Springsteen on Netflix: Out of the dark — into the light

Beyond stereotypes: The exclusive release of a special recording reveals a lot. About Springsteen. About the entertainment industry. About Netflix.

Flag bought by author in his early teens .. :-) · Photo © by Sascha Seifert.

The incumbent of the streaming platform universe presents a show by the most relevant figure in US-Rock’n’Roll giving his probably most iconic performance ever. Until “Springsteen on Broadway”, The Boss was inevitable. This show made him immortal. The collaboration among giants was part of Netflix’ highlights for the Holiday season 2018/2019. And it will be in high demand among fans for a long time.

Starting from a point of deep admiration for all kinds of music very early on in my life (with Springsteen as one of the guiding lights thru high school), to eventually becoming an entrepreneur in the music-, film-, entertainment- and content-space, Springsteen’s recent Netflix release impressed, touched and inspired me beyond words on many different levels. Nonetheless, I tried to write down something useful to capture what represents the magic in my eyes.

The talent that became immortal

It all happens 1 hour 45 minutes into said Netflix program. It is the moment Springsteen might have worked towards all of his career. On stage. Behind the scenes. It is his personal moment of truth. His clearance, his final victory over all his demons. Singing about his dark moments over the decades should have been one thing. Writing about his personal struggles behind the facade of that record-breaking career of his in the autobiography “Born To Run” probably was the next important step. As well as talking to the press about his dark nights of the soul the following years and then putting together a turning inside out program for a Broadway show.

Screenshot from the Netflix Programm “Springsteen on Broadway”

But finally standing out there on an otherwise empty stage in the middle of Gotham must have been another story — even in his realm. Facing the spotlight all alone, in front of a full house. Knowing to have cameras rolling on him, recording every move he is about to make. Well aware to have agreed already on everything said and done at that moment to be broadcasted around the globe at a moment to come soon. No doubt: this was his very own point of no return. No escape possible anymore. As a human. As an artist. As The Boss.

Being probably the bravest Rock’n’Roller ever performing on any stage, at 1 hour 45 minutes into the show, Springsteen starts into his most impressive performance ever with the words “All right, this is the final days of Patti’s first pregnancy”. It’s his introduction into a short story serving as a symbol about what life has written over decades into the virtual book of Springsteen’s family, engraved into the personality that he has ever been and has become, that he will be as long as he walks the earth.

Continuing the following three minutes, Springsteen tells to the world his naked truth about that one moment in time he was able to make peace with his father and with all pain and disappointments this man stood for in his mind over so many years. And he is doing this in his very unique, honest, straightforward way. With a minimum number of words, that have a maximum impact nonetheless. No doubt, he says all that is relevant and even so much more between the lines. But it just takes him a total of three minutes to tell everything there is to say about pain, depression, fear, love and family. About hope, understanding and parenting. In other words: About being a family man, about being human the most relevant moments of this. Three minutes changing forever how one sees the world, changing forever how we see Bruce Springsteen. So, when he launches into “Long Time Coming” right away afterwards, it’s not just him who has tears in their eyes.

“I’m riding hard carryin’ a catch of roses 
And a fresh map that I made 
Tonight I’m gonna get birth naked and bury my old soul 
And dance on its grave 
And dance on its grave
It’s been a long time comin’, my dear 
It’s been a long time comin’ but now it’s here.” 
(“Long time coming”, Bruce Springsteen)

One moment in time. And once again, Springsteen made sure it’s a relevant one. The Boss crying on stage. Baring the very essence of his soul. By no means, there was any duty for him to ever do this other than Springsteen’s obvious wish to finally get all this off his chest. To show the world how much overcoming can be achieved as a human if one keeps moving onwards, no matter what comes into ones way. What a brave man. What an incredible artist.

Especially all this despite Springsteen being a true band leader at heart. With the 2,5-hour recording showing again and again how much better he is as a performer, how much more intriguing his music is once presented together with a band set up like the E-Street Band does over ever since. To me, Springsteen’s choice to avoid any backing set up for his Broadway stint despite this fact makes the whole thing even more impressive. (I assume, this has been a very conscious choice. As within his camp including legendary manager John Landau, someone must be well aware and outspoken enough about the fact that Springsteen is a natural-born Bandleader and Songwriter but not a Solo artist. At least on stage. Despite his release of a couple of solo albums. That all got recorded at least with the support of some backing musicians, probably for good reasons). I see much proof in this theory, as in “Springsteen on Broadway”, the mere appearance of wife and duet partner Patti Scalfia distinctly improves the musical aspect of the performance. Also, Bruce uses the duets with her as kind of a runway towards his most intimate moment.

