What's the best concert you've ever seen?
I love questions like this because they're intensely personal – some of the best times we've had and shared with one another was enjoying our favorite music, performed live right before our very eyes and ears. The answer to that question says a lot about who we are as people – what we value and the memories we cherish.
If rock music is your sweet spot, and you're north of 40 years-old, chances are good that a Bruce Springsteen show might very likely be on your list of unforgettable concert moments. Bruce is one of those rare artists whose live renditions of his songs are often better than his studio recordings. I had a friend who referred to seeing Bruce in concert as “going to church.” Especially back in the day, his shows went on for hours, there were multiple encores, and the stories in between songs were touching, funny, and relatable. As a concertgoer, you were more exhausted at the end of the night than Bruce was.
Fans readily admitted they got their money's worth from a Springsteen show – and then some. But in our post-pandemic, inflationary economy in 2022, that value proposition might not hold up.
I've seen Bruce around ten times, give or take, and those memorable early shows were in smaller venues. Once “Born in the U.S.A.” skyrocketed up the charts, the only way you could see “The Boss” was at an arena or stadium show. By comparison to dyed-in-the-wool Bruce fans – the ones who've seen him dozens of times, the ones who follow him around on tours, the ones who can sing along with every song – I'm an E Street renter.
Over the decades, Bruce has navigated stardom well. In 1974, influential rock critic, Jon Landau, first saw him in concert. In his review, Landau made this bold and historic declaration:
“I have seen the future of rock n' roll and he is Bruce Springsteen.”
Landau would go on to both manage and produce Bruce and his E Street Band, a position he holds today.
The next year, Springsteen experienced the simultaneous blessing/curse of being the cover boy on both Time and Newsweek – in the same week in 1975.
It's hard to imagine a higher bar for a performer. It is a rare feat.
To his legions of loyal fans, Bruce has exceeded all expectations. He walks the walk. Has a soul. He's different than the others. He stands for something.
Bruce's stardom may have hit a cultural peak with his iconic Broadway shows that debuted in 2017, commanding on average the price of more than $400 a seat. Scalpers and resellers did much better.
Those tour de force shows led to a Netflix special in 2018, proof positive the Boss is no ordinary artist. All told, Bruce's Broadway residency hauled in more than $113 million over its four-year run. And in the process, made a lot of his fans happy, in spite of the steep price point.
Fast-forward to today, Bruce announced his 2023 North American tour earlier this month, the first time he's gotten the band back together in six years. Tickets for six shows went on sale last Wednesday morning on Ticketmaster. Due to a “dynamic pricing system” – that is, an algorithm – it means that depending on the demand, ticket prices will fluctuate up and down. In the case of Bruce and the band, ticket prices went straight up.
According to Yahoo! Finance, the base price for these shows was set between $60-$399 – but that didn't last long. Before it was over, some hardcore fans – obviously well-heeled ones – were paying as much as $4,000 for a “Platinum” floor seat. (They may want to rebrand those as “Titanium Seats.”)
Could Springsteen's management have put a cap on the upper end of ticket prices? Of course, they could have. Maybe they were curious to see just how expensive the priciest seat would end up costing. Or maybe they were caught off-guard by just how much demand this tour would generate. (Probably the former.)
As Bob Lefsetz wrote in his great music blog last week, Bruce is not the first artist to accept whatever the market will bear. The Stones have famously used capitalism to their economic advantage. They were the first to bring in a tour sponsor – Jovan in 1981. At the time, the Washington Post asked, “What do the Rolling Stones and Jovan Have In Common? A Contract.”
Little did we know back then that Mick, Keith, and the band would pave the way for sponsored tours, as well as extensive advertiser participation and expanded merch items. And we don't usually begrudge musical performers their chance to cash in on their songs, their pay-per-view specials, or their on-stage shows.
Some fans may try to make the case that Bruce cannot possibly need the money, so why the stratospherically high prices? After all, he's made gobs of cash over the past half century, including selling his publishing rights for a reported $500 million late last year.
But that obscures the reality that Springsteen isn't the only member of the band. And there are scores of employees – the crew, merchandise folks, PR people, and the back-end administrative workers. By now, E Street Enterprises (I just made that up) is a big company with many mouths to feed. And who's to say any artist has “enough money.”
Still, the difference between Bruce and say, Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, Elton John, and Paul McCartney is that those other multimillionaire rockers have not built their brands on the “everyman” pedestal. Bruce fans have always embraced their idol's blue collar ethic, the fuel that propelled them down “Thunder Road,” that honest, hard-working currency that matters in “Jungleland,” the “Promised Land,” and at “Cadillac Ranch.”
