Fifty years ago this week, a scruffy young artist from New Jersey released his first album. In the aftermath, it wasn’t clear if the up-and-comer — Bruce Springsteen — was going to make it.
Ironically, today the live show, not the record, is how pop music acts typically earn a living. Financially speaking, what was once the means has become the end. But that wasn’t the case in 1973.
Initially, label executives faced the question of how to package Springsteen as an artist. On some level, it seemed simple: Market him as a singer-songwriter, like James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell — all then thriving.
Clearly, Springsteen could write appealing songs. There was the playfully Dylanesque “Blinded by the Light,” for example. And “Growin’ Up,” which channeled the earthy metaphysics of Walt Whitman (“I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car”).
When Davis told Springsteen he needed a single for his forthcoming album, he came up with another winner called “Spirit in the Night.” Things were looking good when Springsteen’s debut, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.,” was released on Jan. 5, 1973.
Then the album flopped.
Though it was impossible to know why for sure, Springsteen himself had a strong supposition: “Greetings” wasn’t truly him. Hammond and Davis had envisioned the album as a solo record with a few session musicians.
But “The Boss,” as he was already affectionately being called, was the leader of a rock-and-roll band, one which, like the Beatles a decade earlier, had been honed by thousands of hours of live performances in venues that ranged from small local clubs to school auditoriums.
He was most interested in working with his own E Street Band, which ultimately appeared on the album in somewhat muted form. In an attempt to save money, Springsteen and his manager Mike Appel made the record in a second-class recording facility, and this hurt, too.
“Greetings” initially sold about 23,000 copies — a paltry number in an industry where hit records were routinely measured in the millions.
But Columbia could afford to be patient. Those were the glory days of the music business, which sold 1 billion records in 1974. It was standard practice to support budding artists, including subsidizing national tours as a means of selling records. Concert tickets would go for about the price of a long-playing album; the idea was to generate excitement that would lead to radio airplay, and, ultimately, profits.
And Springsteen had no trouble generating excitement. His legendary showmanship was making an impression as he worked college campuses in the Northeast, with a budding reputation stretching from Boston to D.C.
Ten months after releasing “Greetings,” Springsteen dropped his second album — which attempted to correct what he saw as the weaknesses of “Greetings.” He later explained, “For this record, I was determined to call on my songwriting ability and my bar band experience.” The ensuing album, “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle,” was much more raucous than “Greetings,” featuring the band and containing future classics like “Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).”
Even so, record buyers shrugged. The album only sold 100,000 copies in the first nine months, half of them in Philadelphia.
Now Springsteen’s back was against the wall. He continued touring — it was the main way he paid the bills, living on an allowance of $35 per week. And the rising tide of his reputation, spurred by his live shows, was reaching influential disc jockeys like Ed Sciaky at Philadelphia’s WMMR-FM and critics like Rolling Stone reviews editor Jon Landau. The latter called Springsteen “rock-and-roll future” after hearing him perform and would soon become Springsteen’s manager, producer and confidant.
But Columbia’s patience was wearing thin. The label’s new president, Walter Yetnikoff, wanted to drop Springsteen — prompting a junior executive to swear at him. Columbia decided to advance Springsteen enough money to record a hit single and see if he could rise to the occasion. After six months of work — and driving everyone around him crazy in the process — Springsteen answered emphatically, yes, he could rise to the occasion with “Born to Run.”
“The Boss,” of course, would go on to have one of the truly legendary careers in the history of recorded music (his most successful album, “Born in the U.S.A.,” sold 30 million copies), and, to become one of the most successful live acts in the world. But over the past half-century, the logic of the music business has experienced seismic change.
In 2023, even as vinyl is once again in vogue, few music consumers actually buy new-release albums anymore. The invention of the digital file-sharing app Napster in 1999 — just as Springsteen was reuniting with his E Street Band and launching a new chapter in his career — revolutionized the industry, even though record company lawsuits killed it in 2001. It created a world where listeners now subscribe to streaming services so they can play anything they like on their smart devices.
Insofar as there’s money to be made in recorded music, it comes from streaming (though individual streams typically generate a fraction of a cent for artists) or from licensing songs for advertising, film and television or other platforms. There are still a few acts like Taylor Swift, who actually make money selling albums. But she’s the exception rather than the rule — and it’s still a relatively small part of her empire.
Now live shows are king. Once upon a time, touring supported records; now it’s the other way around. Some acts actually give away their music or crowdfund in the hope of generating revenue from shows. Concert tickets are now luxury items — including pricey Springsteen tickets, whose painfully high cost stoked outrage among fans earlier this year, undercutting his fan-centric reputation.
Record companies have exited this side of the business, leaving the field to Live Nation and its subsidiary Ticketmaster, entertainment behemoths that control venues, ticketing, merchandise and other revenue streams, many of which cut out performers entirely.
It’s never been easy to break into the music business. And in some ways, it’s easier than it used to be. Today, an artist can make an album on a laptop for a fraction of what it would cost to record it in a studio. But crossing the threshold into stardom now seems even more daunting than it did a half-century ago.
In an important sense, the 73-year-old Springsteen is back where he started: making his livelihood on the road. Next month he will launch an international tour that will undoubtedly be one of the best-selling concert attractions of 2023.
His days of million-selling albums have long since passed — his latest, “Only the Strong Survive,” has moved about 40,000 copies — but he retains his place as a titan of the live circuit, generating well over a billion dollars in ticket revenue. His life on the stage has been the one constant of his career. And long after he has left it, that stage will be his legacy.