Bonamassa’s Super Groups
WORLD A child prodigy on the guitar, Joe Bonamassa was touring with the likes of Foreigner, Joe Cocker and Greg Allman by the tender age of 12. Now 33, Bonamassa has an eviable like resume.
This year saw him release his 10th solo album, Black Rock, which reached No.1 on both the Billboard Blues Album Chart in the US and BBC Radio 1’s Indie Album Chart in the UK. Shows on his current tour include Poland’s Palladium(cap 1,500) in Warsaw, Israel’s Haifa Auditorium (1,200) and the Netherlands Chasse Theater (1,400) in Breda.
“It’s been quite a journey, something I’m very proud of,” says Bonamassa’s manager Roy Weisman of US-based J&R Adventures. “I’ve worked my whole life to achieve what we’re achieving with Joe.”
His new band venture with Glenn Hughes, Jason Bonham and Derek Sherinian –Black Country Communion –just released their debut Black Country Communion album, which is currently No 13 on the BBC Radio 1 album chart in the UK.
Bonamassa’s European agent is UK-based Neil O’ Brien Entertainment, with Andrew Lanoie of WME Entertainment in Beverly Hills handling North Amercia. Also working with Weisman on business affairs is Susan Stewart of California-based Jensen Communicatons.
Live music veterans of will recognize the formula; great artiste works up through bars and clubs, builds loyal fanbase, sells reasonable numbers of records but media hasn’t quite caught on yet. This time it’s a younger generation using the same commonsense principles to build Joe Bonamassa, as Mick Wall reports.
If any fast-emerging artiste can be said to have built their career almost entirely on the strength of their live concert strategy, it is American blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa.
As his long-term manager and business partner Roy Weisman says, “Our tickets are sold because people want to see a performance. They’re not coming to hear a hit. We don’t sell hits, which makes us very special. It means we have legs, long-term.”
The two have been together nearly 20 years, during former child prodigy –through the clubs, academies, theatres and concert halls to where he now stands on the verge of doing arenas. “That’s certainly the next step,” says Bonamassa’s Eurpean agent Neil O’Brien.
“When we sold out the Royal Albert Hall (cap 3,250) in London last year, I said Roy, ‘next we either go to Hammersmith Apollo (5,000) –which we did earlier this year –or play at The O2 (17,000).”
It’s a remarkable trajectory fro an artiste that doesn’t have a major label deal, has never enjoyed a big hit single, and is still largely unknown outside his rapidly growing and intensely loyal fan-base.
As Barney Vernon, one of his promoters at The Gig Cartel in the UK, puts it, “You either know Joe Bonamassa and love him –or you’ve never heard of him.”
Born in Utica, New York, in 1977, Bonamassa, who comes from a long line of musicians, was first talent –spotted by Weisman when he was just 13. “Joe was opening up for BB King in upstate New York and it made the TV news.”
Weisman was a 23-year-old Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton-loving member of his father Elliot’s prestigious Premier Artist Services company (main client, Frank Sinatra).
Looking to stretch his wings, he signed the abundantly talented young guitarist and put him in a group of equally precocious teenage talents called Bloodline.
“I grew up watching my father make his deals and I was around a lot of great acts that were superb live entertainers,” he explains. “Being great on record doesn’t mean you’re great live.”
Also featuring the sons of Miles Davis,Robbie Krieger,Sammy Hagar and Berry Oakley of the Allman Brothers, Bloodline was “an effort to put Joe in a package to make him marketable to the music industry. Phil Ramone was our producer and mentor who kind of helped us get it off the ground.
Signed to EMI, the idea, says Weisman, “was New Kids on the block meets the Allman Brothers.”
However, as so often happens, what worked on paper failed to spark in real life. “The famouse sons were a little bit spoiled, a little bit not motivated and with some personal problems, while Joe was a workaholic which has been what keeps me inspired. If he works that hard, I work that hard.”
Bloodline lasted five years before it folded. Joe was now 18. But Weisman was determined to keep going with him. “From that day forward, it was the Joe Bonamassa show. As long as Joe and I are aligned we can do anything. With a band you’ve got five people making decisions.”
Most Crucically, “Everything has been based on Joe’s talent as a live performer.” Which is just as well, as Bonamassa’s recording career almost didn’t happen at all. Weisman tells a familiar tale of near-misses and bad luck, as he recounts the years Bonamassa spent signed first to Phil Ramone’s own label, then Sony.
