Bruce Springsteen's third album, Born to Run, celebrates its 40th anniversary this week. Given the milestone, you might wonder how popular the music was when it first came out in 1975. The answer might surprise you: Born to Run peaked at No. 3 on the album charts. Its title track, the first single released, topped out at No. 23 on Billboard's Top 100 chart. The second and final single, "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," stalled at No. 83.
Yet even in 1975, Springsteen's message transcended sales totals. He made the cover of both Time and Newsweek on October 27 of that year. Time venerated his vision; Newsweek thought he was a product of record-label hype. Either way, Born to Run had made a celebrity of Springsteen. How did it happen?
Any list like this must first acknowledge the obvious: the art. The eight splendidly sequenced songs on Born to Run have stood the test of time. No album endures for 40 years on the might of marketing alone. And yet, marketing was no small part of the album's initial splash in 1975. Here are the moves that made a big difference:
Product previews for key influencers.
In late 1974, Springsteen's then-manager, Mike Appel, gave copies of the "Born to Run" single to select DJs at radio stations throughout the country. The result? A grassroots movement. "Young people flooded record stores seeking copies of the new single, which didn't yet exist, and radio stations that hadn't been on Appel's small distribution list bombarded him with requests for the new album, which also didn't exist," writes Joshua Zeitz in The Atlantic.
Big money was behind it.
In an era when albums retailed for less than $10, Columbia Records spent $250,000 to promote Born to Run. The campaign included television commercials and an en masse repurposing of music critic Jon Landau's 1974 quote about Springsteen as the "rock and roll future."
Its origins tale grew more powerful as time passed.
The "Born to Run" single was recorded at 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, NY. Appel urged Springsteen to work there, instead of in Manhattan, where studio time was pricier. 914's founder, Brooks Arthur, had worked with Carole King, Van Morrison, and the Shangri-Las.
"The guys in the band and Bruce didn't like the long drive back to Jersey, so they actually pitched a tent in the backyard of the studio and slept there," engineeer Larry Alexander tells Robert Brum in The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News. The band often ate at an open-all-night diner near the studio. Springsteen's rumored preference, never confirmed, was scrambled eggs.
That was only the beginning. Landau, who'd befriended Springsteen in the interim, persuaded Springsteen that 914 was a second-rate facility--and that he needed to finish the album at The Record Plant in Manhattan, despite Appel's protests about the price. Springsteen agreed. It was an early step in Landau's involvement with Springsteen's career. Eventually Landau would replace Appel as Springsteen's right-hand man.
Much of the Appel-Landau conflict only became public in later years, set against the backdrop of lawsuits and Springsteen's perfectionism (he insisted on a dozen mastering sessions).
Even the footnotes of Born to Run's origin are fascinating. For instance, the engineer at The Record Plant, Jimmy Iovine, had previously worked with John Lennon. Iovine went on to have a legendary career himself, as the co-founder of Interscope Records and Beats Electronics. What's more, it was during the recording of Born to Run that many members of Springsteen's legendary E Street Band first began working with him.
Tour, tour, and tour some more.
The touring literally began the day after the album was completed, on July 20, 1975. Springsteen prepared the band by conducting a rehearsal that began at 3pm on July 19 at The Record Plant. The rehearsal didn't conclude until 10am the next day, according to John D. Luerssen in Bruce Springsteen FAQ: All That's Left to Know about The Boss. The first tour date was in Providence, RI, later that night.
Other stops on that pre-release tour included Geneva, NY, Lenox, Mass., and Akron, Ohio. In addition to the tour's publicity benefits, it was designed to get Springsteen and the band ready for a now-legendary five-night, 10-show stand at The Bottom Line, a small (400-seat) arena in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Of the 4,000 tickets (400 seats, 10 nights), Columbia Records snagged 980 for the media and radio stations.
That was just the beginning of the touring. Springsteen and his new band hit the south and midwest in September. In October, he did six shows in four nights at The Roxy in Los Angeles. On the first night, the crowd included King, David Bowie, George Harrison, Jack Nicholson, and Warren Beatty.
While he was in the area, he spotted a Born to Run billboard above a building on Sunset Boulevard. It was one of the first moments he felt confused and a little depressed about his newfound celebrity status. A lot has changed about his career since then. But for the most part, he has remained a celebrity and headliner since Born to Run came out. As many concerts as he does year after year, each show retains the aura of a once-in-a-lifetime event, where you never know who'll show up or what songs he and the band will perform. It's safe to say Columbia's Records' big bet has long since paid off.