Bon Jovi — Legacy, Evolution & Bigger Than Ever: The Pollstar Interview

David Bergman

Jon Bon Jovi performing at Sao Paulo’s Allianz Parque on Sept. 23, 2017, on the “This House Is Not For Sale Tour,” which grossed $232.2 million and sold nearly 2.3 million tickets on 90 headlining shows.

Like the album it supported, the touring effort behind Bon Jovi’s well-received 2016 release This House Is Not For Sale was largely about change, or, more correctly, staying true to one’s core beliefs in the face of change. The inspired release, produced by John Shanks, was the band’s first on UMG’s Island Records (after more than 30 years on Mercury). THINFS was the first album with Phil X on lead guitar, as well as the first to recognize longtime bassist Hugh McDonald as an official member of the band, joining lead singer Jon Bon Jovi, keyboardist David Bryan, drummer Tico Torres, and guitar contributions from Shanks, who would ultimately join the touring band for the House tour. Notably absent: founding guitarist Richie Sambora, who unceremoniously split with Bon Jovi in 2013 on the “Because We Can Tour,” to be replaced in the touring band by Bobby Bandiera.

Other transitions marked by the THINFS tour included a new manager in Irving Azoff (co-founder of Pollstar’s parent company Oak View Group), who added Bon Jovi to a personal roster that includes the Eagles, among many other clients. Also debuting was a global touring promoter/producer relationship with Live Nation, which followed a decade and three massive tours with AEG Live at the helm. Another change is that, on this tour and forever onward, Bon Jovi could be billed as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Band, following their 2018 induction. 

Finally – and, from a live performance perspective, anyway – most importantly, this tour marked a complete change of the exhausting Bon Jovi model for touring the world. Notoriously hard-working (former manager Doc McGhee was once quoted as saying Bon Jovi would “play a pay toilet and use their own change”), the band routinely played 100-plus dates in a year, charging around the world and then taking a couple years off and cranking up for the next cycle. 

David Bergman For Bon Jovi

For THINFS, while the band still wanted to play the same number of markets around the world, the plan became (and, presumably, remains) 30 or so dates per year over three years. With this model, the band still could promote the record, satisfy the huge global demand for live Bon Jovi, and reap the financial rewards of touring, the idea being to preserve the health and sanity of the band members while also providing enough time and energy to create new music and enjoy other pursuits, like life.

The idea was conceived by Jon Bon Jovi himself, not an artist that writes and sings and performs and then turns all the business of touring and label relations over to others. 

Sometimes dubbed the CEO of Bon Jovi (which is not to shortchange his estimable creative output), he has long been beyond “hands on” with his career, indeed “self-managing” for most of the past decade and previous.  As such, the longevity and remarkable consistency of Bon Jovi the band may owe as much to its charismatic front man for his savvy career decisions and tireless work ethic as it does for his on-stage charisma and hugely popular rock songs. 

By all indications, the revamped touring model works. The nearly three-year THINFS tour grossed $232.2 million and moved 2.27 million tickets around the world, comparable to the previous AEG tours and far less demanding on the musicians. That included singer and principal songwriter Jon Bon Jovi, who has essentially completed work on the band’s next album, 2020, for whom it appears the ease in the grind paid off in creative energy and inspiration. 

Not only flush with the sort of arena-ready rockers and power ballads that fans expect, the new record also is marked by an evolution from JBJ. 2020, which is tentatively scheduled to drop in March with a debut single in January, is not only every bit as powerful as its predecessor, but also finds the band, and particularly JBJ, in more of a risk-taking mode both musically and lyrically.  This is not a record that could have been written and recorded by a band (and, in this case, producer) burned out from touring. 

Jon Bon Jovi is clearly excited about the latest studio effort, enthused by the reception from the few who have heard the new work, and anxious to see how the set will land with fans and critics. But, before he embarks on a new cycle and all that entails, the legendary rocker, now with THINFS firmly in his rearview, pauses to reflect on how all this “newness” worked out. The veteran of many global blockbusters since breaking in the 1980s spoke with Pollstar about trekking around the globe in the late aughts, the band’s now road-tested live lineup, and the prospects of touring in an election year.