Saying all that, the entire show is an incredible experience of an entire series of outstanding tender moments with a truly outstanding artist. The combination of spoken word, mostly inspired, if not even quoted from his before mentioned autobiography, and music, performed in a pure, stripped to the essence of the singer-songwriter style, shows stadium rocker Springsteen’s fragile, sometimes even unknown angular side. Many otherwise well-known songs are presented in an almost unrecognisable format, even not shy of exposing moments where Springsteen’s composing and writing qualities have reached their limits. Kudos for such willingness to let go of any brilliant disguise imaginable.

It’s this bluntness, the almost total absence of any form of vanity, that has defined Springsteen’s career ever since. There is a fire burning inside of him. “No retreat, babe, no surrender”. He makes us feel his longing for better days, his willingness to carry the flame thru the darkness on the edge of towns, to find a reason to believe on the end of every hard earned day. To discover his own real independence day after all. His key characteristics at work here, that as well that made him avoid the temptation almost everyone in his position usually succumbs to by transforming such opportunity of biographically inspired work into a rather egocentric, somehow overloaded “Greatest Hits” event.

“ I come from down in the valley
Where mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
Me and Mary we met in high school
When she was just seventeen
We’d ride out of this valley down to where the fields were green
We’d go down to the river
And into the river, we’d dive
Oh down to the river we’d ride .”
(“The River”, Bruce Springsteen)

Bruce, thank you for opening up. Thank you for the music.

And thank you for winning a battle many great talents have lost. Depression is a dangerous beast and to overcome it is a masterly performance by itself ( I wrote about the dark places in the souls and minds of so many artists close to our hearts in a post you can find at this link.)

Further shifting tectonics of the entertainment business

Let’s consider the public persona of Springsteen, the Ubvervater of US-Rock’n’Roll and global cultural phenomenon, being a brand for a second. From that POV, “Springsteen on Broadway” has to be in the praised moreover in the light of the pure content marketing genius effort that it is. Or, as Variety pointed it out a while ago already: “Springsteen is a man, writing his own history …”

Let’s have a closer look. First, there is this “absurdly successful career” (Springsteen in his own words, on Netflix). Then he writes down all that happened in a book. So far so good. Many have done so before. But then he creates this out of the ordinary stage show on Broadway. In terms of what it’s showing and what it’s all about totally against any idea of the mainstream. But turns out, anyways, it’s marketing the book and the music pretty well. The stage show even becomes a hit despite — or rather: because — it is what it is. Running on and off for two years instead of a couple of weeks as initially announced. Then, the day the final curtain falls on the stage of NYC’s Walter Kerr Theatre, the show gets marketed on Netflix globally. All this wearing a sticker saying “Contains his biggest hit “Born in the U.S.A.” in a version you won’t recognise.” If this isn’t amazing, I don’t know what else is amazing.

Then there is this toying around with exclusivity. First selling limited tickets to a very intimate show venue. Then selling the recording exclusively to Netflix. Have a closer look, Mick Jagger. It can all be done without rushing from stadium to arena globally. (Although, I admit, I’m a happy customer, every time the Stones come to town.)

All this showing how brilliantly a career in entertainment can be monetised nowadays if the artist is able (and willing) to play with all the options available.

It’s not the first time, Springsteen played such tricks. However, with all this being very different from what happened back in some of the old days. Springsteen shook up the music world around the holidays once already by releasing one of his works. “Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live 1975–85” was the name of a massive 5-Record-Box-Set he released in the wake of the global “Born In The U.S.A. Tour”, the tour following the release of the eponymous album. Circling around the soul of that one epic song that more or less made him the Mega Star he is ever since. “Live 1975–85” was kind of an encore. For the fans. And for him as everyone in his camp business wise. As the Boxset became one of the best selling Box-Sets of all time. An iconic piece of Live Music records (or Tapes or CDs or even 8-Track-Cartridges) and a great document of a time, when there was no YouTube to listen to a favourite live-version from last night immediately.

