Over 40 years and more commercial success than you or I can throw a stick at might make some musicians think that Bruce Springsteen is so untouchable as a musician, trying to follow his path to success is a pipe dream.
That thought would be off, in a few ways.
After completing the biography Bruce by Peter Ames, I found myself with several journal pages of insights into how a self-starter musician in the late 1960s transformed rock music, created a cult following that has stretched into the modern day despite obstacles, and much more insights.
Let me be clear, I am a Springsteen fan, potentially a super-fan of sorts. I do have most of his album collection on CD and vinyl, though I have not seen him perform live yet. By confession, I’ve only been at this level of interest in his music for less than a decade. Maybe I’m a slow starter…..
I say all of that because there’s a chance you’re not a massive Bruce Springsteen fan, though there’s also a good chance that you enjoy his songbook, or have at one point. The purpose of this book review isn’t to convert you to his fan following. What music you enjoy is your choice. Instead, what I want to do is give you plenty of reasons why you should pick up a copy of this book, if anything to learn some very practical and specific ways to cultivate super-fans of your own work.
Bruce is not all sunshine and rainbows, as the Springsteen lineage is traced back two generations and we see the trials and tribulations of his grandparents and parents. Their stories have found a way into Springsteen’s stories over the years in a few different varieties. And his own story is allegorical in songs like The Promise, which outlines the breakdown of his relationship with former manager Mike Appel.
I talk with a lot of artists who are convinced that they just need a manager or a booking agent to be successful. Maybe those two job roles could help. In Bruce, we see how even passionate and well-intentioned people can do things that are not in the best interest of the artist they represent. And we see how those situations can be avoided.
What about the infamous super-fan following that The Boss commands? Where did that come from and how did he manage to maintain it for several decades?
One thing that is clear in the book is that Bruce and the E Street Band played a ton of shows, and at times did touring that didn’t put them in front of massive audiences. The purpose of the rigorous schedule was to get the music and the band out to as many places as they could to promote their albums. Radio airplay helped promote the music to a point, but touring was key. This was how music success worked in 1973-1984 even with a hit record. It’s still true today.
The more you get in front of people, the greater opportunity you have to connect with music lovers who could potentially be your super fan. That’s one part of the puzzle Bruce and Co figured out early. The other part was more what Bruce discovered on his own and incorporated into everything he did. This part was operating from the mantra that people matter, and people’s stories are his to be shared. Music is the community connector.
Here are some quotes from the book dealing with this ideology:
“There’s a morality to the show, and it’s very strict. Everything counts. Every person, every individual in the crowd counts. To me.”
“…..the fans who came out every night in search of something more perfect than they could find in their daily lives.”
“(Audience growth) happens through the conversation you have with (people) in your songs. If people fall away, it’s because you lost the thread of that connection.”
There are many other great quotes worth your exploration. The heart of the How-To guide for Springsteen Super-Fan creation is an ideology that’s lived, and has been since the beginning. It’s not a facade or experiment to see “if I do this, people will love me and then I’ll be successful.”
The Springsteen method of super-fan growth is to be who you are. For Bruce, that meant to be a common person and not a diva, at least for the most part. No one is perfect and there are a few stories where we see a dark side to Bruce who seems a bit more like a diva than who he was trying to be.
What he did to connect with people and build his following happened as much off stage as it did on it. Bruce would spend time at places where his fans would frequent, like dancehalls and bars. He would engage with people he’d seen at his shows, or even as shows for other artists and have conversations with them, sharing stories that gave him a better perspective of people who could occupy his songwriting.
Even after the success of Born To Run, which launched him into stardom as a musician, he continued with this mantra of being approachable and relatable. Two decades later he took that relational practice a step further, personally contacting the families and survivors of 9/11 who expressed some degree of fandom for his music in the material he had access to. He kept his communications with those fans private, not using it as a marketing tool to promote his tour. He wanted that connection to be real and personal, and not perceived as political or a part of any agenda. Doing so had such a more dynamic impact than what we see musicians and entrepreneurs do so often-using events and tragedy as an opportunity to get their name and face out there.
“The best of my music that has social implications functions like that. They reach your heart first, then they speak to your soul, then they get into your bloodstream and move through the rest of your body and into your mind.”
Isn’t this a different pathway than many artists write? Most “undiscovered” or unsigned musicians are writing to connect with the mind first, with the hope that what the song is and does can eventually find its way into your heart. Instead, when the music becomes a part of you, you have created a connection that goes much, much deeper.
In a recent conversation I had with indie singer-songwriter William Fitzsimmons, he said something incredibly profound that we see in Springsteen’s work. William said artists must have a mission statement, and it can’t be to just make music. That’s too easy. For William, he writes musical therapy, that’s his mission.
For Bruce, “ordinary people tell their story through music; intimate stories of ordinary folks whose labors made wealthier men’s dreams come true.” This concept defines the entire songbook of Springsteen. It’s mission-driven work. Being great as a musician was a part of this mission, but there was something else driving the bus. The heart that drove the machine was the real and genuine connection with people.
Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin is available via Amazon and if you click on my affiliate link I will really appreciate it.
What are you doing to make real connections with people? How can you take the story of Bruce Springsteen and apply those keen insights into your work? Let’s talk this week about that. Reach out here and tell me how your music can be better impacted through relationship connections.