Pollstar: This whole cycle for This House is Not For Sale was about change and new ways of doing things for you and Bon Jovi. You had new management in Irving Azoff, a new label deal, this powerful new album. You also had a new promoter in Live Nation, and you toured with a different model: visit 100 markets in three years as opposed to doing it all in one year, as was typical. How did all that work out?
Jon Bon Jovi:
When I went into the cycle, these things that came to fruition were all still conceptual. But I do remember the beginning of the conversation and, it must have been in 2014, telling Tico my thought processes, that, instead of doing 100 show tours and then you’re tired into Year Two, and then in Year Three you write and record a record and start the cycle again, why not do the same 100 shows over the course of the same three years, but everything is much more civilized, and therefore you could be writing and recording simultaneously, never missing out on the home stuff, if we scheduled it properly. And then, I also thought if, using the three-year model, Year One would be in the U.S., Year Two would be in Europe, and then Year Three could be rest of world. So then you could go out every year and not wear out your touring markets, because every third year, that market would be ready for you again. Tico agreed with that, and with that in mind we set out to do the “This House” world tour. And only now that it’s complete could I look at the numbers at the end of it and realize they were exactly what we had forecast. And it was two-and-a-half-million people and 90 shows instead of 100, but the gross was right where we thought it would be. And, more importantly, the amount of tickets that we sold were right where we’d hoped they would be. So, with all of those things said, I did it all and I wasn’t burned out doing it.

I’ve talked with you at the end of those 100-shows-in-a-year deals, and you sounded a pretty fried. You don’t sound like that now. 

David Bergman for Bon Jovi
– BJJ3
Jon Bon Jovi gets up close to fans in Porto Alegre in 2017, and tells Pollstar he’s not still not quite sure what size venues he’s hitting next.

No. I’m not. And the [new] record would be proof of that, because imagine the energy it takes to write and record a record; to have had that energy to do all that is proof that the model worked.

So you saw the world and basically the numbers came out the same, but it was probably a lot easier on you physically and mentally and everything else.
Yeah. I knew then, and I know even more now, that I have even less desire to spend a year at a time on the road. Touring has always been my second love, writing and recording being first. Touring to support the record was always in the back seat to [writing and recording]. Of course, we made our living and our legacy and reputation on being a live band but, as I’ve gotten older and there’s been other things to do in our lives, it’s taken a back seat. So I’m not as much of a journeyman as some of my peers, or even my heroes. I don’t desire to be on the road for a year at a time. It’s not what fuels me any longer.

You don’t have to be, right?
Yeah, but, that’s an interesting statement. People will say, “you don’t have to be.” They make it sound like you’re motivated by money, which I often clarify with whomever however. It’s what I do, it’s who I am, but it’s never been motivated by money. The idea of [touring] so long has no appeal, and only because of the physical toll it takes.

By “you don’t have to,” what I mean is, to get in front of people. Your records sell, they get exposure, you have other outlets. A lot of bands, the only way they can touch fans is to be out there on the road, period. They don’t get in front of them otherwise. You can be in front of them without having to play shows.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’ll know if there’s a Bon Jovi record, regardless if you buy it or not, I don’t know but, yeah, the word will get out.

Getty Images
– It’s Their Life
Richie Sambora, Tico Torres, Jon Bon Jovi, Alec John Such, and David Bryan in August 1984.

This was the first time you’ve toured as a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. Did you feel that out there at all, or was there any note of it taken?
That was nice, it was something that we could talk about leading up to the induction, because we were on the road during that period when we knew but it hadn’t happened yet. And then, we went to Cleveland for the actual induction. And then, a couple of days later, we were in Orlando, which also kept everybody’s focus, which was cool. Yeah, we enjoyed all of that immensely. That whole induction and the celebration of it all, none of it was wasted on this organization. We loved every second.

