Back in 1977, the Sex Pistols dedicated their raucous kiss-off song “EMI” to the record company that dropped them. Graham Parker skewered his former label in 1979’s “Mercury Poisoning.” Now Bon Jovi joins the ranks of the wronged with Burning Bridges, the band’s 13th and final studio album for Mercury Records.
“It’s the end of an era,” singer Jon Bon Jovi, 53, tells Billboard. “I’ve stayed at that label my entire life — 32 years. I am the longest tenured artist on Mercury, or whatever they are called this week. But my deal was up, and that’s that.”
Bon Jovi alludes to tension with the Universal Music Group subsidiary, which effectively operates under the Island banner, in the title track to the band’s self-proclaimed “fan album,” one he readily admits is meant to fulfill the group’s contractual commitment.
“After 30 years of loyalty, they let you dig the grave,” he sings on “Burning Bridges.” “Now maybe you can learn to … strum along/Well I’ll give you half the publishing/You’re why I wrote this song.” Says Bon Jovi: “It hits the nail on the head.”
“Jon is a rock ‘n’ roll icon, and we are so proud of his 30-year collaboration with Mercury, which brought extraordinary commercial and creative success,” says a Mercury representative. “We wish Jon only the best.”
According to a source, the impasse involved adjusted terms to the band’s recording contract. “The labels want everything now, no matter who you are,” says an insider. “Jon doesn’t need to give up anything to any label ever again. It’s a dying paradigm.”
Indeed, Bon Jovi’s history at the label, which at its 1980s height included such acts as Def Leppard, Scorpions and John Mellencamp, has been fruitful. Since forming in 1983, the band has sold 37.8 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen Music and the RIAA, including five No. 1s on the Billboard 200. The act also has notched 25 Billboard Hot 100 hits, with 10 top 10s and four No. 1s.
To hear Bon Jovi tell it, he has seen it all. “I’ve been in three buildings and [gone through] countless presidents and CEOs,” he says. “It broke my heart, but it was time to leave.”
As for what the band does next and whether it takes the independent route, Bon Jovi says he hasn’t yet decided, though he adds he has plenty of new emotional terrain to mine.
“A lot [has] happened,” says Bon Jovi. Foremost on his mind: the “sudden departure” of guitarist and longtime collaborator Richie Sambora. “Also my trying to buy the [Buffalo] Bills, and now this with the label. I have a lot of material to write about. Believe me, the new record is good. It’s pointed. It’s something we are going to be very proud of.”
He plans to release it in 2016 with an accompanying tour. (Sambora isn’t currently playing in the band; original members David Bryan, who plays keyboards, and drummer Tico Torres remain.)
Bon Jovi is still one of the biggest touring acts in the world, churning out $937 million in gross and moving 10 million tickets during the course of its past four tours, according to Billboard Boxscore, all produced by AEG Live. And on radio, Bon Jovi’s hits remain in recurrent rotation on adult top 40. “Livin’ on a Prayer,” for example, had 623 plays from Aug. 19 to 25 on stations monitored by Nielsen Music for Billboard. Says Angie C, on-air personality for Boston’s WZLX: “Requests for their music definitely come more from the female upper demo than our core WZLX male listeners. The soccer moms keep Bon Jovi alive.”
But honors like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction have eluded the New Jersey band, despite being eligible for seven years.
It should help Bon Jovi’s positioning, however, to be allied with manager Irving Azoff, who looks to be taking the reins for the one-time MTV staple. “Irving is going to do exactly what he always does: create a better plan and a whole new avenue of opportunity,” says the insider, adding that Azoff will “bring Jon into the future and cement a legacy. They’re a national brand.”
In the meantime, Bon Jovi is letting word of the group’s free agency trickle out. “Where are you going to go?” he says with a laugh. “There are only two other places.”
This article was originally published in the Sept. 5 issue of Billboard.
Update: This story was updated to include RIAA-certified sales of Bon Jovi’s albums from before 1991, when Nielsen began monitoring album sales.