The (high) price of popularity: Bruce Springsteen at a performance in Rome in 2013. Image: Claudia Candido / Alamy Stock Photo

Forlorn in the USA: The Boss vs the fans

There’s a row raging between artists and audiences over ticket prices. Now even Bruce Springsteen has been dragged in
March 1, 2023

For many years, the Seattle Center Coliseum was the city’s major concert venue, built for the 1962 World’s Fair and famed for its rooftop, which gathered upwards like a handkerchief. The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac played there. The Beach Boys and Jimi Hendrix.

On a Friday evening in late October 1980, the Coliseum played host to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, then touring the singer’s fifth album, The River. You can find recordings of the show online—bass-heavy, a little muffled, but entirely captivating.

For many Springsteen fans, the show stands out because it is so intimately entwined with the history of the Springsteen fanzine, Backstreets Magazine. Founder Charles R Cross passed out 10,000 copies of the first edition that night: a free four-pager with a centrefold poster, an appraisal of 30 bootlegged albums and a review of the singer’s 1978 Seattle show.

Over the next four decades, Backstreets Magazine would become both a cherished quarterly and a popular website, housing news and reviews and a hugely successful fan forum, where the devoted traded tickets, music and political views, and of course shared their abiding love for Springsteen.

Then, in early February this year, Christopher Phillips, the editor-in-chief of Backstreets, announced that the next issue would be the last. The website, too, would cease to post. Phillips explained that recent developments over the cost of tickets to Springsteen’s current US tour had left him, and many of his readers, feeling “dispirited, downhearted, and, yes, disillusioned”.

To understand this situation, you must first understand the concept of “dynamic pricing”. The best explanation would probably involve the medium of interpretive dance, but, since we’re short on space here, let’s outline it as a business model in which prices are adjusted in response to changing demand. We’re accustomed to this strategy for booking airline tickets and hotel rooms, but Ticketmaster’s option for artists to use it is more recent.

In the case of Springsteen, the headline-grabbing news was that the price of tickets for some shows leapt to more than $5,000. The subsequent revelation that only 11 per cent of tickets were dynamically priced, with the rest set between $59.50 and $399, and just over 1 per cent sold at over $1,000, did little to assuage fans’ concerns. Nor did remarks the singer made on the subject to Rolling Stone: “Hey, we’re 73 years old,” he said. “I want to do what everybody else is doing, my peers.”

Certainly, many of Springsteen’s peers, including Beyoncé, Paul McCartney, Madonna and Taylor Swift, have chosen dynamic pricing. It’s a way to make more money, of course, but also an attempt to redirect some of the cash made by touts back to the artists—if Ticketmaster matches the prices on resale sites such as StubHub, the argument goes, the scalpers will no longer have a marketplace.

Springsteen is not the only artist facing criticism, but the wrath that has greeted him has been far greater than for others. His decision, Phillips wrote in a Backstreets editorial, “violates an implicit contract between Bruce Springsteen and his fans”.

That contract has rested on a mutual suspension of disbelief: The Boss is the bard of blue-collar America, his songs telling of downtrodden lives and the dream of escape through music, motors and hands strapped across engines. We knew it wasn’t true. As he conceded in his 2017 Broadway show: “I have become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something that I have no knowledge of.” And yet, still, between Bruce and his audience there hung until now an exquisite and radiant trust.

Springsteen recorded the song “Backstreets” in 1975. It’s an intoxicating six-and-a-half-minute tale of a broken relationship—complete in itself, although, when he played it live in its early days, Bruce would often introduce a semi-improvised segment that became known as the “Sad Eyes” interlude. This was filled with the wrench of memory and regret, and with the bitterness of betrayal. 

As I have followed the Great Springsteen Ticketing Debacle over the past few months, I have come to wonder whether Bruce’s fans now stand in their own Sad Eyes interlude: bewildered, somewhat betrayed, yet their passion still present.

Perhaps my favourite example of this interlude comes from a show in Passaic in 1978. I recently watched it through several times on YouTube. I remembered that there is no better live performer on this Earth. That his music has carried me through most of the days of my life. That it’s quite something to play three-hour shows at the age of 73. And that maybe that’s worth something.

“It just doesn’t get any better than this,” wrote one commenter. “I can never repay you Bruce for the joy you’ve given me.”