I remember standing in line the morning of August 14, 1999, outside of the Mall of New Hampshire in the Macy’s parking lot. This was before buying tickets on the “dot com” was a thing, at least as far as I knew, because it was my first experience buying concert tickets. Ever. I remember standing there with my sister, my thirteen-year-old-self sincerely believing that the hundreds of people standing in front of me would somehow manage to not get all of the front row seats. Maybe the ticketing agent would somehow know this was a birthday present and save a set just for me. The line I was in weaved through the luggage department, past men’s cologne cases, around the lingerie section, out the mattress showcase and into the parking lot, where it snaked along the side of the wall in a long arching curve, ending in my sister and I, a hundred thousand miles away from the Promised Land. If I could just get in there, I kept thinking, then I’d get to see Brian Littrell in person. It seemed so mystic a dream, like something supernatural, like being in a room with a god.
We never made it to the counter. The tickets for the Into the Millennium Tour sold out in record-breaking time, something like ten minutes into the wait from the on-sale time a Macy’s associate began the long trek along the side of the line informing people that the tickets were sold out. “Sorry,” she said as she passed me. I remember feeling like my heart had fallen into my toes and pooled into a congealed mess of molten disappointment.
Luckily, my sister, who’s fourteen years older than I am, knew exactly what to do when the show you want is sold out at Ticketmaster. “C’mon,” my sister said, “We gotta hurry; I know how what to do. But we have to beat all these people there.” For the first time, I was glad we were at the back of the line, still outside and close to the cars. We rushed to her car and drove downtown where we climbed the sweaty steps of a second-chance ticketing office whose agents had been in line at Ticketmaster hours and hours before we were, contributing to the lack of tickets for legitimate fans by buying up seats for resale. The tickets were way more than face value – a ridiculous amount of money exchanged hands for nosebleed balcony seats, but the end result was just the same: I was going to see the Backstreet Boys.
Me and thousands and thousands and maybe even millions of others.
Since that ticketing experience, I’ve grown with the Boys and been through many different ways of purchasing tickets. From tickets won in eBay auctions and radio station contests, to nail-biting online servers-down rushes, general admission rat races to the front row, and meeting strangers in foreign cities outside the Hard Rock Cafe to buy extra tickets, I’ve done it all for the Boys. But none of the experiences I’ve had have been as ultimately disappointing as the one in 1999. I mean, sure my thirteen-year-old-self didn’t know any better and therefore was elated, rather than disappointed, but if I got the same seats now as I got then, I’d be straight up depressed.
Since 1999, following the Boys through the broken Black & Blue tour, a long hiatus, and several tours during which everyone’s reaction to “I’m going to see the Backstreet Boys tonight” was, ”are they still around?” I’ve slowly found myself migrating from the back of audiences to the front of the crowd, and the closer I get to the stage the more addicted I become.
I know the Backstreet Boys probably miss the money and the popularity they had in the 90s, but I for one am glad that they’ve fallen out of the eye of the mainstream. The crowds got smaller, sure, but you know why? Because along the way we lost the “filler fans”, the ones that are just there because the tickets were available and they were bored or they liked one or two songs or whatever. What we’ve been left with are the people who really give a shit, whose dedication goes beyond headline news and hit radio singles, who can actually tell you what track number seven on Black & Blue is without thinking and knows what “IYWITBGG” is (like the acronym, because, yeah, there are people out there who don’t refer to all the long titles in acronyms). What the Boys have been left with is a core of people so strong that they’ve carried on years and years and years after the typical expiration date most boy bands come stamped with.
And because of this shrinking fanbase, the fillers are now empty seats that can be occupied by real fans, which means that we can condense and everyone gets an upgrade. Online ticketing may have contributed to the ability to score awesome seats, too, but having less competition certainly didn’t hurt. And while there’s nothing more stressful than watching those last ten seconds on the clock at 9:59:50 waiting for the 10:00 on-sale to begin (will the servers hold up long enough for my connection to break in once I hit “find tickets”?), it’s become far more rewarding, too.