This band that was out there has really solidified. In some ways, it was a new lineup after years of touring in a similar format, with [producer/guitarist] John Shanks out there formally part of the road band. That’s so different from what he normally does. It felt like this lineup came together, and it really had to, right? People were watching.
Oh yeah. The side musician, whose name was Bobby Bandiera, who had done the other tours, the backup for whenever [founding Bon Jovi guitarist] Richie wasn’t up to it, he no longer wanted to tour. And I was starting the process of having to find someone to complement what [guitarist] Phil X was going to do, and probably just because I wanted the comfort of knowing that somebody else is up there, too, having had Bobby in that slot for a number of years. John Shanks, who, of course, has co-produced every record since Have a Nice Day in 2005, cut his teeth as a working musician. He’s toured with Rod Stewart and Melissa Etheridge, and a couple lesser-known things. He had become really just a producer by trade, and he asked me if he could come and be that guy. I certainly knew he was more than capable as a player. My hesitation was, I had no idea how he was going to be on a stage or on the road. And then, because we’re such close friends, I could honestly and only with a slight smile say, “No, because you’re a huge pain in the ass.” He says, “I promise I won’t be a pain in the ass, can I please come?” And I know what he meant by that. It was like, “I want to be in a rock band again, and why not this one because I’ve been such a part of it for the last decade-plus.” It was an easy fit. I didn’t have to go through an audition process. He’s, like I said, a great player. And it worked, because in truth, I think he was closer to Richie’s or Bobby Bandiera’s guitar-playing style than Phil X is naturally, so it works really well to have him out there. And then, I brought [percussionist/back-up vocalist] Everett Bradley out, and he just bolstered the sound with percussion and another voice. So I knew the touring band was going to sound good. They’re a bunch of seasoned pros, who you know are going to show up for work every night, and I didn’t have to be worried about that.

Everett adds texture to the live thing, and I imagine he is such a beautiful person to be on the road with, a great “locker room” guy.
Correct. He’s just a warm, personable, soul, and the depth of his resume, one wouldn’t know. He got his degree in music from Indiana University. So he’s working simultaneously while we’re touring on rewriting the play “42nd Street” and making it contemporary for a rebirth of the play. So here he is scoring this major, formerly-and-soon-to-be-again Broadway production, and that’s just one of the things the guy is doing. He was a director of the play “Stomp” years ago. He does a hell of a lot more than shake a tambourine and sing some high notes. He’s an incredible musician.

You can kind of take the pulse of what’s going on in a country, a city, a market, a territory when you’re out there. What did you take away from it this time around?
Well, if you consider numbers, we’re as big or bigger than ever. And more importantly, you see how they come back again and trust in the change in lineup and the musical direction in as much as I’m not trying to rewrite “You Give Love a Bad Name.” I think that speaks to me as the leader and primary songwriter, that they trust me as an audience. And that’s a leap of faith for them to take, because they bought into a certain thing that they may have grown up in or grown up with. They have to then trust me, and if it wasn’t worth their time and money, they would move on and keep the memories wherever music fans store them. But I was blessed that the reviews the world over were fantastic, and there were rear ends in seats every night around the world.

Fans really seemed to buy into the whole theme and concept of This House is Not For Sale.
Yeah. They understood that. There was no second guessing, they knew exactly what the songs meant. And they were received on a nightly basis, so I could play seven or eight songs from the record over the course of the tour. We really could play just about anything from the record, and it fit nicely amongst the catalog.

Jason Kempin / Getty Imges / The Heart Foundation
– “I’m ecstatic being with Azoff Entertainment,”
Jon Bon Jovi says. “It’s the best thing I ever did. It’s everything I’d hoped for and more.” The rocker is pictured with manager Irving Azoff at the The Heart Foundation 20th Anniversary Event honoring Discovery Land Company’s Mike Meldman in Beverly Hills on May 21, 2016.

You really seem to have found that balancing act between legacy and the evolution of the band. Going out with Live Nation after all those years and successful tours with AEG, did it feel seamless to you on the road, and were you happy with that part of it?
The difference is having been lucky enough to get Irving Azoff to say to me, “I’ve got one more in me.” Having him as my manager has been one of the great blessings of my career. Knowing that he’s looking out for all of his artists at all times, knowing that he’s personally managing my life, has been a great blessing. I didn’t intend to leave AEG, I didn’t want to leave AEG. The structure that I knew, whether it was [former AEG CEO/current CEO of OVG, Pollstar’s parent company] Tim Leiweke, or [former AEG Live CEO] Randy Phillips, was let go, and then we got caught up in some nonsense with AEG and China, that was enough for me to say, “I’m out of here, too.” 

Now, Live Nation has done a good job, but I don’t yet have the personal relationships that I had – that I still have – with Tim Leiweke and what came out of that. I leave that now to Irving, and Irving does that, where during the AEG years it was me and [Bon Jovi tour director] Paul Korzilius, and God bless [late entertainment attorney] Jerry Edelstein, who has passed. That was the brain trust, and Randy Phillips and Tim guiding the tours. So, it’s a different infrastructure now, and I’ve handed it all off, I’ve given the reins to Irving.

