In a time when public gatherings of more than a handful of people were safe, musicians across the planet played something called “concerts.” Hundreds if not thousands of fans would pack arenas, hoping to listen to the entertainer live. It’s an experience that can’t be replicated on the radio or via Spotify, as any true fan will tell you. But it’s also not the same experience for all those gathered. As a general rule, the front rows of any entertainment or sporting event are the best seats in the house. And as a result, tickets for those seats usually cost a lot of money — more than most people could reasonably afford.
And for Billy Joel, that’s a problem.
Billy Joel is so famous you probably don’t need me to tell you much about him; he’s been performing for the longest time, with his first studio album debuting in 1971. Eleven of his 13 studio albums have gone platinum and he’s had multiple #1 overall singles over his nearly five-decade-long career. As a result, he has a lot of fans — and sells a lot of tickets to his concerts.
But there’s no correlation between how big of a fan you are and how much money you have. Factor in that corporations often buy tickets to schmooze clients and prospects, and the price of the premium tickets gets even high. A lot of the biggest fans are relegated to what are correctly called the “cheap seats,” rows and rows if not levels back from the stage or field. Despite the fact that it’s still rock and roll no matter where you sit, for those sitting in the rear, you’re almost half a mile away. You as might as well be sitting in Leningrad, Vienna, or even Zanzibar.
So Joel goes to extremes, finding ways to help his biggest fans get out of no man’s land, at his own expense (to a degree). Instead of taking the easy money that many would fork over for these seats, the Piano Man keeps those for his biggest fans — but only as an on-the-spot surprise. In 2014, he explained the gambit to Billboard:
We never sell front rows, we hold those tickets at just about every concert. For years, the scalpers got the tickets and would scalp the front row for ridiculous amounts of money. Our tickets are cheap, under $100, some in the $80s, the highest is about $150. I’d look down and see rich people sitting there, I call ’em “gold chainers.” Sitting there puffing on a cigar, “entertain me, piano man.” They don’t stand up, make noise, sit there with their bouffant haired girlfriend lookin’ like a big shot. I kinda got sick of that, who the hell are these people, where are the real fans?
But the seats aren’t left empty. Joel continued:
It turns out the real fans were always in the back of the room in the worst seats. We now hold those tickets, and I send my road crew out to the back of the room when the audience comes in and they get people from the worst seats and bring ’em in to the front rows. This way you’ve got people in the front row that are really happy to be there, real fans.
Skeptical? You may be right — the claim is a little self-serving. But it doesn’t have to be a matter of trust. While some more cynical folks believed that the people selected by the crew were always a woman, or some fancy uptown girls or the like, it turns out that’s probably not the case. As one fan attested on Billy Joel’s fan forums, “as one of the lucky ones, YES, he does give away the entire front row (and the second one too)! [. . . ] The front row was made up of a diverse bunch, but you could tell they were big Billy Joel fans!” And another echoed a similar sentiment:
My son and I were at the Memphis show last night and we were given second-row tickets by a random guy who we later found to be his cinematographer. Like the guy upthread, I gave him the cold shoulder because I was with my son and I thought it was a scam. But he ran after us and my son was curious, so he stopped and the guy handed him the tickets. A wide variety of people were in our lucky “pod” they called it, and that part of the story is true, everyone was very excited and thankful to be there. I did see the crew member again and apologized. It was truly the experience of a lifetime and worth the hearing loss!
So if you’re looking for great tickets to a Billy Joel concert, bring yourself a little bit of luck — but otherwise, it’s okay to show up just the way you are.
From the Archives: Faking Fakin’ It: The history — and loophole — behind an odd Billy Joel lyric.