Bon Jovi: The Billboard Cover Story
Around the turn of the millennium, Bon Jovi found another gear.
The result of the shift has been a decade of career-altering achievement in just about any category used to quantify success in popular music: touring, hit songs, awards, branding, No. 1 albums, DVDs, all produced at a remarkably prolific pace.
Call it the next level. But not the last level.
Driven by the intense work ethic, broad vision and rock'n'roll charisma of its frontman and namesake, Jon Bon Jovi, this band is still breaking new markets, finding new fans and remaining relevant while most of the rock groups that emerged in the '80s either have disbanded or are relegated to playing decades-old hits with little hope of charting new ones.
If Bon Jovi were a stock, it would be a blue-chipper-savvy investors would be bullish. And Jon Bon Jovi is CEO, the personification of that delicate intersection of art and commerce. He accepts that description, with a caveat. "The commerce is really just a by-product of the art," he says, calling from a hotel room in Los Angeles where he's decompressing from the latest mega-tour by writing and cutting tracks with multiple Grammy Award-winning songwriter/producer John Shanks for what will end up being the next Bon Jovi album.
"The intent wasn't that I picked up a guitar to make money," he continues. "I loved the idea of learning to play and perform, and then when I chose it as a career path, it was only for the passion. The by-product of that was we were very successful and, subsequently, not only earned but kept our money, as opposed to so many other artists you read about that weren't as lucky."
"It's My Life" was a worldwide hit, but also served to introduce the band to a new generation of listeners-while the original fans stayed loyal. In Light's view, Jon Bon Jovi "really got comfortable and enjoyed being Bon Jovi again. He found that moment where he just loved doing it, and when you love it, and with the feedback from the fans, it became this symbiotic relationship that pushed it all forward."
"Crush" connected the group with a new audience, Universal Music Group International (UMGI) COO Max Hole says. "I've probably been to more Bon Jovi shows than any other act on Universal, and I've seen them in more countries around the world," he adds. "Today, their audience is 17- to 18-year-olds right up to people in their 50s. They're an incredible live act that tours relentlessly."
Jon Bon Jovi is obsessed with writing and recording songs that are relevant today. He's not driven by financial gain. "I wouldn't be sitting here in a hotel room by myself thinking I need to make a buck," he says. "I could have sold my soul a hundred times over doing reality TV or what my dear first manager used to call 'the lunch box tour,' where you go out and sell bed sheets and lunch boxes. Anything I do and present musically or professionally is always with the art first in mind."
Maintaining relevance isn't the same as shifting styles to chase musical trends. "I try not to stray so far from what's comfortable," he says. "When we came into Nashville [to cut 2007's "Lost Highway"] . . . I'd always prided myself on being a storyteller, writing a lyric that people could relate to. So for me that wasn't that much of a stretch. But for me to have had rappers when rap was at its pinnacle, or boy bands, or dance moves, or gone to techno beats because it was big in Ibiza-none of that would have rung true. When you're defining who you are, it's important not to confuse the world. Do what you do and do it well, and people can like or dislike it. But at least we know what it is."
The act had its chance to chase trends during the grunge era that effectively closed the curtain on hair bands. "A lot of my peer group started to pretend they were influenced by the same things that Kurt Cobain was influenced by," Bon Jovi says. "Well, Kurt Cobain was an original, and that's why he was loved as he was. Record companies have done this time and again . . . sign 10 things that look and pretend to sound like the original until the genre loses its way. The big arena rock sound of the mid- and latter '80s was watered down so severely that it was the perfect time for a Kurt Cobain to come in and reinvent the wheel. The real ones stay true, and it's nothing more than you being you."
Bon Jovi says he doubts he'd be able to sell out stadiums around the world unless younger fans were coming onboard. "I'm aware that there are two generations of fans out there," he says. "We've known that for the last decade. But I'm not in the 'fat Elvis' suit yet."
The band "changes up the flow each time," Island Def Jam Music Group president/COO Steve Bartels says. "Just look at Lost Highway, an incredible breakthrough project that spoke to the country audience, many of which were Bon Jovi fans for years. They just needed the opportunity to lock back in again, and be rediscovered."
It's an important distinction: Bon Jovi still sells records as well as tickets. "When they go into a new tour, they play new songs along with the classic songs everyone wants to hear," Hole says. "They're always introducing new songs from the new record into their catalog on each tour. That's what keeps them a relevant, growing group."
For the label, Bon Jovi's heavy touring schedule provides the perfect global marketing platform, beginning with innovative ticket/album bundling programs before the record ever hits shelves. "We still approach it by drilling specifics in each local market . . . press, retail, the Web or radio," Bartels says. "The 'before' and 'after' of a concert gets completely marketed."
Tours can take a year-and-a-half to set up, and the records are also strategized far in advance. "This is a relationship over time, not just a movement shortly before albums drop," Bartels says. "We're already in discussions planning a new [Bon Jovi] studio album release for 2013."