When he was dropped from the latter on the eve of releasing his Tom Dowd-produced solo debut, “It was another crossroads,” says Weisman.
By traversing it they inadvertently set up the business model by which they have continues successfully ever since. Weisman bought back the album and told Joe. “We’re gonna be a big fish in a little pond called the blues world.”
Since then things have all been done independently, or “organically,” as Weisman puts it. “The rub is that we are not in the record business. We are in the concert business, first and foremost. And by owning our own records we serve a master that is not driven by the typical record company. We perform live and make records. We don’t make records and perform live. It’s a semantic difference that means all and everything, and is the key to our business and how we got to where we are today.”
Long-term partnerships replaced a major deals, beginning with a licensing agreement for Bonamassa records in the UK and Europe with Ed van Zijl, owner of independent label Mascot Records in the Netherlands.
Album releases are based around Bonamassa’s touring schedule. “You need to tour or the record will just stop selling, especially in a niche market,” says van Zijl. “It’s about spreading the word, because it’s music you cannot hear on day-time radio or national TV.”
The key to Bonamassa’s success, says van Zijl, is “great team work. The management, the artiste, the booking agent, that band, the road creew, the PRs, the label-all word together really well.”
Even the business of making music has been tailored to fit the cost-effective partnership strategy. Producer Kevin Shirley-best known for his hit-making productions with Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin-has been part of the team for Bonamassa’s last five albums.
“The first record I made with Joe had a budget of just $30,000,” he reveals. “Musicially, it was about breaking through the boundaries to open up the franchise that he’s become. Had it been with a major, they’d have budgeted for $100,000 – then wanted to know how they will get their $100,000 back,” relates Shirley.
“Roy and Joe look at it like, if we spend $100,000 on this record, is this investment gonna up the ticket prices for us? If it gonna open up the venues that we play? People talk about 360 deals, but this has been a much more basic, well-considered approach. You need commitment. I’ve tried it with other guys but they’re not content to work 40 weeks a year.”
It was Van Zijl who instigated the first Bonamassa European tour in 2004. That was when Mike ‘Pod’ Raven of the Gig Cartel – a collective of four promoters spread across the UK – caught Bonamassa playing a pub in Nottingham.
“Straight away you knew, meeting Joe and Roy, that this was something different.” he recalls. “You don’t expect blues artistes to move on, but this took a step up in venues each time he came round,” says Raven. “Roy has that vision and insisted on it. So the next time Joe played Nottingham, it was at the Rescue Rooms, around 450 capacity, and he sold it out.”
Making sure Joe is never our of the spotlight, even though he is an American-based act, “has been a conscious thing,” says Raven. “With Roy’s help we’ve kept a constant presence in the media. I can’t think of a perios of time over the last three or four years where we’ve not had some form of advertising for Joe somewhere in the UK.”
When Bonamassa tours this October it will be at venues such as the 3,500-capacity O2 Apollo in Manchester. “I’ll be disappointed if we don’t sell it out,” he says.
“Roy had a very single-minded, approach to how they wanted to deliver their touring,” says agent Neil O’Brien. “There was a clear strategy involved, a commitment to coming over to Europe at least three or four times a year. Roy wanted me to book Joe into Venues twice as big as he’d been playing before, for a perception point of view, and as something for his record company to aim at.”
It was a bold strategy that has now paid dividends. “I said the Roy, I want to start with Joe doing two nights at the Borderline (280) in London, then the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire (2,000) and as soon as we can I want you to play at the Royal Albert Hall.” Recalls O’Brien. “And he said to me, ‘You’re f**king Crazy’. “We did that Albert hall last year and now the sky’s the limit.”
Says Barney Vernon, “Joe is probably the only artiste I’ve worked with that has literally played his way up through every size venue we have in Sheffield, from the Boardwalk (400) to the Plug (1,000), to the City Hall(2,300) . Then this year it was the Magna Centre which holds 3,500.”
The Strategy in Europe, says O’Brien, is “we do a tour in the spring and we do festivals late-June into early –August. Then we come back again October-November.”
With modest label support, compared to major budgets, “We look at the costings for our shows and take our quite a disproportionate amount of the money from ticket sales and put that into marketing. That has been one of the reasons why we’ve been able to move so quickly,” he explains