Words by Alex C

Yes Boss

One of my earliest Springsteen memories is of dancing around my front room to Born in The USA as a child of maybe five or six. I rediscovered him late into my teenage years and went to my first show in 2002. I left that show with my ears ringing. Not from the band, but from the audience singing along next to me. From that moment on, I was hooked. And since then I’ve been to fifteen shows and counting. From Milan to New Jersey to Manchester, I’ve travelled the world to see The Boss do his thing. No matter where I go though, what’s always struck me is the deep relationship he has with his audience. At a Bruce Springsteen gig, you feel a personal connection even if he’s playing to eighty thousand other people. No pyrotechnics, no fireworks, no support act. Just Bruce and the band playing for three and a half hours. Over fifty years into his career, Bruce Springsteen has amassed not a fan base but a community. It got me thinking, what can I learn from all this? What insights have a picked up that I can transfer into my own practice? What makes Bruce so good at communicating to his audience?


The Promise

You won’t find The Promise on any of Bruce’s studio albums. It’s a really early piece of work, and yet it’s pretty quintessential in that you hear what the man’s really about. What he wants to say to people. “I won big once and I hit the coast. Yeah, but I paid the cost. Inside I felt like I was carrying the broken spirits. Of all the other ones who lost.” He’s talking about some kind of success but an accompanying inability to enjoy it alone. There’s a feeling of responsibility to the people who haven’t shared in it. In real life Bruce has had immense success, but he’s always made his audience feel as though they have a part in it. I’ll never forget what he used to say on stage just before playing one of his most famous songs ‘Born to Run’— the line was “nobody wins unless everybody wins”. Basically, if the audience isn’t there, there is no Bruce. He understands that.

My love will not let you down

A statement of intent. It’s about a relationship but I’ve seen it take on a different meaning in front of a sea of Italian Bruce fans in Milan. Crazy scenes. Again, it’s not a song you can find on a studio album so you have to be a fan to know it. At this show he chose to play it as the opener, rather than something more famous. Not only did the audience sing along, knowing all the words, they sang the vocal melody before Bruce even opened his mouth. It’s a deep connection. You can’t hold it, you can’t buy it. He describes his shows as “equal parts circus, dance party, political rally and big tent revival” which is another statement of intent, and ultimately means you kind of know the script, but also you don’t know what’s going to happen, which is why people go to multiple shows on the same tour. Bruce’s audience knows his love won’t let them down, because he’s stated his intent and he lives that intent too.

Born to run

There’s almost no way you haven’t hear this iconic slice of Bruce Springsteen. It’s the most famous track on this list and it was released with his album of the same name in 1975 — a big year for Bruce. Through a mixture of deception and dumb luck, his manager at the time managed to get him on the covers of Time Magazine and Newsweek in the same week. A real coup, given that this only ever really happened for presidents. He seemingly became famous overnight. But the lesson here isn’t to blag coverage. It’s that he built his audience for ten years before this, person by person, playing to 30 people in 300 capacity venues, until they brought their friends, and those friends brought their friends too. We’re all so used to the instant nature of digital coverage now that overnight fame is, for many, the goal. Take it from The Boss, deep audience support is built slowly over time, not overnight. It’s hard work, but there’s no substitute for it.

Growin’ up

This is a song from Bruce’s first album, a string of – perhaps – too many lyrics (he was trying to be a street poet on speed at the time). He hadn’t really found his voice yet but you can hear him telling the story of his New Jersey beach bum lifestyle. And that’s my point here. Bruce Springsteen is an incredible (and incredibly consistent) storyteller. He’s always used his art form to tell the true story of his life, rather than trying to stick to some idealised version of it. Bands often get stuck repeating a lost version of themselves from some faded glory days, but Bruce has always found it important to evolve. Bruce’s story has changed through his life, and even if you’re not at the same stage of life that he was when he made an album, you can still connect. I remember taking in ‘Tunnel of Love’ to school (we were asked to bring in something that meant a lot to us) and it worrying my teachers because the lyrics deal with marital break up. But I was fine, I just connected to the storytelling. It doesn’t have to be your story to get it on a deep level.

Missing

Never stop challenging your audience. It’s the sign of any great artist and Bruce is no exception. This track features a drum machine loop, a very atypical thing for Bruce Springsteen. Rumour has it that he recorded an entire hip hop album at one point, as an experiment, although it remained unreleased. Rather than stick at straight-down-the-road rock like Bryan Adams or Bon Jovi Bruce has always been curious to look for something else. It hasn’t always worked, but that’s fine. There’s a thin line between challenging your audience and pissing them off too, but it’s a risk you have to take if you want to make sure you don’t develop a stale relationship where everything you do is predictable and expected. The track ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ also offers a great example of Bruce’s experiments paying off and showing his audience he’s trying new things. It’s unlike anything he’d ever done before and it won an Oscar.

So if you want to build audiences as gracefully as The Boss: 

Share your successes with your audience, don’t hog them. 
State your intent and live up to it. 
Audiences don’t build overnight, be patient. 
Never stop telling your true story. 
Remember to challenge your audience. 
Good luck too (you’ll need it). 

And remember, everyone’s trying to build an audience these days so be smart about it — in the big man’s words “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes”.

Pillow Talk is a string of sweet nothings between , the design collective. More about us at lovers.co

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