recently Landau went on the record about correcting one word in “Thunder Road” as if he was annoyed by all the speculation, unnecessarily ending the mystery that gave it an allure and ordering all future copies to be corrected.

When Springsteen sold his publishing rights for a reported $500 million, it seemed more than a rational business decision and consistent with the times. The only wariness is the fear that the songs have meant so much will fall into trite commercials that will forever ruin the sanctity of the art and what have become the audience’s songs. Springsteen said that once you write a song it’s not yours, it belongs to the audience. That couldn’t be any more true for the tens of thousands who have sung the verses of “Jungleland,” ”Thunder Road”  and “Hungry Heart” in unison in arenas and stadiums all their lives.

But now we’re in totally uncharted waters.

This week it feels like all  the trust built over the years has unnecessarily been wiped away. The promise long understood between artist and performer has been broken. It’s violated every minute as a Ticketmaster algorithm sparks a new ticket price. 

It is understood in the marketing world that you’re not what you say your brand is but what people say your brand is. Right now the most loyal fans feel rightfully scorned. That Jon Landau didn’t acknowledge it or express any empathy speaks volumes. It’s like Ralph Gleason wrote of the Stones in 1969. The outrageous fees say they despise their audience. While I don’t believe that’s the case with Springsteen, I can hear the voice of Jim Cramer circa the financial crisis bellowing: “They know nothing!”

The cost to Springsteen’s brand far exceeds whatever increased income he will receive from Ticketmaster. What we have here is an abdication of his brand that’s left Landau beholden to unpredictability of an algorithm when every move he’s ever made was built on cautiousness and pragmatism.

It’s unlikely we’ll hear from Springsteen about all this. Landau will keep Springsteen insulated. Springsteen will likely continue to show-up onstage with other artists as per his summer tradition and as he did with the Bleachers this week.

There won’t be any press conference like there was with the Rolling Stones in 1969.  Mick Jagger, who helped spawn the modern day business of arena shows, was questioned about the cost of tickets and deftly turned it on its head.

“I really don’t know whether this is more expensive than recent tours by local bands,” he said. “I. I don’t know how much people can afford. I’ve no idea. Is that a lot? You’ll have to tell me.”

In hindsight the inflation-adjusted price of a Stones ticket in today’s dollars is only $65. But maybe Jagger was on to something. In the end value is determined by what people are willing to pay. But in 2022 when the baseline value is an illusion and every time you try to sort the price, the algorithm is programmed to work against the buyer. 

Is it, to use Landau’s words, too late to stop now? 

Backstreets Magazine founder Charles Cross floated an idea to cancel the tour, refund everyone and start over with set pricing and embedding a charitable contribution into the sale of every ticket. 

I also like the idea by Brucebook group member Scott Ruesterholz who proposed the following: sell tickets for $250 but put a name on tickets and require ID to enter the arena. You can resell on the ticket platform to change the name on the ticket, but the artist gets 50% of your resale profit. This protects fans from insane prices but lets artist recoup resale gains.”

Imagine if the Springsteen organization had enlisted fans to be part of the discussion before rolling out ticketing. If the two ideas mentioned are any indication, it could have broken new ground.

As the plethora of verified resale tickets proliferates for costs running into the thousands, the damage has already been done. 

And any further comments will only make things worse. To paraphrase a famous songwriter, it’s that point when even if the truth is spoken, it doesn’t make a difference any more. 


12 thoughts on “When The Promise Is Broken: Springsteen & Us

  1. Great essay-rational but heartfelt, thank you. And some really good fan suggestions to counter scalpers.

    I was lucky enough to pull some over-face but still moderately reasonable priced tix but I’m still feeling heartbroken over what this week has done: (1) Done to my friends who are priced out. (2) Done to my friends who aren’t priced out but are miserable over what they paid in “panic mode” during onsales. (3) Done to friends who have seen dozens if not hundreds of Bruce shows who now CHOOSE not to buy tickets due to disappointment in the process and Bruce. (4) Done to Bruce’s standing in the esteem of his previously staunchest fans. He shouldn’t need defending, period.

    Some of the commentary has bordered on hysteria, and I firmly believe fans should have expected higher prices this tour. But the way TM ran the sale, Landau’s tone deaf response, and TM’s BS numbers and Bruce’s deafening silence…I feel a genuine shift all around me among those who really care about this.

    Bigger issues exist in the world, obviously. But this feels monumental in this moment.

  2. I think Mr. Landau is missing the point. It’s not so much the dynamic pricing but the fact that a large majority of tickets were immediately available for “resale” at exorbitant prices. If you buy a ticket, you should not be allowed to immediately turn around and resale (scalp it). Many people scoop up multiple tickets with the intention of using two and reselling the rest to more than cover the two they use. Ticketmaster can block resale on it’s site. Why not have an algorithm that does not allow resale of tickets bought on the first day of sale?

  3. Sue’s comments summed up what has been eating at me for the last two days.

    In reading this article, I realize I am not the only one seriously put-off by the whole process and extremely disappointed that Bruce, of all people, was party to letting it happen. Very disappointed.

    The end result, for us, still worked out. We have tickets, at basically a cost we could afford and expected to pay, for seats that are really located better than I expected. The Boss will put on a great show and we are going to have an absolutely wonderful time.

    The process of buying tickets for his shows in the past was much more exhausting, usually taking hours, and in the case of Harleyfest in 2008, literally days. But in the end, you felt lucky, joyful and victorious. This time, I just feel lucky… with a feeling of disappointment I just can’t shake.