Thirteen-year-old-me might not have lived through the experiences that I’ve now had. I’m pretty sure she would’ve passed out from excitement if she’d ever made it to the first thirty rows, not to mention the third or the hallowed ground of front row.
And it’s not just the size and strength of the fanbase and accessibility to tickets that have changed in the Boys’ supposed fall from grace. The relationship between the fans and the guys has been improved as well.
Gone are the days of hand-written letters with hearts over the i’s and mailing them to a fan club address that ends up in a dead mail pile in the basement of the post office. Today, we can get news, pictures, and personal messages from our favorite guys with just a click of a button or two. We can skip climbing over barbed wire fences to meet them and just get meet and greet passes. And when we get there, it’s possible to cultivate an actual conversation with the guys, to be remembered by them, get hugs and, if you’re one of the lucky ones, a kiss on the cheek.
Maybe it’s just the fact that we are the generation straddling the line of social media, but it happened to coincide with the descent from on high.
It’s selfish, I know, but I really like where the Backstreet Boys fandom has landed in the drop from worldwide phenomenon to where we are now. The worst part is explaining to the outsider that the Backstreet Boys never broke up. And that’s okay, because if repeating that whole spiel really is as bad as it gets we’ve got it pretty good. It’s like Backstreet Boys have become an exclusive members-only club, like we’ve got access to the best kept secret music has to offer. Especially since those who don’t know still look at you with impressed expressions when you inform them that you went to a club and hung out with the Boys at the afterparty.
I know similar things happened in the New Kids on the Block fandom, where the fans dwindled and the NKOTB members became more and more thankful for their fans’ continued support and the tickets got better and the VIP packages cooler and the concerts and events more intimate. Maybe it’s not just a fluke. Maybe it’s a formula for true success, not just the superficial stuff that surrounds pop culture phenomenons, the fleeting fifteen minutes that many taste and few survive beyond. I mean there aren’t many bands standing that have been around as long as NKOTB or BSB.
Consider, for example, in the 90s when U2 switched their music style from their usually politically driven content to a more mainstream style and back again after releasing just a couple of insanely popular albums. Bono was quoted at the time saying that he’d rather have a small handful of fans that really understood and appreciated what the band was all about than a massive following of people who expected them to play music that was just like everybody else’s.
Another example is the relationship that my sister and I have cultivated over the last two years with her favorite band, Jars of Clay. Jars is a Grammy award winning band who started out in the Contemporary Christian music genre. They were famous back in 1994 for the single “Flood” from their self-title debut album. They remained quite popular within the CCM genre thorough most of their career, which is even how my sister and I discovered them, at a Christian music festival in New Hampshire. But then they decided to breakaway from that label of “Christian band” once they realized they were being lumped in with lesser-quality bands by a lot of people just because they identified with that group. They decided to travel a “middle ground” where they could sing about whatever they want – like the human condition, love, and even sex, though the song they claim is about sex doesn’t really seem like it is to me. The guys have since released some of their best albums and last year celebrated their 20th anniversary by performing very personal “in the room” concerts at their recording studio, Grey Matters, here in Nashville. Only like 20-people got in the room for each show, held on the third Tuesday of every month, and the guys performed from start to finish each of their albums, including their Christmas CD and a night filled with “rarities” and unreleased music. Within a 12-month period of time, we got to see the guys perform just about every song they’ve ever made (including an infamous Nirvana-meet-Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer cover that has become a Christmas classic in our house). They’ve literally gotten to know my sister and I by name and have really become friends, remembering details of things I’ve told them about – right down to asking about how my classes are going and if I have any neat projects to share with them.
In general that middle space of between being “known” and “unknown”/ “mainstream” and “under the radar” seems to work for cultivation of really invigorating band-fan relationships. So next time you wonder why more people don’t get onboard the Backstreet Boys fan wagon, consider all of the awesome benefits of being a fan in these times have provided; remember how much it sucked waiting in line for really terrible nosebleed tickets back in the 90s, and how awesome it is chatting up the Boys’ crew while waiting in line to go backstage where they sincerely say it’s nice to see you again. Because they know they’ve seen you before. Because they remember you from last time.
Damn, it’s a good time to be a fan!