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.