Tickets for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s The River Tour went on sale this weekend, and if you were either very lucky or well-connected, you may have even scored yourself a pair of seats (I was neither, and I did not). This latest controversial on-sale however has some fans – on social media and elsewhere – asking if rock’s working class hero has suddenly morphed into more of a nightmare Boss.
Now, before I come off sounding like just another disgruntled fan who didn’t win the lottery this time around (which the odds of doing proved to be only slightly more impossible), I need to preface this by saying something just didn’t seem quite right about things from the get-go.
Even before the online box office opened at 10 AM local time this past Friday, the “secondary” ticket broker sites (or scalpers, as we old school fans used to call them back in the day) were posting up speculative ticket listings at ridiculously inflated prices, leading to the usual (and predictable) cries of foul and at least one government probe into the alleged hanky-panky.
This is nothing new of course.
The Price You Pay
Ticketmaster’s monopoly on the ticketing business for live concert and sporting events has been a matter of record (and a source of controversy), for decades now. It has led to everything from Pearl Jam’s infamous congressional challenge to the corporate monolith (a fight they eventually lost); to a lawsuit by the New Jersey Attorney General over the questionable practice of diverting fans to their secondary ticket affiliate during the sale for Springsteen’s 2012 Wrecking Ball tour (the good guys actually won that one).
The conspiracy theory that won’t go away however, and the ties that bind all these things together, is that when big events like a Springsteen tour actually go on sale to the general public, the lions share of the precious loot doesn’t get into the hands of the fans at all. Rather, it is snatched up for the most part by invisible, digital software programs (or “bots”). These in turn redistribute the wealth back to the secondary brokers. The scalpers are then able to inflate the prices to the sort of levels more accustomed to a corporate CEO, than the sort of working class Joes that Springsteen has built an entire career singing about.
So how does a guy like Bruce Springsteen – a songwriter whose music has extolled the virtues of working class America for decades now, and whose public persona has just as firmly established him as a fierce advocate for class equality – abide by all of this?
On his 2012 album Wrecking Ball, Springsteen railed against the dismantling of the middle class in songs that proclaimed “We Take Care Of Our Own” and championed sending “the robber barons straight to hell” when it came to the one-percent (even while openly conceding in interviews that he was one of them). That took balls. So what gives now?
In fairness to The Boss (as well as Jon Landau and the rest of his management team), the Springsteen camp has kept prices lower – tickets to the current shows fall into the relatively modest $100-$200 range – than have a number of comparable heritage-rock acts of similar stature (including U2, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones).
The fact is, The Boss could easily command much higher prices – the hot market for tickets on the secondary sites has certainly proven that much. Springsteen and his tour managers have also incorporated innovative practices like day-of-show box-office “ticket drops”; fan-run lotteries for general admission seats; and random, instant day-of-show upgrades for fans in the cheap, nosebleed seats by the “men-in-black.”
But The River Tour has proven itself to be a much hotter ticket than perhaps even Springsteen’s own people expected. Even though Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band have been performing on a fairly regular basis since their reunion shows back in 1999-2000 (with their last worldwide jaunt ending less than two years ago in 2014), this time around is different for a number of reasons.
In announcing these shows with the E Street Band, Springsteen made it clear this would be a limited run lasting only three months, before he goes back into the studio to complete what is expected to be one of his “smaller” solo albums in the vein of Nebraska, The Ghost Of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust. He is also bypassing a number of major markets altogether. There are, for example, no shows scheduled for the Pacific Northwest hub of Seattle, Portland and Vancouver B.C. (Springsteen misses one or more of these places often, but never all three of them).
But perhaps the biggest draw for these shows lay in the announcement that Springsteen’s entire 1980 opus The River will be performed front to back on a nightly basis. On Springsteen’s 2012-14 world tour behind the albums Wrecking Ball and High Hopes, the albums Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge of Town got similar treatment in a number of cities. But The River was performed only once in its entirety, at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Songs from that album like “Stolen Car” and “The Price You Pay” have only been performed live a handful of times since the original River tour back in 1980-81. “Stolen Car” in particular has long been thought of by fans one of Springsteen’s greatest songs, while “The Price You Pay” – once considered a fairly minor track from The River – has taken on an equally mythical status because it has been performed in concert so rarely ever since.
