How Robert Smith, rock’s greatest contrarian, became Ticketmaster’s worst enemy
It ranks as one of the music’s industry’s least likely victories. Robert Smith, the 63-year-old frontman of British goth-pop band The Cure, has forced global concert giant Ticketmaster into a very public climbdown over the fees it charges fans when they buy tickets. Even Taylor Swift, the planet’s biggest pop star, was left fuming – and apparently helpless – late last year when Ticketmaster botched the sale of tickets for her current US tour. But Smith, who last had a number one album in 1992, appears to have pulled off the coup of the year, if not the decade, in getting the mighty corporation to back down.
Last week Smith took Ticketmaster, owned by the world’s largest music promoter Live Nation, to task on Twitter over the “unduly high” charges it had added to tickets for The Cure’s upcoming US tour. Smith told fans he was “as sickened as you all are” that tickets as low as $20 (£16) were being swollen by, in some cases, service fees of $11.65, a facility charge of $10 and an order processing fee of $5.50.
Mindful that money is tight for fans, the band had deliberately tried to keep prices down. And now tickets were being sold for over double the intended price. “I have been asking how they are justified,” Smith wrote. “If I get anything coherent by way of an answer I will let you all know.”
Well, backcomb my hair and call me Bob. The following day, Smith told fans that Ticketmaster had agreed that many of the fees were too high. The company would refund $10 to so-called verified fans who bought the cheapest tickets and $5 to verified fans who bought tickets at other prices. “You are a f______ legend for this,” wrote one fan. “You found the cure,” replied another.
But people who have followed the band for a long time know that they have always refused to take any nonsense. Their gloomy visage, homespun smudged make-up and romantic lyrics may give the misleading impression that they’re soft touches. The Cure are eccentric and defined by a certain scrappiness, for sure. But beneath the paisley shirts lie veins of steel.
I AM AS SICKENED AS YOU ALL ARE BY TODAY'S TICKETMASTER 'FEES' DEBACLE. TO BE VERY CLEAR: THE ARTIST HAS NO WAY TO LIMIT THEM. I HAVE BEEN ASKING HOW THEY ARE JUSTIFIED. IF I GET ANYTHING COHERENT BY WAY OF AN ANSWER I WILL LET YOU ALL KNOW. X
— ROBERT SMITH (@RobertSmith) March 16, 2023
The Cure have never played the industry game. Witness the red carpet video of the band arriving to be inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019. In this now infamous clip, Smith out-Hugh Grants Hugh Grant at the recent Oscars with his withering sarcasm. “Are you as excited as I am?” asks a hyperactive interviewer. “By the sounds of it, no,” replies Smith, his eyes filled with bewilderment, disdain and just a touch of fear.
Smith seems to do much of the band management himself. The Cure don’t have a traditional PR company, which can be a source of frustration for any critics seeking to review them. They, brilliantly, buck the prevailing trend by playing concerts that last over three hours and comprise 45 songs (something Swift is now doing on her Eras tour – are we seeing the tide turning on the sub-90 minute concert?). And The Cure only release albums when they feel like it. They have been teasing a new record for years. The last one was 2008’s 4:13 Dream.
And then there are Smith’s eccentricities. Music industry gossip (well, Popbitch) has it that he only replies to emails on a Thursday and only does so in capital letters. His Tweets are certainly always in capitals. When musician Yungblud, real name Dominic Harrison, asked if he could sample the band’s Close to You, Smith reportedly replied in person (and in capitals): “HELLO DOM, YOU CAN USE IT ALL GOOD HERE, LOVE ROBERT.”
As well as not standing for nonsense, the band have defiantly ploughed their own furrow. Musically, they’ve moved over their decades-long career from spiky post-punk and shoegaze to goth-pop and dance tracks via singles that sound like Walt Disney soundtracks. When they were recording their bleak Pornography album in 1982 their horrified manager could only attend sessions for one hour at a time, so unappealing did he find the music.
But within six months of releasing Pornography they put out jaunty single Let’s Go To Bed followed, half a year later, by the zestful The Walk and, soon after that, the unrelentingly chipper The Lovecats, their first top 10 hit. These three oddball singles transformed The Cure into pop stars. And yet Smith suggested there was no masterplan at work here. “I don’t know why people should’ve bought The Walk,” he told NME in 1983. “I suppose it’s just what gets on the radio.” Has mainstream success ever been met with such a shrug?