You could do worse.
I can’t tell you how ecstatic I am to have Irving managing me. And I don’t talk like that. I’m not that guy. I had my own management company for all those years. I thought it was a waste of time, I don’t need this, I don’t need that. I’m ecstatic being with The Azoff Company. It’s the best thing I ever did. It’s everything I’d hoped for and more. The worst word in my vocabulary was “commission.” I, with great pleasure, am happy to sign the check. Worth it.

That says a lot.
He’s the liaise to Live Nation, and so it’s his relationships, and that’s not a slight, I just haven’t built them yet.

Maybe that frees you up to focus on other things a little bit than sweating every detail of a global tour contract.

David Bergman for Bon Jovi

Bon Jovi with Tico Torres (left) and John Shanks (right) after a job well done at the United Center in Chicago on March 27, 2017, as part of the “This House is Not For Sale” tour.

Without Jerry in my life anymore, being able to have Irving there, it keeps everything sane.

As far as plans for the new record, are you going to go right from one to another in terms of the cycle? 
To be honest with you, I haven’t made the decision. There are several itineraries in front of me to consider. I’ve got to see how I feel physically, and then I’ll need to speak to the band to see how they feel physically. And frankly, I’d like to see the reaction to the record. If it’s perceived as just another Bon Jovi record, great, okay, it is what it is, but, if it’s something special, it may allow me to wait and not have to go out chasing a single right away. I might be able to wait and support it later in the year.

Plus, there’s this whole thing around touring in an election year, and expectations of certain people for you to be a voice, and sometimes you just gotta go out and play rock and roll. There’s a lot of baggage to touring in an election year, especially when next year’s going to be a circus, man.
I told Irving I’ll let him know by Christmas. I’m not concerning myself with any political campaigning. I just want to see the reaction to the record and how everyone’s feeling. The motivation has to be purely that we’re excited to go and not for anyone else or anything else.

If the reaction is a certain way, you will be excited to go.
There’s an arena run that’s been presented, there’s a baseball stadium run that’s also been routed, and there’s some football stadiums, so it reads like the Chinese menu, but my decision will be based on the record’s success. In truth, we’re the kind of band that if we have a hit single, like “It’s My Life” or “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” it’s football stadiums and, if worse case we don’t have any reaction, it’s sold-out arenas. So, if “The Story of Love” pops in a big way – which, theoretically, it could – there’s no saying that I couldn’t do bigger stadiums. I’ve seen it before, when I have a hit, all the fair-weather fans come back and then you can sell out a market like Pittsburgh, which I couldn’t do Heinz [Field] without a hit.

David Bergman for Bon Jovi

Bon Jovi playing in Athens, Greece, in 2011. Bon Jovi came in at No. 5 on Pollstar’s Artists Of The Decade feature, with $868.8 million grossed and 8.78 million tickets sold from 2010-2019.

We’re closing out the decade, as you know, heading into 2020. Of all the touring artists in the world, you finished No. 5 for the decade, with $868.8 million grossed and 8.78 million tickets sold. When you look back at this decade from not only a touring but, a career standpoint, as well, do you feel like you’re doing some good work?
Oh, yeah. Had I worked harder on the road, we would have been even higher on the top 10, because we could, we just chose not to. And, again, you know like I know, I didn’t expect the Richie debacle to have happened, so that threw a wrench in the works. So we accomplished all of this with one arm tied behind my back, so it’s all good. It’s all good. It’s better than all good.

That’s a good quote right there, “It’s better than all good.” With Richie, I think the fans would prefer to see him out there with you. I would.
So would I.

Still, to get through it and still maintain that level of business, it says a lot. The power of the songs, the power of your persona. You say you could have worked harder, you work pretty hard.
Yeah, yeah, yeah but, this would have gone on without any one of the individual members of the band but, when it was all together it was wonderful. It wouldn’t be fair to Tico or David or to me, to have let it falter because of Richie’s … problems, his issues. So there was no way that I was going to … the name of the band is Bon Jovi, it’s not anything else. This isn’t a band that is dependent on the guitar player like Van Halen or U2 or something, it was about the songs and it was about me. We got it. I wish he was here, too, because we were a formidable duo. Our voices were the magic and he’s a great guy and all that kind of stuff but his choices have led him astray.

Well, what are you gonna do, man?
What are you gonna do?