As diverse as Bon Jovi's interests are, his band is "home base," he says. "I encourage everybody in the band, and myself, to diversify. Go and explore what it is in your life that moves you. But know that when the call comes to go back to work, everybody comes back to home base."
Bon Jovi has always been, at its core, a live band. Fans keep coming back, "because they know every year it's bigger and better than the tour before, no matter how big it was that time," Light says. "So what inevitably happens, and it's true of all the great bands, is everyone goes and everyone wants to go the next time, because they know it's one of the most satisfying, sure-bet nights of their lives."
Bon Jovi tours have been a huge boon to AEG Live. "With Jon, we didn't go out and bid and win a tour: We went out and developed a partnership very early on," Anschutz Entertainment Group president Tim Leiweke says. "This is not only about a group of musicians that have risen to the top of the industry, and the loyalty they have to their fans, and the passion their fans have for them. From a business standpoint, this is a company and Jon runs it that way. They're disciplined, they're well-organized, very professional. It's like clockwork with these guys. Back-of-house: best machine I've ever seen. Front-of-house: most passionate love affair between a band and its fans that I've ever seen."
Ron Van de Veen, senior VP of events for MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., has been on the venue side of Bon Jovi tours for about a dozen stadium shows and 10 arena dates. Bon Jovi in its home state is about as big as it gets. The band opened the new stadium last year with four sellouts that drew 250,000 people and grossed more than $21 million. "We can't wait for him to come back," Van de Veen says. "It's an exuberant live performance."
Bon Jovi's history as a live act pays dividends, particularly in this era, when artists are often developed on TV rather than in sweaty clubs. "To have your roots as a live band and come up as they did through the clubs to the arenas and touring and touring, you create fans," Van de Veen says. "And that's what Bon Jovi has done."
There's a moment in Phil Griffin's 2009 documentary "When We Were Beautiful," which marked the band's 25th anniversary, when Bon Jovi says, "I want to sell out the desert. More than once." It's a telling quote. This band has always had a global perspective.
"I had the idea, going back nearly 30 years ago, that it's a big world out there and a lot of places are influenced by American pop culture," Bon Jovi says. "We established those routes from the first record. We went to Europe, Asia, and we started setting routes. What we learned was, with time, there are going to be certain markets that turn their back on you, [and] there will be other markets with economic unrest, or markets with civil unrest. We never had to rely on just one marketplace to distribute our records."
Such an approach is more common today than it was in the '80s, but still relatively few acts are willing to invest the time and money into touring overseas. "He was the first artist-truly-in the rock era to understand the breadth of the world in terms of opportunity," Light says. "He was opening doors in markets long before other bands were going there. That's part of his psyche and how he looks at the world. It's always a conversation . . . because new markets are always opening up, economies are changing, new economies are emerging. He's always looking for new places to go and extend the Bon Jovi reach."
One such market that has exploded for Bon Jovi is Australia and New Zealand, where Australian promoter Paul Dainty of the Dainty Group has done "beyond well" with the band, with multiple stadium-level sellouts. "Bon Jovi are massive here," he says. "December last year we went into Sydney planning to do one stadium and ended up doing three. Australia's a big country, but we've only got 21 million people. Five million people in Sydney. To do three stadiums, on a per capita basis globally, those are stupendous numbers."
Dainty describes "a real passion across every demographic that runs deep with Australians," and adds that Bon Jovi has made a commitment to the market. "He's so professional, dedicated and committed to everything he does. That connects with the audiences," he says. "They deliver every night the most real, full-on rock'n'roll, a brilliant show. That's how you know the minute they schedule to come back, it will be bigger again."
This global touring approach provides a critical platform for a label with the reach of UMG, which has a presence in 77 countries, and it's an opportunity seized, according to UMGI's Hole. "If they're touring in Japan, for example, we'll often release a special Japanese tour edition, which has unique content that will keep the Japanese fans completely interested. It's a question of working out what the fan really wants, market by market."
More than a few people refer to Bon Jovi as the "CEO" of Bon Jovi Inc. "He has a better handle on their business, their future and their path than anyone I've ever seen," Leiweke says. "When he wakes up in the morning and goes to bed at night, Jon is a CEO. That's the way he views his role."
"His business acumen and instincts are unparalleled," Bartels adds. "Jon Bon Jovi drives hard, and the entire organization feels his energy. It rubs off, and therefore much gets done in an efficient manner. The success speaks for itself due to this approach."
Light says the band is like any team, business or organization in that there are always leaders. "It may take a whole team to execute, but somebody becomes the heart and soul, and that's Jon," Light says. "He leads it, he calls the shots, and everybody else on that stage and who surrounds him -- label, promoters, crew, whatever -- are all integral parts, and he would acknowledge that. People organically want to follow him. They want to be a part of what he's doing. They know he's going in the right direction."
