Joe Bonamassa On Taking Control Of His Business, Building A Brand And Investing In Himself
Following the major label boom period of the 80s and 90s, it?s become more difficult than ever for artists to monetize recorded music at the advent of streaming in the internet era.
The history of recorded music is littered with the tales of artists bilked by their record label. But there?s a handful of musicians today looking beyond the standard artist/label arrangement, paving a new, profitable way forward for those willing to invest in themselves.
Alternative pioneers Radiohead dabbled with distribution and Chance the Rapper found fame self-releasing mixtapes. But over the course of nearly the last twenty years, blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa has taken all of that a step further, co-founding J&R Adventures with his manager Roy Weisman in 2002.
?Sometimes we get a lot of credit for our business model and acumen. But back then necessity was the mother of invention – in the sense that nobody would sign us. I was dropped from Sony and a few independent labels poked around but nobody made an offer. And we decided to make a record with our own money,? recalled Bonamassa. ?We made a record in New York City for $10,000. Which tells you how long ago that was. But with the help of my friend Bobby Nathan at Unique Studios, we basically put all our own money into it. We made a record that resonated enough with blues fans and it?s still one of the best selling pieces in the catalog. It?s called Blues Deluxe. And that was the day J&R Adventures was founded.?
J&R Adventures began as a way to take control of Bonamassa?s third studio album. But it?s grown to encompass everything from marketing and publicity to concert promotion, with Bonamassa applying the film industry concept of fourth-walling – the idea of renting a performance space up front and retaining all ticket profits – to his hectic touring schedule.
?By 2005, we had done our first four walls – where we were our own agent and we were our own promoter. We could only afford to do two [shows]. And we bet the whole proceed of that tour on those two shows – and it worked out,? said Bonamassa. ?By 2008, we were 100% four wall. We don?t have an agent and we don?t have a concert promoter and we started four-walling all over the world.?
As the traditional record industry business model began to crumble in the early 2000s, thanks to a decrease in album sales following the immediate popularity of online file-sharing services like Napster, a new term soon began to circulate within the music industry: the 360 deal.
The 360 deal sees a music industry entity provide an artist traditional label services like advances, marketing, promotion and more and a one-time, lump-sum payment up front, regardless of the length of the contract.
But where traditional label deals historically saw a record company profit almost solely from the sale of recorded music that has become virtually non-existent, today?s 360 deal takes a cut of all artist revenue streams: live performance, publishing, endorsements, merch and more.
In some cases, 360 deals mean full ownership of an artist?s image for a prescribed amount of time, deals which have the potential to become extremely one-sided for up-and-coming artists in the long term.
?The problem with the 360 model is the wrong person owns it – the label owns it. If you own the 360 model and you?re making money from touring and merchandising and recordings – and now Spotify and endorsements – if you?re making all of that money, you?re way better off than if you just took a big check, gave 39% to the government and then five years from now you run out of money and go, ?I don?t get another big check anymore. And I don?t even own my own brand,?? Bonamassa explained. ?And that?s the Venus flytrap that some artists get caught in, that have some success, is the allure of a seven figure check. The problem is it?s a finite amount of money. It?s almost like a buyout going, ?Here?s the money for the rest of your life. I hope you have a good money manager,?? he continued. ?I?ve known a couple of people who?ve gotten into those type of things and they?ve grown to resent it. And become bitter. And rightfully so. Because you took the money upfront – but you still have to work. And then you?re basically working for someone else. They end up touring and complain like, ?I have to give such and such percentage to the label but they?re not even out here working.??
Taking control of all aspects of his business has been a financial boon for Bonamassa, who employs a team of twenty, all fully invested in his success. While he looks around the music industry and sees other artists who could benefit from handling their business in a similar fashion, J&R Adventures stakes its future on just one.