Image-wise, the band have always tried to avoid having one. “We were very careful to cultivate a non-image,” Smith said in 1986. He was once even in a group called “the group”, so little did they care about the vibe they projected. On their early tours The Cure used to play without any discernible stage lighting. When The Cure headlined Glastonbury in 2019, they did so without any of the bells and whistles that most headliners deploy. There were no pyrotechnics, so special guests, a minimal stage set and scant videos on the screens.
Before the band launched into their final run of hits to the close the set, Smith had to leave the stage for a couple of minutes to “get my pop head on”. He even seemed embarrassed to walk along the so-called ego ramp along the front of the Pyramid Stage; where Bono and Chris Martin run, Smith tiptoes. He’s always been a reluctant star, uncomfortable with the very notion of fame. His justification for doing it? “I’d rather The Cure did Top of the Pops than me sit there and watch some other prat on it,” Smith said once, hardly the attitude of a rabid fame monster.
But Smith has always been a contrarian. In the Eighties, he told an interviewer that he’d been to see Ghostbusters three times at the ABC cinema in London’s Marble Arch. The film was “cack”, he said, but he went to watch the 300-strong teenage audience punch the air and go wild to Ray Parker Jr.’s theme tune. “It reminded me of a David Cassidy concert – not that I ever went to one, you understand, but it’s the sort of thing, looking back, that I wish I had done,” he said.
And for all his lack of PR and interview-giving, he’s not shy. Far from it. In 1986 he gave Smash Hits pop magazine a batch of family photographs from his childhood and provided some explanatory captions. His upbringing in Horley (Surrey) and Crawley (West Sussex) was happy and unremarkable. But the article contained some very Smith-esque nuggets. Aged 11 he wore a black velvet dress to school “for a dare” and got beaten up for his troubles.
For around three years around 1966 (whilst under 10), he wore sunglasses almost the whole time: “I thought I was really cool. This was when I was beginning to go a bit funny.” He’d climb a chestnut tree in his front garden and dribble on people walking beneath (not spit, dribble). Talk about a quiet rebel. And Smith has always had a frustrating habit of saying things about The Cure’s future that didn’t happen. “I know we’ll never do another tour again,” he said in the late-Eighties. Demonstrably untrue, as Ticketmaster will tell you.
So, Smith has courted neither fame nor attention nor success. He’s diffident and impulsive. But one thing he does care about is control. It’s perhaps no coincidence that The Cure have been through many line-up changes since 1978 with Smith as the only constant presence (although bassist Simon Gallup has been a band member for all but three years of The Cure’s history).
Control is important to him. In a feature in Q magazine around the time of the Disintegration LP in 1989, the band’s long-time video director Tim Pope described Smith as “a meticulous bastard”. The £80,000 video for the Lullaby single (£200,000 in today’s money) saw Smith suspended from the ceiling of a South London warehouse and lowered repeatedly into a dark black hole full of gunk. The hole was a spider’s mouth and the video was, Q writer Robert Sandall reckoned, “one of the most dangerous and undignified video shoots since the Pepsi-Cola commercial that set fire to Michael Jackson.” You don’t do that unless you really care.
At the height of their success The Cure were signed to Polydor Records through their own label Fiction on a royalty rate said to be 20 per cent – twice what most artists get. Someone in the band’s camp was a shrewd businessman.
The Cure have always cared about their fans, too. They would regularly send one of their team into the audience before a gig with a video camera. Fans would be asked what songs they’d like to hear, the band would watch the video back in the dressing room and tweak the setlist. “I do have this very strange split personality,” Smith told Sandall. “I can reach a point where I am fanatically ordered. And at the other extreme I let everything go to pieces.”
And there you have it. Straight from the spider’s mouth. Smith is a rock star whose fanatical, meticulous sense of order has – in the 46th year of his career – led him to do something that even today’s pop titans haven’t been able to. For this we should salute him. I’d email Smith personally to pass on my admiration, but this being Tuesday I wouldn’t get a reply.