Baby, we were born to ... gouge?

Tony Norman
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Bruce Springsteen performs onstage during the 15th annual Stand Up For Heroes benefit at Alice Tully Hall, presented by Bob Woodruff Foundation and NY Comedy Festival, on Nov. 8, 2021, in New York City. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for SUFH/TNS)

There’s a line that comes immediately to mind about the latest kerfuffle between Bruce Springsteen and Ticketmaster that has seen tickets for his upcoming tour surge as high as $5,000 a pop:

“Well, I got a job and tried to put my money away / But I got debts no honest man can pay.”

Hardcore fans, especially those desperately trying to get tickets to a Springsteen show in the era of dynamic pricing, will connect with those lyrics from “Atlantic City,” arguably the best cut from his spare and haunting 1982 masterpiece “Nebraska.”

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We’ve all seen the headlines in recent days about ridiculously high ticket prices “angering” the Boss’ longtime working- and middle-class fans who’ve waited to buy tickets since his last tour seven years ago.

They want to know why it should cost several paychecks to cover one or two tickets plus gas, a dinner, parking, and a souvenir t-shirt or two.

Why are true fans who’ve been following him for more than five decades expected to be saddled with Ticketmaster debt “no honest man can pay?”

The angriest of them took to social media denouncing both Springsteen and Ticketmaster. You can’t just blame the algorithms, they said. Someone saw the first Springsteen tour in seven years as a golden opportunity to make killing.

“I have nothing whatsoever to do with the price of tickets,” E Street Band guitarist Stevie Van Zandt wrote on Twitter.

Springsteen fans know this. They aren’t naïve about supply and demand. But they’re still angry because they know they’re being ripped off. They’ve done the math: According to every actuarial table, Springsteen, 73, is likely in the twilight of the touring phase of his career.

For older boomers, this may be their last chance to see him before the Grim Reaper comes knocking on their doors, too. Consequently, everyone expects to pay a premium to see the Boss at this point, especially if he’s only averaging two tours a decade.

No one expects him to be doing three-hour shows well into his 80s like some Jersey Turnpike version of Mick Jagger. Still, seeing Springsteen shouldn’t require refinancing a mortgage just to sit in the nosebleeds.

The most brutal headline of the week came courtesy of an opinion piece by Bobby Oliver at “Bruce Springsteen does not care about you.”

How about Brucestock?: Written in the white-hot moment of those early complaints when tickets for the tour went on sale last week, it is a takedown of the Boss’ working-class bona fides that incorporates lingering resentment over $850 tickets for his solo Broadway shows a few years ago and his failure to bring Ticketmaster to heel after previous price gouging controversies.

“If he did care, the rock icon who recently sold the rights to his publishing catalogue for a cool $500 million — and whose concert tours typically rake in around $200 million at the box office — would refuse to work with Ticketmaster, finance the shows himself, buy permits to use unoccupied fields across America and set a ticket price he alone could control.

“He’d call it Brucestock or something and pocket considerably less from the fans who’ve supported him for half a century,” Oliver writes.

Once the hysteria died down a bit, it was discovered that, contrary to this “let ‘em eat cake” portrait of the rocker, 88% of the concert tickets were sold at face value, in the $60 to $400 range before service fees, not the dynamic pricing markups only Russian oligarchs can afford.

According to Ticketmaster, 18% of all tickets sold were under $99, 27% were $100 to $150 and 11% were $150 and $200.

The average price of all tickets sold was $202. Of those, 11.8% were designated Platinum, but only 1.3% of those tickets sold for more than $1,000. It’s still not an ideal situation even at those prices, but it is far more tolerable than the outrage would suggest.

Out of touch? I suspect that a lot of anger directed at Springsteen comes from those disappointed in the gap between his working-class lyrics and the perception that he’s out-of-touch shill for the Democratic Party.

A lot of his conservative fans, of which there are many millions, see their hero palling around with Barack Obama and the Clintons and performing at President Joe Biden’s inauguration and feel the sting of an indirect political rebuke. This makes many of them hypersensitive to every perceived hypocrisy — like apparent collusion with Ticketmaster to rip off longtime fans.

The one thing that everyone of every political stripe agrees on is that Ticketmaster has done nothing to deserve the windfall it receives as the middleman in its near monopolistic ticket empire. What did Ticketmaster ever contribute to Springsteen’s music to deserve the obscene profits that scams and gimmicks like dynamic pricing generate for its bottom line?

And why can’t artists and venues be trusted to work out ticket prices with input from fans who will ultimately buy the tickets? Why is a middleman like Ticketmaster allowed to insert itself into the relationship? Why is another for-profit business entity that charges a litany of absurd and redundant fees allowed to disrupt the relationship between artists and fans?

This is a humiliating and ridiculous situation, but that’s capitalism for you. For some reason, the American political and business class is perfectly comfortable with brutal and stupid market practices that are self-defeating in the long run. No one is fooled by what’s going on. We just tolerate it until the day we won’t tolerate it anymore.

Meanwhile, the anger at Bruce is subsiding. Folks realize that, yes, he could’ve done more to use his enormous influence to set prices for his shows “every honest man can pay,” but they’re going to give him the benefit of the doubt because they love him and have loved him for five decades. Short of selling a kidney, his true fans are always going to be there waiting for him with fists in the air when the lights come up.