Longtime Bruce Springsteen fan Susan Avery raised her daughter to believe the Boss was the one rock star who could do no wrong. “He doesn’t tear up hotel rooms,” points out Avery, a fan since the ’70s, who has seen every Springsteen tour for decades. “You don’t see him on drug binges. He’s just a really, really solid, wonderful guy.”
In late July, tickets went on sale for Springsteen’s first run of U.S. shows with the E Street band in six years. Like tens of thousands of others, Avery went online to try to purchase tickets. By the time she made it out of the virtual Ticketmaster queue, the only tickets priced at face value for the show she wanted at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun casino were in the nosebleed sections. As Avery went to purchase a slightly better seat, she watched the price of the ticket in her cart rise vertiginously. She wound up paying $800, several hundred dollars over face value.
Avery wasn’t the only Springsteen fan experiencing sticker shock, thanks to Ticketmaster’s dynamic pricing policy, which uses an algorithm to adjust prices in real time according to supply and demand. Instead of tickets selling for face value through Ticketmaster and then being resold by scalpers at significant — sometimes exorbitant — markups, dynamic pricing lets artists effectively scalp their own tickets before they even make it to the secondary market. Ticketmaster compares it to airline and hotel pricing, which can change without notice, though Ticketmaster, unlike those businesses, owns almost total market dominance in its field.
Artists such as Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney have been using dynamic pricing for years, but this was the first time music’s most controversial ticketing practice had run headlong into its most ferocious fan base. The ensuing dust-up has laid bare the growing divisions between many artists and their audiences, between the 1 percenters who can afford tickets and the die-hard, less fortunate fans, who increasingly can’t.
For Springsteen’s biggest devotees, it’s an unfortunate collision of circumstances: the pent-up demand after years of COVID confinement, the six years since an E Street Band tour, the lack of understanding of a changing marketplace, the fear that the 72-year-old Springsteen will never do a full band tour again.
Because Springsteen has vowed to never do an official farewell tour, any tour could theoretically be the last one. And not just for Bruce. “I look at pictures from 2016 of myself and some friends at shows, and some people have died since then, you know,” says Stan Goldstein, a longtime fan who has been conducting Bruce-themed tours of his native Jersey Shore since 1999. “You look at the picture and you’re like, ‘Oh, he’s gone. She’s gone.’ You never know.”
Fans say they are upset not just at ticket prices but at the lack of transparency. Outrage has been plentiful on Twitter and other places people like to be upset all the time, but also, more surprisingly, on Springsteen’s own Instagram and fan Facebook groups. “So this is what a crisis of faith feels like,” beloved fan resource Backstreets magazine tweeted, almost unthinkably. Words like “betrayed” and “gut punch” were frequently used. “I would expect this stuff from the Eagles,” a fan tweeted, witheringly.
Many described an unspoken contract between the singer and his fans, which has now been broken. It’s been difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile Superstar Bruce, who sold his music catalog last year to Sony for a reported $550 million, and has been a legend longer than many fans have been alive, with Man of the People Bruce, a Carhartt-clad grandfather from New Jersey. As long as Springsteen wasn’t openly soaking his fan base, it was easy for everyone to look the other way, to pretend those class divisions didn’t exist, to avoid headlines like this one on NJ.com: “Bruce Springsteen does not care about you.”
“I don’t feel like I’m let down,” says Flynn McLean, who co-hosts the fan-favorite Springsteen podcast “None But the Brave.” “You know, I haven’t bought into the working-class hero thing for a long time.” McLean is going to a show anyway.
That Springsteen has always treated his fan base like family and has historically kept ticket prices low only heightens the sense of indignation, says fan Amy Demma. She hasn’t missed a Bruce tour since 1980, but she turned down a pair of not-that-great Boston tickets that would have cost a staggering $18,000. Demma is going to three shows on the European leg of the tour; flying to Dublin, staying for three concerts and flying back is still cheaper than dynamic pricing stateside. Many fans are doing the same, though they fear that surrendering Springsteen concerts to the 1% Wall Street bros will change the show’s dynamic, and alter irreparably the fraying bonds between Bruce and his audience. “These are the folks who feel so very, very betrayed,” she says. “We were invited and embraced and told that we were an important part of what he was trying to do with his music. And now we feel shut out.”
The quirks of the dynamic pricing system also frustrated would-be buyers who said they could no longer see original ticket prices and didn’t know how much they were overpaying, or didn’t realize their $300 tickets had turned into $3,000 tickets until their finger hovered over the “place order” button.
Many bought those tickets anyway and offered similar reasons: I was afraid of missing out. I didn’t want to spend the next six months watching to see if the algorithm dropped the prices. Bruce is 72. You never know.
Fans blame promoters, Ticketmaster and Springsteen’s longtime manager Jon Landau. (According to a statement from Ticketmaster, “promoters and artist representatives” are responsible for setting pricing parameters.) Many will tell you that Bruce had nothing to do with setting prices, that he’s probably working behind the scenes right now to issue refunds, that he might not even know about the entire kerfuffle.
He knows, says Bob Lefsetz, author of the industry publication the Lefsetz Letter. He figures that at best, Springsteen and his team were vaguely familiar with the practice and thought ticket prices would go up a few hundred dollars at most, and didn’t think to put an upper limit on prices. “Bruce, his only goal was to make sure however much the tickets were sold for, he got the money as opposed to scalpers,” Lefsetz says. “That’s how simple it is. Did he [mess] up by not capping it? Yeah, OK.”
While the $5,000 tickets have sparked most of the outrage, it’s hard to find people who actually ponied up that cash. Those imposing numbers may be product of an overly punchy algorithm; ticket prices for many shows have settled down into the low four figures, and tickets for shows in smaller cities (like Tulsa, for example) can still be found near face value. According to a statement from Ticketmaster, whose computations might best be described as opaque, the average price of a ticket, at least in the early on-sales, is $262.
It’s been a long time since Springsteen faced this sort of widespread public condemnation, and he seems to have been caught flat-footed. He has yet to address the issue publicly, which is another sticking point with fans who are in an unusually unforgiving mood. “I think whatever mistake or oversight they made in terms of allowing those tickets to come out at $3,000, $4,000, $5,000 last week, they deserve this,” says podcaster McLean. “Not a lot of Bruce apologists at this point.”
With many West Coast dates, including Los Angeles, yet to be announced, and a likely stadium tour coming after that, the drama could drag on for a long time. Landau released a statement to The New York Times that seemed to make things only worse, pointing out that ticket prices were in line with Springsteen’s peers, of which there were not many, anyway. “I believe that in today’s environment, that is a fair price to see someone universally regarded as among the very greatest artists of his generation,” he said.
The backlash probably won’t survive the opening minutes of the tour’s first show in Tampa next February, but until then, there are indications that Springsteen is starting to understand his predicament. Goldstein ran into the singer in Asbury Park on Sunday, at his longtime haunt, Wonder Bar. Springsteen hung outside with the dogs (Wonder Bar holds a canine-friendly Yappy Hour), mostly unnoticed. A video of the singer with the owner commemorating the bar’s 20th anniversary, a timely reminder that the singer hasn’t forgotten his roots, has since gone viral.
Goldstein, understandably, didn’t mention the ticketing situation during his encounter with Springsteen. But if Susan Avery were to run into Bruce, she says she would speak up. “I would say, you know, ‘I still love your music. I think you’re amazing. You’ve changed my life. And thanks for being in my life. But I have to tell you, I’m really disappointed in what happened with Ticketmaster.’ And I would love to hear what he has to say about that.”