  4. Good read. I have always loved Bruce’s music. It’s been raw, honest and sometimes paints a moment or a picture of thought and clarity to a greedy, dog eat dog, full of bs world we live in at times. His songs gave hope, escape for so many of us and yes, I have seen him many times. Have also been a good disciple like so many others by introducing, turning many people onto his music and best lyrics we have ever heard, we feel them at times while listening. I’m probably wrong in saying this, how I feel though….feel a tad dissillusioned by this whole ticket deal and the commertialism, way he has been promoted, in this tour. It does appear to be a gap widened between old, true blue Bruce fans and words and meanings of his brilliant real, raw lyrics that we love so much. We all know it’s a business and profit can’t have a cap while people are willing to pay for tickets. Promoters, record Co and bigwigs depend on the Springsteen brand to cash in big for them. That’s Capitalism, with a bit of greed in the shadows. I just never thought that Bruce would sit back and settle for all that shit at cost of the bond between him, music and being true to who himself, at least who we all think he is and what he represents and stands for. It’s alot more than hundreds of millions of dollars and vultures like Ticket Master, what John Landaus blurred vision of “it’s all about his music”…I used to believe that’s how Bruce felt. Not sure anymore. Promise may not be broken, buy it’s cracked for sure. “Poor man wants to be rich, rich man wanna be King, and a King ain’t satisfied till he rules everything”………if a video comes out of this tour, many of us will sing all the words to every song loud, like we always, at the show or not. Grateful for experience of grooving Bruce and E Street Band at shows and on records for over 40 yrs. The songs don’t seem the same now though to many fans.

  5. When Springsteen writes such lyrics as ‘Send the robber barons straight to hell
    The greedy thieves who came around’ in Death To My Hometown the fans totally get the ethos of his words and the many others they know by heart that’s why they hold him in such high esteem. It now begs the question how can he stand on stage and echo such words after what has happened re ticket sales…How can a poor man pay such prices as these! He truly is up there on Mansion on the Hill.

  6. SameSame. Fifty years of important leadership in music and values now swirling down the drain. After 50+ shows I don’t really need to see another show and I don’t really care. Next thing you know he’ll be hanging out with Steve Bannon. Have fun everybody!!!

  7. This captures the way a lot of people feel. On one hand, sure, yeah, capitalism. But man, at $1000 all-in for 2 floor seats (face value, not resale) it was an easy decision to pass on this tour.

    When he toured on “The River,” which I believe was his last time on the road, I paid $99 + fees. This time it was $399 + another $100 if you were lucky enough to get them the first time around.

    John Oliver did a really great/depressing segment on Ticketmaster on “Last Week Tonight”. You can find it on YouTube…basically he talks about all the manipulation that happens: only release a small percentage of seats for the “official onsale” date, which drives up the price so they can then conveniently resell them on their own scalping platform. Make silent deals with the artists so they also get a cut of the resale, so artists can set “reasonable” ticket prices but cash in on the back end. Just generally be the bad guy to save face for the artists and venues, because most of the fees they collect actually go back to those same artists and venues. It’s gross.

  8. Landau’s response, basically: everybody else does it – and if we can get away with it, that means it’s OK. Does that really sound like what you expect from Bruce Springsteen? He recently pocketed half a billion dollars, and now he’s pushing the limits on monetizing his fans’ dedication? Who IS this guy?

  9. I agree that the rollout / expectations should have been set with the fans better. The perception of a rigged game became reality for jilted fans.

    But this mainly sounds like sour grapes from the Author, because he failed to secure tickets. As a Verified Fan, I got 9th row, lower bowl near the stage @ Greensboro for $275 ea.

    Ticketmaster clarified the going price for most of the tickets being sold stating the average ticket price for Springsteen’s tour was $202 with the pricing range running from $59.50 to $399 before fees. About 88% of the tickets sold fall under this pricing.

    As for the outrageously expensive tickets that led to all of the backlash, Ticketmaster says 11.8% of tickets fell under their “dynamic pricing” program where pricing fluctuates based on ticket demand, and only 1.3% of those tickets sold for over $1,000.

  10. Let me start my saying my love for Bruce started in 2016 when I read his book. I followed up by listening to greatest hits then moving on to the albums they came off of. I was floored to discover songs written over 30 years ago would have such an impact but they did and I haven’t listened to anyone but Bruce since then. I was lucky to see Bruce twice on Broadway but never with EStreet so when Bruce announced his 2023 US tour dates I was out of my mind! I had to go! I signed onto TM on Wednesday to get a ticket for the Boston date. I went through what everyone else has written but finally scored a balcony for 330 plus fees. I didn’t care, I was in! My dream was the floor, first time ever to the best live performer ever but that didn’t happen. Perhaps I can make it happen on 3/20! I’m a newbie, only 6 years put in and I was so emotional during the whole process. More saddened to read all the negative comments about Bruce Springsteen, the man. I am hoping that he gives us his all on this tour, if it even still happens but he might just say return all their tickets, this was a mistake, I think I’ll just retire now and enjoy my kingdom of days with my family and my beautiful brand new baby granddaughter.
    I am one of the lucky ones who was able to pay more than necessary for the worst seat I’ll ever have at the most special concert I will ever experience. Someone get me to the front and center please! I still love you Bruuuuuce!

  11. Well said. i’ve been so proud of Bruce for who he is, how he lives his values, which are also my values, and his beautiful and often profound poetry. i scored a ticket, at only twice actual price, but i do feel i have lost something, and so has Bruce. Will i actually go, come March. I do not know. I wish he himself would speak to us.

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