Author: Rafi Mohammed

Some fans were outraged when man-of-the-people Bruce Springsteen charged more than $5,000 per seat for his upcoming concert. The high prices were the result of a dynamic pricing system, in which prices are adjusted upward in response to strong demand. This controversy illustrates seven lessons that managers should keep in mind when adjusting prices, including the need for clear communications, longtime customers’ expectation that they deserve a discount, and the fact that high prices will raise expectations about quality and service. Rafi Mohammed is the founder of Culture of Profit, a consultancy that helps companies develop and improve their pricing strategies. He’s also the author of The Art of Pricing: How to Find the Hidden Profits to Grow Your Business (Crown Business, 2005) and The 1% Windfall: How Successful Companies Use Price to Profit and Grow (HarperCollins, 2010). This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

The Pricing Advisor, February 2023

Bruce Springsteen recently ignited an uproar by utilizing dynamic pricing for tickets to his 2023 U.S. concert tour. Dynamic pricing is the strategy of constantly adjusting prices in response to demand, a practice that consumers are accustomed to when buying airline tickets and booking hotels. In recent years, sports teams have begun using the technique, and Ticketmaster now offers musical artists the option of using it for concert tickets, too. As a result of Springsteen’s decision to allow Ticketmaster to use dynamic pricing, tickets for some of his shows reportedly jumped to over $5,000.

Fans were upset that Springsteen – a longtime advocate for the working class – was charging such high prices. Some accused him of gouging. The controversy surrounding Springsteen’s new pricing strategy has several teachable lessons for businesses beyond the music industry. Here are seven:

1. Customers do not want to be surprised about prices.

Prior to the on-sale date, no hints had been proffered on how extensive dynamic pricing would be used nor how high prices could go. This was unexpected and caused outrage.

The lesson from that is clear: businesses need to clearly explain a new pricing strategy to customers in advance of implementation. After the initial uproar, Ticketmaster reported that just 11.2% of tickets were dynamically priced and the rest were sold at fixed prices, with the average price below $300. Only 1.3% of tickets sold were over $1,000. This is not egregious: if Springsteen and his team had been so inclined, every concert ticket could have been dynamically priced. But the failure to communicate this strategy in advance left fans confused and upset.

2. Don’t be afraid to challenge pricing myths.

I routinely hear a variety of unsubstantiated dictums from managers about why their prices cannot be tinkered with, such as “we can’t raise our prices above a certain competitor.”

Instead of following these types of rote missives, it is crucial to pushback and ask: “is this really true?” In this case, the prevailing myth might be: if you are considered a friend of the working class, you must set egalitarian prices. But is that really true? Other socially progressive luminaries have not felt so. Prices for Michelle Obama’s 2019 book tour reached $4,200 and fourth-row seats for “An Evening with the Clintons” event in Seattle were $829. Interest in Springsteen’s upcoming concert was so high that one Philadelphia promoter claimed that it was “experiencing the largest demand for tickets in Philadelphia music history.” Is The Boss required to set prices that are drastically below what the market will pay for all seats – even the best ones? I do not think so.

And remember, for every concert, a significant number of tickets are bought by scalpers as well as fans who purchase “extras” to resell for a profit. When artists raise prices, the economic justification is that much of the profit they’re taking would otherwise go to scalpers, not fans. A survey of attendees at an October 2002 Springsteen concert revealed that 28.1% of tickets were resold, with an average markup of 240%. So, challenging these myths can make sense, if implemented correctly.

3. You are not required to grandfather low prices to loyal customers.

One of the complaints about Springsteen’s pricing is he was exploiting longtime fans who’ve been paying to attend his shows since the 1970s. It is natural to be grateful to long-standing customers. Just remember that they purchased out of self-interest, not charity, and they’re not necessarily owed a life-long discount. On previous tours, fans got a fantastic deal because for whatever reason, Springsteen preferred to price all tickets at below-market value. In my experience — I have seen Springsteen in concert approximately 40 times, and yes, I bought tickets to his 2023 shows — his energetic performances have yielded the greatest dollar-for-dollar value in concert history.

For companies pricing goods or services that are purchased more frequently than concert tickets, however, when implementing a steep price increase, I recommend slowly transitioning existing customers when possible. Instead of raising prices immediately, let them know that, as VIPs, the boost will be gradually implemented over a longer time period. This prevents sticker shock and conveys appreciation.

4. Low prices can devalue a product.

Springsteen’s history of charging below-market prices conditioned fans to expect them. This illustrates the hazards of extending discounts.

I’m often asked by start-ups if they should extend steep discounts to initial customers, because as a startup, these companies tend to be happy just to have some initial customers. I urge them to proceed cautiously. Not standing up for your product’s value by discounting to get early sales can be problematic when it comes time to focus on profit.

5. Be aware of the expectations that accompany a high price.

Springsteen did a Broadway show in 2017 and raised a similar hullabaloo by charging $850 for the most desirable seats. The show earned critical acclaim (including winning a Tony Award) that justified the price. That said, with a $5,000 price tag associated with the upcoming tour, expectations will be high. Springsteen’s habit of starting tours by playing a significant amount of new material may be off-putting to fans who came for his hits from the ’70s and ’80s — and if they’re unhappy, they are likely to broadcast their displeasure on social media. Even if the buzz surrounding the concerts is weak, the beauty of price and value is it is straightforward to change both.

There are already rumors that Springsteen’s early 2023 dates will be followed by a stadium tour starting next August. If the spring tour doesn’t meet fans’ expectations, Springsteen could lower prices and focus on his “greatest hits” for the stadium dates.

6. Stated willingness to pay is likely not accurate.

In an effort to determine an optimal price, market research techniques such as a Van Westendorp analysis ask survey participants questions about their willingness to pay. I know several people who actually did pay over $1,000 for a ticket for the upcoming Springsteen dates. Since this amount was so out of their expected norm, they would have never stated it in a survey. At least for these diehard customers, their answers to these types of “how much” pricing questions would underestimate their true willingness to pay. It’s an example of how market research doesn’t always reflect reality.

7. Your profit is not your customers’ concern.

Some have argued that since Springsteen recently sold his catalog for an estimated $550 million, he is wealthy and should not charge premium prices. Similarly, many of my B2B clients are afraid to charge prices that capture the value of their products because the increased profit will be reflected in their annual income report. They fear that this will upset their customers and lead them to push for discounts. This is when you should confidently say, “if you can find a better value, take it.” Even if you are a publicly traded company and your healthy profit is known, customers will purchase as along as a product’s price is commensurate with its value.

Raising prices is rarely a frictionless event where customers readily agree. It is inevitable that some will complain and possibly not purchase. In such cases, the most important thing producers should focus on is making sure the price is backed up by value. Whether or not Springsteen’s pricing strategy is deemed a success will depend on him performing a strong “it was worth the price” concert. Given his track record of innovation and dedication to perfection, my money is on Bruce.

The Professional Pricing Society is the leading worldwide pricing idea marketplace where new and seasoned business professionals from all industries come together for learning, training, and networking while gaining actionable insights, new and refined skillsets, and earning pricing credentials.

Elevate your value by joining our global pricing membership and starting your pricing certification.

Pricing Conferences from Professional Pricing Society
Pricing Conferences
Online Pricing Courses from Professional Pricing Society
Pricing Courses
CPP Certification
Pricing Resources from Professional Pricing Society
Pricing Resources