Brian Hiatt
August 16, 2002 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Meet the new boss: The formerly press-shy Bruce Springsteen, who once described TV as ”57 Channels (And Nothin’ On),” has been popping up every place on the dial short of the Food Network. But despite appearances on everything from Today and Nightline to his doubleheader on Late Show With David Letterman, the 52-year-old rocker hasn’t changed his mind about running for the U.S. Senate. As any owner of a TV can now tell you, Springsteen was simply plugging The Rising, his first studio album with the full E Street Band since 1984’s 15-times platinum Born in the U.S.A. and a disc packed with songs poignantly addressing the aftermath of Sept. 11.

For his uncharacteristic turn as pitchman, the TIME cover boy is already seeing glory days: The Rising bowed at No. 1, selling 525,000 copies (nearly twice as many as No. 2 Linkin Park’s Reanimation). By comparison, U2’s fortysomething rockers saw first-week sales of under 428,000 copies for 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and Springsteen’s last No. 1 album, 1995’s Greatest Hits, moved 251,000 in its debut. The Rising exceeded expectations for major retailers: Virgin Megastores re-ordered discs after moving half of a planned three-week supply in just three days (the company wouldn’t provide actual figures). While most Virgin stores sold the CD for $14.99, some chains slashed the price as low as $9.99, further goosing purchases.

After a ’90s spent mostly outside music’s mainstream, how did the Boss pull off his resurrection? While Columbia and the singer’s publicist declined to comment, label chairman Don Ienner outlined his approach for handling veterans like Springsteen in a Los Angeles Times interview last year. ”No matter how fantastic the music is,” he said, ”what you have to do now is create an aura around the record so it seems like an event.”

In this case, the aura began with an unprecedented promotional blitz, aided by the media’s interest in an album with a newsy, post-9/11 theme. Today initially approached Springsteen back in October, hoping he’d do a Sept. 11-based performance, says exec producer Jonathan Wald; that conversation ultimately led to July 30’s unusual three-hour show from Asbury Park, N.J. And Nightline went to Springsteen in part because he was a ”dream interview” for one of the show’s producers, according to a spokeswoman; he was supposed to appear only once, but the material was stretched over three shows. ”By the way,” says one source close to the marketing campaign, ”being reclusive, quiet, and out of the spotlight in the past has helped him in the long run.”

Ultimately, hawking The Rising outside the usual music outlets proved smart, since today’s youth-oriented radio formats couldn’t automatically deliver a hit single for the aging musician. ”In the case of Bruce, you don’t want to leave your promotional or marketing effort to radio,” says J Records chair Clive Davis, who masterminded Carlos Santana’s 1999 comeback. In fact, the Boss’ anthemic, 9/11-themed title track has only been a modest radio hit. ”I don’t see pop radio gravitating to anything out of [the album],” says Pete de Graaff, music director of Orlando’s WXXL. ”They’ve written him off as an artist whose time has past.”

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