So, how does this translate to the average fan? For that, I went to right to my former client and friend, Dave Paulus, who makes the Tidewater, Virginia area his home. Dave estimates he's seen Bruce at least 15 times. So when the Greensboro show (March 25th) went on sale on Friday, Dave was at the ready, excited about the prospect of seeing his rock n' roll hero, especially after so many years. From Virginia Beach, that's a 4+ hour drive, meaning a overnight stay, but still worth it to see the pope of Asbury Park,
Here's Dave's story:
“It was miserable. I tried to buy a pair at $375 ++ each, and every-time I clicked to buy, it said ‘someone beat you to the tickets.' I got zipped. I’ll try for DC on Tuesday but to be honest, this is fricken insane…and so much of the excitement has been taken away. Even the nosebleeds are $250 plus. I get supply and demand, but come on!”
Dave's a broadcaster, a GM, an entrepreneur. He “gets” that it's supply-and-demand. He is all-too-aware of “bottom line” business. He knows what it's like to “make goal” and the pain of coming up short. And because he's a super P1 of Bruce's, he cuts the Asbury Park native a break – sort of.
“His image as the ‘working man guy' has taken a huge hit. The posts went from ‘Maybe he just didn’t get it' on day 1 to ‘How could Bruce do this to us?' on day 7!”
Rock n' roll is rough sport, no matter how uplifting and fist-pumping the music may be. Maybe Bruce is acknowledging that. Or maybe he doesn't know what to do or say next.
As Dave Paulus concludes – and he speaks for many fans, especially the delusional ones:
“(Bruce's) silence is deafening…in most everyone’s opinion.”
One of the factors that no one seems to be factoring in has to do with the post-COVID reaction we're all enduring. After 2+ years of nothingness, those with money – and that's a lot of people here in America – want to put it to work to get their lives back: cruises, vacations, cars, concerts, parties, weddings. You name it.
The problem isn't inflation. It's pent up demand. We're seeing this play out on many different stages where millions are willing to pay crazy-high prices to get on an airplane, take vacations, buy a new car, or see your favorite band live in concert.
Every time I hear the whining about how LeBron James or Tom Brady or Bryce Harper are worth the gazillions they're paid, my response is that if people are willing to pay to see them perform their magic, they're worth the money….and then some.
The same holds true for on-air talent, by the way. And the value of personalities – whether they're a point guard or a midday jock – goes well beyond whatever number Nielsen assigned to them last month. In the case of radio, chances are they are the face of their stations, bringing untold value to their brands. I had a GM once who liked to make the claim that “No one's bigger than the radio station.” In this personality-fueled environment, that's just not true.
But back to Bruce.
This is an artist where image truly has mattered. Bruce has long been considered to be in a class by himself. Not every rock star has carved out pristine images. Radio people, in particular, know who the asshats are. We've dealt with them all. We also know and appreciate the good ones – artists who are gracious, thankful, and even humble.
But to fans, it's mostly about the music. That is, until an artist connect his or her image with politics, ethics, and speaking up at the right times.
Springsteen has made career sacrifices in this department. His support of Democratic candidates has undoubtedly cost him over the years. On October 6, 2008, Paul and I drove to Ypsilanti to see Bruce perform a free acoustic set in center field at Eastern Michigan University's baseball stadium (pictured). It was a month before the election, and Bruce was campaigning for Barack Obama. No, Ticketmaster was not involved.
Classic Rock programmers have seen it in the music tests these past couple decades. Strangely, about one-third of respondents give every Bruce song a “1” on their Scantron sheets or online forms. Wonder who those people are? Stop wondering.
Why do you think so few Springsteen songs are in power or even secondary rotation on all these stations? This is why.
Bruce has taken one for the team. Or you might think of it as a self-inflicted wound. He knew what he was getting into when he campaigned for Gore, Kerry, Obama, and Biden.
So he should have known what he was getting into when he let Ticketmaster's algorithm run amok last week. And apparently, as you read this post.
When Springsteen made the decision to become a campaigner for blue candidates, he was well aware of the cost. And he paid it.
He should have known the cost of hopping in the sack with Ticketmaster. So should have Jon Landau who has managed Bruce since those dueling Time and Newsweek covers.
That was when Bruce learned his first important lesson about the price you pay for hype, and the value of your image.
Decades later, he's learning the price you pay when you're perceived as ripping off your fans. And not just any fans – the über P1s, the ones who know all the lyrics, the ones who buy gobs of crazily-priced merch.
Bruce is going to have to clean up this mess. As Lefsetz opines, most people will probably forget anyway. But knowing Springsteen acolytes as I do, don't bet on it.
And by the way, Dave Paulus, eat your heart out.
You can read Bob Lefsetz's wizened take on Bruce in two columns:
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