Wrestling with conflicts with his longtime label and within the band (the latter due to the exit of founding guitarist Richie Sambora), 2016 Legend Of Live honoree Bon Jovi’s leader, Jon Bon Jovi, found visual inspiration in an image from photographer Jerry Uelsmann. Depicting a stately manor with deep roots descending into the earth, that image became the cover of This House Is Not For Sale, the beloved New Jersey rock band’s 14th studio album, out today (Nov. 4) on Island Records.
The conflicts (one of which was resolved — as Jon Bon Jovi says, he’ll stay with Universal Music Group for the rest of his career) resulted in what he calls his “most personal” album. Not every touring “legend” also boasts vital new material on the radio, but House’s title track has reached No. 10 on the Adult Contemporary airplay chart. “The live side is the heart and soul of the Bon Jovi experience,” says David Massey, president/CEO, Island Records, “but the records have stayed very, very strong.”
Fans have greeted the new songs with enthusiasm, as a series of “live listening parties,” where the band played all 15 cuts from the new record live in front of small audiences, came off well by all accounts, despite limited rehearsals. “He’s playing people 15 brand new songs, one after the other, with no old songs,” says Massey, “so it’s anything but nostalgia. It’s all new repertoire, and the audiences stand from beginning to end and seem to completely get it.” Massey adds that the new songs “immediately fit into the set, and really add to it, which is not easy to do at this stage. He slam-dunked that part of it.”
Bon Jovi has sold 130 million albums worldwide, according to the UMG, and is particularly strong as a touring act across Europe, the Far East, and South America, which plays to the strengths of UMG’s worldwide presence. “We have a global release plan,” says Massey, “and you’ll see [the new album] popping up in the charts across the world.”
The upcoming tour, which starts Feb. 8 in Greenville, S.C., will be Bon Jovi’s first since 2013’s Because We Can Tour. That outing was the band’s third run in six years and finished as the highest-grossing tour of the year, according to Billboard Boxscore (a feat accomplished previously only by The Rolling Stones). The four tours the band has undertaken this millennium have grossed a combined $937 million and reached 10 million fans, according to Boxscore.
Bon Jovi will receive the Legend Of Live award, which honors significant and lasting contributions to live entertainment, on Nov. 9 at the Billboard Touring Awards in Los Angeles, marking the first time this oft-honored band has been recognized for its touring achievements. Previous Legend Of Live honorees include Bob Seger, Lionel Richie, George Strait, Neil Diamond, Ozzy Osbourne, Rush, Journey, Elton John, and the Allman Brothers Band.
“The award is an honor,” says Massey, adding that the band “totally deserves” this particular recognition. “Everywhere you go, it’s the same. He’s a truly global phenomenon that’s stayed up there for 30 years and is now doing some of his best work, which is very unusual in our business. He couldn’t be fresher, more dynamic or youthful.”
Billboard spoke with Jon Bon Jovi as the singer continues promo for the record and tour prep for next year’s run.
Billboard: In recording This House Is Not For Sale, did you have an objective going into the studio as to what you wanted to accomplish, or did the album take shape as you went along?
Jon Bon Jovi: The very initial process was just to begin writing. In January of ’15, the political landscape having taken shape, I had just come out of my own internal issues with Richie leaving, and I wasn’t even clear on where I was with the record company — that was still nowhere yet. So I just started to write. When I saw that [Uelsmann] photograph, and that became the album cover, that really gave me a foundation, a cornerstone, and I really started to go in that direction and make it a more personal record.
So I had to determine how to process everything I had been through with Richie’s leaving, and what was on the horizon with the company, and even what I went through with the Bills [Bon Jovi had been part of a group that attempted to buy the NFL’s Buffalo Bills]. All those times I told you I couldn’t talk to you about [the Bills], there was like a gag order, it was really traumatic, all of those things. It gave me a lot to write about, so it was a very personal and vulnerable record.
You’re telling me it was personal, but in a broader context it feels in a lot of ways like you’re talking to your fans here, and what they might be going through. That’s a difficult balancing act to achieve.
That is very true. And the beauty of it is, when they do make it their own — which I have witnessed before whether it’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” or “It’s My Life” — these people make these songs about them and their stories, and then, bang-zoom, we’re off to the races. This House Is Not For Sale could not be more personal, that’s me banging on my chest saying “my integrity is not to be compromised,” and people are saying “this is my relationship or my house or my team or my town.” I think this is fantastic, because I do know that when it comes from a pure place with me, people around the world relate to the lyric.
Several songs on the record feel like they would translate quite well from the concert stage. Do you ever write thinking how a song will play in front of 20,000 people?
No, never. There were some hooks I put in there. I know when I came up with [sings] “I’m coming hoooome” [from the title cut], I said, “trust me, John [Shanks], this is gonna work.” Those kind of things where [Shanks] has, over the years, said to me, “bro, you know better than anyone.” But, writing-wise, absolutely not, I wouldn’t know how to do that. This is just what I do, these are the songs I write. But this was more of a band record than I have made over the last three or four [records]. What I mean by that was the guys were in the room the whole time. Some songs, from the notebook to the studio floor, took on a different life because of the band, where on the previous three records that would not have been the case. The record-making process changed with this album.
