Indeed they are: With 1.1 million tickets sold and over $135 million in box office revenue, according to Billboard Boxscore, Springsteen and his E Street Band lead all tours in Billboard’s mid-year report. The tour, 45 dates of which occurred during the tracking period of Nov. 10, 2015 through June 6, 2016, is in support of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, a boxed set treatment of Springsteen’s seminal 1980 double album The River.
Not bad for a tour that almost didn’t happen. “Bruce worked very hard on that River boxed set: He was personally very involved in every detail and we loved the way it came out,” Landau tells Billboard. “We were not planning to do any shows, the band was scattered — but Bruce was inspired by the final result, so we decided to do some shows.”
The original plan was to book 20 concerts, “but in Bruce’s history he never did 20 of anything,” Landau says with a laugh, “so it just grew.” The final tally — with no plans, at press time, to add more dates — is 37 arena shows in America and 27 stadium shows in Europe, followed by another 10 stadiums and arenas in America. The jaunt wraps Sept. 14 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. “He’s just gotten out there and this thing has evolved as he’s been going along.”
The original tour in support of The River, Springsteen’s fifth album, in 1980-’81, was notable for its four-hour marathon shows, and went a long way toward solidifying Springsteen’s global reputation as a must-see live act. Landau says Springsteen wanted a similar musical feel for the 2016 tour, at least a in terms of musical presentation.
“Each tour built on the other, but among a lot of our longtime audience The River tour was a turning point,” Landau says. “On the recent tours supporting Wrecking Ball and so forth, we were travelling with a great horn section, wonderful singers, percussion and everything else — up to about 18 people on stage. Once there was the decision that this was going to be revolving around The River, we wanted to get as close back to the original — although of course we can never go back to the original situation because [keyboardist] Danny [Federici] and [saxophonist] Clarence [Clemons] are gone, God bless them, but as close as we could come to that stripped-down sound, and by its nature it’s more of a pure rock show.”
Playing a two-disc, 20-song album in order requires a certain discipline unfamiliar to most Springsteen shows, although the artist has occasionally performed classic albums in their entirety in the past. “With a regular Bruce show, the setlist is almost more of a starting point — he’s constantly making what everybody calls ‘audibles,’” Landau explains. “Sometimes when you look at the setlist compared with what he actually [played], there could be 13 or 14 different changes. This [2016 tour] was quite different, because he had an opening song — one of the outtakes from The River, ‘Meet Me in the City Tonight’ — and then he did the 20 River songs. That’s 21 songs, which is most people’s [entire] show. That was very unusual, because we’d never had a planned show like that. Then he would play a collection of classics and some of his biggest songs, and then his all-out encore section, so it covered a lot of territory. He was doing 30-plus songs a night and having a ball.”
Not only did Springsteen put up the highest grossing tour of the first half of 2016, the artist is also responsible for the single biggest Boxscore so far this year, with the May 27 and 29 shows at Dublin’s Croke Park taking in $19,228,100 from 160,188 attendance for two sellouts. The shows sold out “instantly,” according to Peter Aiken, whose Aiken Promotions has been Springsteen’s promoter in Ireland since 1985. “The Irish people really love him, and it’s just building and building,” Aiken says. “Bruce never phones it in, his shows are 100 percent every time.”
On the last tour, Springsteen stayed out of Dublin and instead played five shows at 30,000-capacity stadiums in such cities as Cork, Limerick, Kilkenny, “and it was like the circus coming to town,” Aiken says. “It lined it up very nicely to go to Dublin the next time he came back. We did two Croke Parks, and probably could have done a third one. We knew it was going to be big, but none of us could have foreseen it was going to be as big as it was.”
The demand for tickets on the 2016 tour will also be remembered for drawing attention to anti-consumer ticket scalping tactics, with proposed legislation including New Jersey Representative Bill Pascrell’s BOSS (Better Oversight of Secondary Sales and Accountability in Concert Ticketing) Act citing the tour as an example of unfair ticketing practices. Landau declines to discuss current legislation or Springsteen’s status as the poster boy for these ticketing issues, but he did say, “Starting in 1980 when he worked with [California] Congressman Mel Levine, when our $12.50 tickets were being scalped at enormous premiums, Bruce has always been totally against scalping. And if there is a solution to it, naturally we’d want to be part of it.”
The tour also made headlines in April when Springsteen cancelled the April 10 show in Greensboro, N.C., in protest of the state’s controversial Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act (HB2) law, which has been widely perceived as being anti-LGBT. Other acts followed suit, including Pearl Jam, Ringo Starr, Nick Jonas/Demi Lovato, and Maroon 5. “The Carolina cancellation was just something that had to be done, given the circumstances at the moment in time,” says Landau.
Next up for Springsteen is a solo album, which Landau calls “a very different kind of record” from Springsteen. As for a release date or supporting tour, “it’s premature to say much about it,” Landau says. “It’s a wonderful record, and we’ll see how the next year unfolds. We’re terrible planners. You have people who know where they’re playing 18 months from now and have all of next summer’s festivals booked, and we just have a knack for not planning that far ahead. That’s our way.”
Landau did provide a little insight into Springsteen’s creative direction. “All I can say is that there is a solo record — and when I say solo record, I’m not talking about an acoustic record,” he says. “It is, in fact, a very expansive record, a very rich record. It’s one of Bruce’s very creative efforts. Stay tuned, and we’ll see exactly how that shapes up next year.”
Landau says from his observation that the live music business is “very healthy,” and was particularly impressed by the wealth of shows, venues and festivals in the U.K. and Europe. The success of Springsteen’s latter-day touring career certainly points to an artist at peak drawing power. In his mammoth 2012-2014 run supporting the Wrecking Ball and High Hopes albums, Springsteen and the E Street Band grossed a combined $412 million from attendance of 4.1 million to 157 shows, according to Boxscore.
As for how Springsteen can do in some cases personal-best business some 40 years into his career, Landau opines, “In our case, one thing that occurs to me as I watch the shows — and I’m out here most of the time — is Bruce remains a 100 percent live presentation,” Landau says. “There are no pre-records: zero. That’s how we work, that’s his idiom, that’s what he grew up with, that’s how he likes it. He’s one of the last artists who doesn’t use ear buds: he wants to hear the music blasting in monitors, coming right at him.
“I know we’re certainly not alone in their doing this,” he concludes, “but I think if you want to see live live music, the choices are gradually narrowing. But if that’s what you want to see, we’re the place to come hear it, because that’s what we’re doing.”
A version of this article first appeared in the July 30 issue of Billboard.