The Ties That Bind
The event prompting all of this of course, is the release of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, a massive boxed-set released earlier this month commemorating the 35th anniversary of the original 1980 album.
Following similar boxed sets for the classic albums Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge of Town (and completing what many fans and critics have come to view as Springsteen’s great trilogy), it’s a magnificent (and magnificently packaged) release.
In addition to the original, remastered double album, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection includes a disc of original outtakes – many of which fans who collect bootlegs will recognize (“Roulette”, “Restless Nights,” “Where The Bands Are,” “I Wanna Be With You”), along with other previously undiscovered gems they will not, like “Stray Bullet.”
There is also a beautifully rendered, hardbound coffee table book filled with tons of previously unpublished photographs, and an insightful new essay from Rolling Stone contributor Mikal Gilmore. It gets even better from there with the inclusion of the original single disc album The Ties That Bind that Springsteen turned into CBS for release in 1979, before thinking better of it and expanding it to what became the double album The River, eventually released the following year. The version of “The Price You Pay” heard here, with alternate lyrics, is a particular treat, as well as the Byrds influence heard on tracks like “Loose Ends.”
Best of all though, is the inclusion of 2 DVDs featuring a 1980 live performance captured in Tempe, Arizona from the original River Tour. Although incomplete, what is seen and heard on the 24 songs found here from that show is nothing short of amazing. Filmed the night after Ronald Reagan was elected President (which Springsteen makes reference to in his intro to a particularly ferocious sounding “Badlands”), the performance here captures Springsteen and the E Street Band firing on all cylinders and essentially tearing the house down in Tempe. The video quality is also superb, representing a vast improvement over previously released concert footage from the Born To Run and Darkness boxed sets.
As great as The Ties That Bind: The River Collection is though, it still seems more than a little ironic that in 2016, Bruce Springsteen chooses to tour behind a 35 year old album whose title track recounts the tale of a working stiff desperately trying to hold his family together during tough economic times.
“I got a job working construction, for the Johnstown Company,
But lately there aint’ been much work, on account of the economy.
Now all them things that seemed so important,
Well Mister, they vanished right into the air.
Now I act like I don’t remember,
and Mary acts like she don’t care”
Ever since the internet blew up all the old business models for the recording industry around a decade ago, it has become common knowledge that touring is now the primary revenue stream for those who ply their trade making music, and that even names as big as Springsteen have to pay their guys and still be able to make an honest living. That’s why we see acts like Springsteen, McCartney, Neil Young, The Stones, The Eagles and others hitting the road a lot more frequently than we used to, and why we see ticket prices for the shows going through the roof. We get it.
Even so, it seems a bit strange that the centerpiece of this show is an album filled with songs about characters faced with tough economic choices in the wake of 1980s Reaganomics, even as many Springsteen fans who face similar post-recession, economic circumstance in 2015 were frozen out of tickets this weekend.
The narrative for musicians taking on a giant like Ticketmaster is hardly a new one, and the track record of those who’ve actually made the attempt hasn’t been historically great. Just ask Pearl Jam.
But playing any sort of blame game here – with Springsteen or anybody else – is patently absurd. Laying responsibility for the state of post-internet commerce in the music business at the feet of those who make the music is as wrong as it is ridiculous. There’s plenty of other devils out there in the high-tech and corporate arenas to go around for that.
Still, it’s tempting to imagine the potential difference that could be made if only someone with the political motivation and financial muscle of, say Bruce Springsteen, were to become a stronger advocate for those fans who most resemble the characters in so many of his songs. The same people who ironically, have now found themselves priced out of attending his shows.
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“Now those memories come back to haunt me,
They haunt me like a curse.
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true,
or is it something worse?”