Maybe it was time for that in the history of this band.
I think circumstance led to it. These are a lot of beautiful accidents. Richie did participate in the record-making [in the past], but it was always me and Shanks at the hip, and then Richie second to that, and then [keyboardist] David [Bryan] and [drummer] Tico [Torres]. David really filled that void left by Richie and took on a whole different leadership role in the studio, and it was a welcome addition, And then you couldn’t help but have Tico be just as involved. It was happenstance, it just worked out.
You had live “listening parties” for the new record. That would seem a challenge, as often new songs tend to sort of find their way on tour as you work them out live.
We had five rehearsals in New Jersey and then did it, and then I wanted to do it in a couple of other places, so we went to London, Toronto and New York. I wasn’t thinking enough to think “oh my god, this could fall flat, or this might not work.” I had the audacity to say “fuck you, I’m going out there and doing all 15 songs,” then was blessed to hear and read the reactions to it, and people loved it. I really never thought about the idea that people might not be comfortable listening to 15 new songs, but it does make sense, in retrospect. I’m glad I didn’t think of it.
Has coming back into the Universal Music fold met your expectations?
Yes, absolutely. I never wanted to leave the label. It was breaking my heart to think that the business of music was going to get in the way and cause me to go to one of the other labels. Fortunately for me, after I turned in [independently released record] Burning Bridges, for that six-month period, we were going back and forth in the conversation, they didn’t allow me to leave, and they gave me something that made me very happy to stay there for the rest of my career. It wasn’t about money, but at a certain time and place in one’s career, loyalty should still matter. I wasn’t even saying, “I know I’m the longest-tenured, I know I’m the biggest selling.” This isn’t about dollars, it’s about being a true partner and not just a place to go for a paycheck. So we worked it all out and I’ll be there for the rest of my career.
You’ve received a lot of awards and sold a lot of records, with a lot of hits, but the Legend Of Live will be the first time Bon Jovi is honored for their body of work on the road. What does that mean to you?
It means a lot, and I’ll tell you why. Doc McGhee, our first manager, had an adage about this band: “Bon Jovi will play a pay toilet, and use their own change.” In our youth, he insisted we go everywhere, whether it was Europe or Asia or Australia or Africa. He always thought “some day, when America turns its back on you, you’ll have other places in the world to go.”
Not only did we go, we built a reputation as being a good live band, and knowing how to adapt. So when we were opening for 38 Special and Judas Priest on the same tour, we were able to still try to win fans over. I sat at his desk in 1983 and said “I think we should go out with the Cars and Bryan Adams,” and he said “no, we’re going to go out with the Scorpions and KISS, and that’s going to be more of a loyal rock audience and not a pop audience.” We went and cut our teeth with that kind of mindset, and built a reputation as a band you didn’t want to open for you. And I’m proud of that. Now we’ve done 3,000 shows, or near enough. I know how to do it.
Of those 3,000 shows, what were some of the more memorable cycles?
Slippery  obviously changed our lives. We went from being a nice little opening act to being on that rocket ship to stardom. Yet, I don’t look back at Slippery as having been pleasurable, because there was just so much that went into that success that it was blinding. So by the end of the New Jersey  tour I was tired. But when you look back on it, Slippery was that milestone record for us. Then, Keep The Faith (1992) was the first time the industry said we were done, and we came back with a big record that especially worked globally. The band had a renewed faith in itself, and I started Bon Jovi Management.
The next one was Crush (2000) with “It’s My Life,” because that was the second time the industry said, “OK, they’re done.” “It’s My Life” was a reinvention, and we went right back to playing stadiums in America. Then I would have to think these last three [tours], back-to-back-to-back, being the No. 1 tours. When I read that the only other band that ever did that was The Rolling Stones, you can tell any band from New Jersey or Ireland or anywhere else that only one guy did that, and we’re very proud of that.
If songwriting, recording and performing live are the three legs of the stool, how would you rank them?
Sorry to say, under the guise of this conversation, that touring is last. For me, writing is first. Then, anything that hits the paper you think is good enough to go into the studio with, that’s second, because you want to see it come to life. And then, finally, it’s going out and sharing the work with the people. The only reason I say that is because I know my commitment physically and mentally to the art, and the desire to be the best I can be, and I know that commitment is not one I take lightly. I always thought of those that came before me, and trying to say that we weren’t a waste of your hard-earned dollars. This is people’s fun money for a month to buy a ticket, I’ve got to make sure that we deliver everything.
Without the song, you don’t have anything to take on the road.
No, you don’t. I couldn’t do it without having a story to tell when I was on the stage. Getting out there, you have to have belief in the song. And then, once you’re healthy and you’ve got that behind you, you’re ready to go. Once I get there, I’m great, I’m fine with it, but between the starting gate and the first night, I’m just kicking and screaming. Between now and then, I’m in training for that first night, and then we’re ready to go.