The big loser in the 2018 Netflix release is the former gatekeeper for access to the box set. The music industry. In that case here, represented by Springsteens once legendary record label Columbia (today, an imprint of Sony Music Entertainment). Being part of the same music industry that is still struggling with converting its business model to the digital & online world, all that was left for the music executives this time is posting songs without any moving picture on YouTube. And hoping to sell a couple of discs to collectors and hardcore fans. Besides those who sold the tickets and organised the NYC Live performance, the happiest folk on the bright side of the fence might now be the publishers. (Inside gag: Isn’t that ironic … :-) Intangibles succeed by far in the end.)

Another ship sailed for an industry that has missed on so many chances over the decades, the stories could easily feed an entire multi-season TV series with tons of anecdotes. For the moment, just imagine how easy it would have been for the bigger labels ( = easy access to rights) once to install their own live music channels on TV. And online later on.

Another bold remainder of the relevance for entrepreneurs of all kind (and in the end, artists are entrepreneurs as well as long as they want to make a living from their art) to stay open to new business opportunities and to stay in touch with the results of changing times.

The TV format, Netflix is currently dominating. And its future

Around the recent theatrical release of Alfonso Cuaróns “Roma” (also another part of Netflix’ new offerings package for the Holiday season 2018/2019), I had a couple of debates about this matter on- and offline whit one aspect standing out in debates especially: Every time I mentioned Netflix being a TV content platform, people went great lengths to tell me they aren’t such a thing. And this wasn’t because those folk would have a general sensitivity around when to use the term TV or reflecting on all the questions around how much sense such term makes anymore today at all (for more on everything TV from my POV, see my recent post “TV. Nothing else matters. A rationale.” here). Besides the fact that Netflix tends to present itself as a company in the TV business, in IMHO, this mostly happened because they can’t separate fiction from reality.

It is pure fiction that Netflix ever predominantly intended to be a player in the world of film. Reality is, their break-thru was a typical TV format, namely “House of Cards”. Since then, followed by many other successful typical TV formats. Yes, Netflix also shows great films. Yes, Netflix also (sometimes) co-produces great films. But that’s just part of their story. Like it has been part of the story of almost any great brand/station/platform in the TV space since the invention of this industry.

I am mentioning this here as I want to point to the fact that “Springsteen On Broadway” also is a great piece of TV content as well. In the non-fictional space, TV always has its peak moments when it gets the chance to merge outstanding entertainment with never before seen moments worth documentation, that at the end of the day are rather unpretentious formats from a professional perspective.

I often have been reading recently that “Springsteen on Broadway” is considered a feature documentary. Well, this it isn’t by any means. It’s a concert film. Kind of. Most of all, its a rather simple recording documenting an intimate Broadway performance. One night of it to be exact. In many ways, it’s something that has not been done ever, before simply because Springsteen did something that has not been done ever before.

And while TV as a term and a content format overall got a valid bad rep for flooding our societies with a lot of trashy content, we lost sight of TV’s great moments. As I guess no one would deny the positive impact of the global “Live Aid”-broadcast back in 1985 for example; one of the highlights of the old world of Live Music-TV, long before the internet started to rival its dominance overnight.

I see “Springsteen On Broadway”, the former stage show as well as the TV format, on the same level of impact and importance for contemporary music as “Live Aid” back in the 1980ies. A milestone. For the history of Rock’N’Roll, for the people. So, no wonder, it was picked up by Netflix, the current #1 place for streaming great TV content of many kinds, suited for a global audience.

And the fact that Netflix got awarded the streaming rights might be owed to its deep pockets but definitely also is once more a statement about the companies ability to honour artists needs and requests. If Springsteen himself would have not wanted to be streamed on Netflix unburdening himself, the recording would never have made its’ way onto the platform.

As, at the same time, I bet many old-school TV commissioners would have rejected the proposal to partner on this project, based on concerns about it being as unique, edged and honest as it is.

So, to me, “Springsteen On Broadway” happening on Netflix also shows in many aspects that the platform rather wants to be a new, positive version of TV than anything else. How wonderful.