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Springsteen Gives in to the Man

By selling his song collection for half a billion dollars, has the Boss thrown everything else away?

Forget Omicron—Bruce Springsteen made an already-tumultuous year much worse.

In mid-December, anonymous sources leaked that Springsteen had sold his entire song catalogue to Sony Music Entertainment for $500 million, the biggest deal of its kind in music history. It dwarfs the reported $300 million Universal paid for Bob Dylan’s song-writing catalogue in December 2020.

The sale gives Sony ownership of 300 songs spanning 20 studio albums and 23 live recordings, including the intellectual property rights. Beyond reporting those basic details, most media seem to be burying their heads in the sand about the deeper implications of our beloved Boss—a man who made his career singing in defense of the working-class American—finally giving in to The Man. 

Quite possibly it’s just too painful, certainly for Americans—being a British fan, I am perhaps not quite as emotionally invested—to squarely face the truth of Springsteen embracing “a Mammon of unrighteousness, a monster of iniquity,” to quote William Law, the neglected and now largely unknown 18th-century English clergyman whom Aldous Huxley described as “one of the most interesting thinkers of his period and one of the most endearingly saintly figures in the whole history of Anglicanism.”

“It will betray people into greater follies, and make them live a more silly and extravagant life, than they could have done without it,” Law said, expounding an age-old truth about the moral dangers of wealth. “If, therefore, you do not spend your money in doing good to others, you must spend it to hurt yourself.” 

Did Springsteen make the move to secure his family’s future? I suspect all the Springsteens are pretty well set already. Springsteen’s songs are believed to be worth $15 million a year in revenue anyway. No matter how you parse it, by shaking hands with the corporate devil, Springsteen has thrown most of the principles and virtues propounded in his songwriting out the window. His music gave voice to America’s blue-collar workers, and chronicled the struggles of protagonists such as “tramps like us” on “a last chance power drive” in “Born to Run.”

Writing for the Guardian, Ben Beaumont-Thomas notes that “artists trust in, and sometimes have longstanding ties to, the companies they are selling to: in Springsteen’s case, he has been with the Sony-owned Columbia Records since his debut album in 1973.” But the Columbia Records of today is not the Columbia Records of 1973—it is part of and one with the behemoth that is Sony Music, which has one goal: to make money.

The U.K.’s Elton John, for all the reports of his difficult behavior and divalike qualities, has continually refused to sell his song catalogue. Presumably, Elton John’s stance is influenced by the fact that he already has absurd amounts of money. But despite being in a similar position, Springsteen has gone the other way, shattering our hopes and illusions. It is an unwanted and updated “Say it ain’t so, Joe” moment. There is a sad tradition of fallen heroes brought down by the lure of lucre—especially in the U.S., where you so obsess about “the pursuit of happiness” and the apparently vital role of money in that pursuit.

The past few years gave warning signs that Springsteen was drifting from his former principled stance against the dingy world of advertising and politics. In his one-man show, Springsteen on Broadway, which ran from 2017 to 2021, Springsteen sang songs and shared personal memories and reflections. The shows became increasingly political.  

“The origins of Springsteen on Broadway could not be more partisan,” Dominic Green wrote in the Spectator. “In the last days of the Obama presidency, when nearly 70% of Americans thought the country was ‘heading in the wrong direction’, Springsteen gave a private show to some two hundred Obama staffers in the Rose Room of the White House.” 

Green recorded rock star Alice Cooper’s observation that asking a rock star about politics is like asking the garbage man about nuclear physics. That hasn’t stopped Springsteen from taking part in Renegades, a recent podcast featuring him and President Obama. Writer and musician Kit Wilson noted the fly in the ointment of the original idea: having “two attractive, highly successful, almost maddeningly cool men” talking “about being outsiders, all the while trading chummy stories about exclusive parties at the White House and backslapping each other.” 

Other artists who recently sold off their rights to their musical work include Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Shakira, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

“The deals are taking place as the streaming market consolidates, and begins to generate substantial and ongoing royalty payments for songwriters and performers–particularly for major stars who are likely to accumulate royalties for decades to come,” the Guardian’sBeaumont-Thomas wrote. “Song catalogues are also valuable because tracks can be synced to advertising, or TV and movie soundtracks, to generate further revenue.”

With Springsteen jumping on that band wagon—and fueling the trend of consolidation by musical monoliths, strangling those values of creativity and spirit that Springsteen once seemed to hold dear—it’s hard to react without re-evaluating the man. Has it all been “just a brilliant disguise,” to quote another of his songs?   

“A course of noble actions begun in pride may be continued in pride, so that the last state of the hero is not appreciably better than the first,” Aldous Huxley wrote in his book Grey Eminence—his delve into the paradox of François Leclerc du Tremblay, the monk who led a lifestyle aspiring to sainthood while acting as the right-hand man of Cardinal Richelieu during Europe’s Thirty Years’ War.

“Springsteen is no ordinary talent, and no ordinary person, even if he insists on dressing down and speaking dumb,” noted the Spectator’s Green. When Springsteen and his E Street Band were at the height of their fame in the 1980s, as receipts rose from jam-packed stadium shows, the band’s members eventually “lost their slice of the take” after Springsteen put them on fixed contracts.

During the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and a conversation with Tom Hanks about his life and music, Springsteen acknowledged “the only honest work I’ve ever done in my entire life was at 14 or 15 when I was a lawn boy” and “painted houses and tarred roofs in the summertime.” In Springsteen’s defense, the money from those summer jobs bought his first guitar, which would enable his rise from those jobs he sings about.  

Further, his working-class background is entirely genuine. Of Dutch, Irish, and Italian descent, Springsteen grew up in a New Jersey family that had it as tough as millions of others struggling to make ends meet during the 1950s and ’60s. So, while Bruce never served in the military like the men he sings about in “Born in the USA,” or had to get “a union card” and “a job working construction for the Johnstown Company” as he narrates in “The River,” he has sung about what he was born into and witnessed—up to a point.

What I suspect has taken Springsteen and us, his fans, to this point is rather prosaic: Springsteen is a decent guy who lost touch with his younger self and what he once believed in after mixing with the high-society crowd. It happens to most people similarly exposed, unless 0ne is exceptionally careful or strong willed. Also, Springsteen is 72 years old now, which brings its own unique challenges—physical, material, and spiritual. 

“For high eating and drinking, fine clothes, and fine houses, state and equipage, gay pleasures, and diversions, do all of them naturally hurt and disorder our hearts,” Law wrote. “It is but like keeping money from the poor, to buy poison for ourselves.” 

As a result of the deal enabling Springsteen’s songs to be used in film, television, advertisements, and video games, we’ll all be hearing a lot more of lines like following from his hit song “Hungry Heart”: “Lay down your money and you play your part, everybody’s got a huh-uh-un-gry heart.” 

James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who splits his time between the US, the UK, and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter: @jrfjeffrey and at his website: www.jamesjeffreyjournalism.com

This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.

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