?The first step in all of this is the willingness to bet on yourself. That’s a prerequisite to step through the front door of our model,? said Bonamassa. ?If I was a manager and went to a big name and said, ?Listen, you have two choices: You can take Live Nation or AEG?s money – and they?re offering $10 million for the whole tour and it?s a guarantee and a buyout and you get the whole tour – or we can promote them all ourselves. You have to come up with the $2 million to promote them but you can make $15 million on the back end.? Not a lot of people would sign up for that. A lot of people would sign up for, ?Just give me whatever Live Nation or AEG is offering.? So the willingness to bet on yourself is critical.?
While Bonamassa?s success taking control of his business has been built upon that willingness to bet on himself, and put in the requisite work, it?s also necessitated foresight and a willingness to learn.
Growing that model has required the ability to identify and adapt to quickly changing trends like social media and the arrival of online streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music.
?One of the things is the learning curve. We doubled down on Facebook early on. As far as I know, we were one of the first independent artists to buy Facebook advertising. And keep spending and promoting shows and promoting albums and merchandise and everything,? said Bonamassa. ?Over the years, we?ve learned to refine the process to where we can reach a lot of people. Instagram. I can?t even tell you, almost on a daily basis, how many people come up to me and go, ?I love your guitar videos on Instagram.? I just do it because it?s a way to engage people. And it?s also a sub-brand of the guy in the suit – there?s a whole other aspect to my life and personality that people want a glimpse of.?
Another benefit of handling his business in-house via J&R Adventures is that when it comes to releasing new music, Bonamassa owns his masters and copyrights, maximizing revenue made selling physical albums and via online streams or off potential placement on television, in film or in advertisements.
Bonamassa released his eighteenth live album in October. Live at the Sydney Opera House chronicles the guitarist?s continued efforts to document his playing at some of the world?s most renowned venues (previous live albums were recorded at iconic places like Royal Albert Hall in London, Red Rocks in Denver, the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and New York?s Carnegie Hall).
Live at the Sydney Opera House marked Bonamassa?s twenty-second #1 album (on the Billboard blues chart). Paul McCartney has the most #1 albums (twenty-seven). And as Bonamassa chases his twenty-third, it?s an ironic studio in which sessions have begun for his next studio album (his fourteenth): Abbey Road.
?What I?m hoping to accomplish at Abbey Road, is to get the British blues DNA infused into the songs,? said the guitarist of a batch of tunes he?s worked on with artists like blues guitarist and Whitesnake songwriter Bernie Marsden, Cream collaborator Pete Brown and Nashville artist James House. ?There?s always a bit of that energy of the city seeping into the recording. It?s having that effect on the music – which is the only reason why you ship all your gear over there and set up camp in the world?s most expensive city. Financially, it?s gonna be an extremely expensive record for us to make. But it?s also going back to the original point of betting on yourself and going the extra mile. Can we record it down the street in Nashville at Ocean Way? Yeah. Brilliant studio. But it may not have that extra 5% that Abbey Road is gonna give it.?
As an entrepreneur in control of his own business, Bonamassa seeks to build the early relationship between children and music through his philanthropic efforts, working with schools and putting instruments in the hands of kids via his Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit which has impacted more than 70,000 youngsters across the country.
Bonamassa, who kicks off a spring tour on February 13, 2020 in Montgomery, Alabama, continues to log about 150 nights each year on the road. At 42, the guitarist has been clear in his desire to wind down that touring schedule and look ahead toward his second act.
?You know, I?m intrigued with other businesses and how they work,? Bonamassa said. ?I think the success of any business is the combination of hard work, ingenuity and passion – passion being the most important. Because people see through the lack thereof. And they don?t want to sign up for that. Conversely, they love enthusiasm. I?m not sure what I would do as a second act but I would probably apply what I learned in this business to something else that I was just as passionate about.?
*** Joe Bonamassa launches a U.S. spring tour February 13, 2020 at The MPAC in Montgomery, AL, moving through the Midwest with stops at the Peoria Civic Center Theater in Peoria, IL on March 5 and at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, WI, March 10, wrapping up March 20 and 21 at The Paramount in Seattle, WA. A European tour begins April 25, 2020 in Brighton, England. For the full itinerary, click HERE.