When it comes to planning a tour or other project, Bon Jovi is in the mix. "There is nothing he's working on where his name and the band's name and their music is involved that he isn't integrally involved," Light says. "That doesn't mean he is on every call. If we're talking about an endorsement or sponsorship, we may do a lot of the initial work, but when it comes time for [questions like], 'What is the creative? How is it going to work? What does it mean to the band and to me?,' he's having that conversation."
But don't pitch Bon Jovi a business deal on show day. "The show is his main job," Light says. "He's an artist first, but he has the ability to touch all those other things and he does so intelligently, creatively and gladly."
Matt Lauer, host of NBC's "Today," says that "in the nicest possible way . . . Jon is a control freak. If you look at most really successful people, they are. Jon has a firm grip on every aspect of this band. There's a reason the band is called Bon Jovi."
Being the "CEO" is "one facet of who I am, sure," Bon Jovi says. "If, after three decades, you haven't learned how to run your business, then you really are a living, breathing cliché of rock'n'roll. So I take pride in that description."
Still, Bon Jovi the sports fan makes it clear that the band, and everyone who works with it, are a team. "Everybody's participation is key to the team's success, but somebody has to be the leader," he says. "So in that regard I'll accept the credit -- or the blame. But everybody's contributions make for the sum, and the sum of the parts make for the whole."
Being the leader means having to make tough decisions, as when Sambora left the tour this summer to enter rehab. (Guitarist Phil Xenidis filled in.) There wasn't any talk of Sambora's exit being permanent, and Bon Jovi doesn't shy away from discussing "the Richie scenario."
"I loved him just as much before as I do after," he says. "And the best thing to do, both for him and for us, is say, 'We're going to work. You should take care of yourself.' I didn't threaten him with being fired. I didn't do anything, in the media or privately. Everybody supported him, and in turn, the fan base supported the decision, and we went out and did a month, 15 or so shows, I guess. It's good that he realizes we're going to work no matter what, as long as I can get up and out there. It was good for him, and he's in a great place again."
It boils down to "immense respect for our relationship," and, given his long-term connection with the entire team, including the band, it's clear loyalty is important to Bon Jovi, the man and the band. "A lot of it has to do with the number of years and the time served," he says. "I've spent more time in this band than I have spent out of it, and I have spent more time with the guys than I have spent with my own family. That's quite a statement, but it's based on a 28-year relationship. There's a basis for all that loyalty. We've seen marriage, birth, accomplishment, failure together. We pride ourselves on the difference between us and a lot of our peer group that fell by the wayside. We were able to recognize when it was time to pat someone on the back-and when it was time to punch them in the nose."
Bon Jovi's curiosity extends beyond the opportunities that exist for the band into what other entertainers and organizations are doing.
"I know what he's more than likely interested in doing and what he's not, but I like to tell him everything, because it helps him understand the bigger market," Light says. "When he's not being the artist, when we're doing business, he wants to know about everything in the business: how other tours are doing, what are ticket prices [costing], what's working on a marketing level, what promotions have worked, what new media is working."
Lorne Michaels calls Bon Jovi "incredibly disciplined," but adds, "He has the thing we look for: manners. I don't mean 'please and thank you' manners, I just mean a level of respect for all the people you work with. I like him a lot. I've found him in every one of my dealings with him to be completely honest and straightforward. I've been around a long time, and it's not that common."
Despite the wide range of interests that require a lot of time and attention, Bon Jovi is a family man. He has been married to his high school sweetheart, Dorothea, since 1989, and they have four children. Lauer, who lives near the Bon Jovis and sees them socially, calls Bon Jovi "a doting father."
"Family man" is another mantle Bon Jovi proudly accepts. "Without that, the rest of this is a shallow pool to swim in," he says. "Celebrity and the fame game never appealed to me. And I do know a lot of applause junkies who live for that. They become the journeymen, they live on the road, they like that kind of lifestyle, and they're unable to function in the real world when it comes to going to school or going to family functions -- or changing a light bulb. I find that when I'm done touring, I don't miss it. I love doing it while I'm doing it, but when I'm not, it's the furthest thing from my mind."
It's illuminating to know that as he nears the half-century mark, Bon Jovi is trying to learn about new things and develop new interests. And he's still developing his chops. "I've never studied so hard playing guitar. I'm taking guitar lessons at 50 years old to be a better and better guitar player."
All involved with Team Bon Jovi believe the band will continue to break new markets, attract new fans and sell more records. "He hasn't quite gone everywhere he wants to go," Light says. "And he's certainly never one to sit back on his laurels. He's always hungry for the next adventure, so I'd be surprised if he doesn't find another gear."
Nashville-based Ray Waddell (@billboardtour) is executive director of content and programming for touring and live entertainment at Billboard. He writes the weekly On the Road column.