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    Friday, December 01, 2023

    High ticket prices cast doubt on Springsteen's values and bond with fans

    If you have a Bruce Springsteen fan in your life, they are probably upset, confused and short on cash. Last month, tickets for the U.S. leg of the artist's 2023 tour went on sale. As usual, demand was high. This time, so were prices. Some tickets were listed for thousands of dollars (not including fees), in part because of TicketMaster's use of "dynamic pricing"- an algorithm similar to that used for hotel rooms and airplane tickets. Initially, fans hoped that this was a misunderstanding, but those hopes were dashed by comments Springsteen's manager made to the New York Times that seemed to acknowledge that Springsteen himself knew these types of prices might be in play.

    The ticket fiasco is not just a public relations crisis. It calls into question Springsteen's reciprocal relationship with his fans and the message he has repeatedly sent about the danger of unchecked corporate greed. As a living embodiment of what he famously called the "runaway American Dream," Springsteen has never been against making a buck. But shows that are accessible only to the rich - or very lucky non-rich fans - seem to violate what Springsteen stands for and may lead fans to question the Boss's commitment to the values that he and his music have exemplified for five decades.

    Springsteen has spent his entire career engaging his audience in what he has called a "conversation." This conversation has included everything from accepting song requests at concerts via homemade signs to making appearances at Jersey Shore haunts.

    More than anything else, the live show is at the heart of the Springsteen/fan conversation. For years, he has played three-hour concerts - sometimes longer - with plenty of back and forth between artist and audience. From singalongs to call-and-response to crowd surfing, Springsteen concerts deliver a cocktail of joy, humor, grief, gravity, honesty, hope, deliverance, and - for many - even spiritual awakening.

    And it didn't always cost a fortune to get in. In 1984, tickets for Springsteen's blockbuster "Born in the U.S.A." tour cost around $15 apiece ($42 in 2022 dollars), half the price for Michael Jackson's tour that same summer. Even as Springsteen tickets became more expensive over the years, they remained cheaper than comparable acts including Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and even fellow New Jerseyan Whitney Houston. There were complaints about the cost, to be sure, but also an understanding that Springsteen could have charged far more if he wanted to and that the prices reflected the inclusive atmosphere he wanted to create at his concerts.

    And fans appreciated that, despite his legendary performances, Springsteen didn't charge top dollar. Few musicians work as hard in concert, from bounding all over the stage to play to every seat in the arena to jumping onto pianos and wringing the sweat from his shirt. This is not Dylan, who rarely speaks during his shows, or Billy Joel, who puts on a good show but generally remains stationary behind his piano.

    Springsteen's effort is born in part from a sense of obligation he feels toward his audience. "You don't go out there to deliver $7.50 worth of music," he explained in the late 1970s. "My whole thing is to deliver what money could not possibly buy." He has even acknowledged the widespread bootlegging of his shows and offered joking greetings to those illegally recording his concerts. He knew that he was creating magic onstage, and he understood fans' desire to capture some of that magic to listen to over and over again.

    This approach to his concerts fits nicely with the themes and characters that dominate much of Springsteen's canon. A focus on the American working class has been a long through line in his music. "Born to Run" (1975), "Darkness on the Edge of Town" (1978) and much of "The River" (1980) are replete with blue-collar characters seeking satisfaction and personal dignity in the face of dehumanizing work. The narrator of "Out in the Street," for example, works five days a week "loading crates down on the dock." Like many other Springsteen characters, he suffers through drudgery, abuse and boredom, waiting for the chance to be himself after the whistle blows. Once the clock strikes 5, he hits the town where he can "walk the way I wanna walk" and "talk the way I wanna talk."

    On "Nebraska" (1982) and then the breakthrough "Born in the U.S.A." (1984), Springsteen's characters are not just looking for satisfaction. They are looking to survive in a corporate economy that seems to have no regard for their well-being, their livelihood or their community. Factories are closed. Men - and they are all men - are laid off with no explanation, straining their relationships and their sense of self-worth.

    Starting in 1987, Springsteen's music generally moved away from its focus on the working class (with the exception of his 1995 solo album "The Ghost of Tom Joad").

    Then came the 2007-2008 financial crisis. For Springsteen, already skeptical as to whether Wall Street had Main Street's best interests at heart, the behavior of the banks and financial firms represented no less than a betrayal of the American people. In 2009, he added Stephen Foster's 19th-century song "Hard Times (Come Again No More)" to his set-list, an acknowledgment of the pain and insecurity experienced by millions of Americans who lost their homes or their jobs.

    He also put pen to notebook and responded with his own music. In 2012, he released "Wrecking Ball," whose title was a metaphor for what he called "the flat destruction of some fundamental American values" that had occurred since the late 1970s.

    For Springsteen, the financial crisis was not a one-off event. It was a manifestation of the greed that was both common in American history and also particularly acute in the late 20th century. Springsteen's America had a different set of values, encapsulated in the title of the opening track of his 2012 album: "We Take Care of Our Own." The nation had an obligation to take care of its people but was failing to do so. The message clearly resonated. The song served as an anthem for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign and was played in 2020 after Joe Biden's victory speech.

    Springsteen's politics, his attention to the working class and his anger over the behavior of Wall Street are what make ticket prices for his 2023 tour such a "crisis of faith" for his fans. Even if only a small percentage of tickets were subject to dynamic pricing - as Ticketmaster insisted - after a half-century, charging full market rates feels like a betrayal for the Springsteen faithful. Both the artist and his art have long recognized the dangers of unchecked markets that do not have people's best interests at heart. Though never opposed to capitalism, Springsteen has been vocal in his opposition to the rich and powerful taking care of only their own, which is exactly what seemed to happen when his tickets went on sale.

    Ultimately, the adoption of dynamic pricing probably will be a small blip on Springsteen's legacy, one that will irk die-hard fans without shattering their unconditional love for someone with whom they have a decades-long bond. This could be his last tour, and even after he stops performing, his music will continue to ring out as a testament to the struggles of the working class and as a call for an economy that works for everyone.

    On "Land of Hope and Dreams," Springsteen invites his audience to ride with him on a train destined for a place where "dreams will not be thwarted" and "faith will be rewarded." As conductor, he offers a clear invitation, one that reflects what his music stands for: "You don't need no ticket / You just get on board."

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    Jonathan D. Cohen is the author of "For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries in Modern America" and the coeditor of "Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen."