The next time you play Rock Band don't invite Jon Bon Jovi. The 49- year-old singer's wife and kids recently convinced him to give the popular videogame a try. So he picked up the microphone and launched into a rendition of his classic "Wanted Dead or Alive," backed by family on virtual guitars and drums. He never made it through the song.
"I failed--it buzzed me down," Bon Jovi admits over lunch in Manhattan.
Fortunately for Bon Jovi, audiences in real arenas around the world are kinder. His eponymous band took home $125 million over the past 12 months by FORBES' estimates, more than any other music act besides U2--and more than relative whippersnappers Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Kanye West combined. In the past year the band has played 74 gigs in 15 nations, grossing $203 million in ticket sales and $20 million in merchandise; Bon Jovi ranks No. 8 on this year's Celebrity 100.
Surprised? Bon Jovi out-earns younger, glitzier acts thanks to a relatively affluent, aging fan base who turn out to hear the ballads of their youth and see a tightly run touring machine built on decades of experience.
"They're one of the highest-grossing bands every year," says veteran concert promoter Ron Delsener. "Jon is a workaholic, constantly touring, constantly making loads of money."
Whereas Lady Gaga schleps dozens of dancers from town to town and needs 28 trucks to cart her equipment, Bon Jovi typically plays with six people. A dozen trucks carry the gear, including a circular stage and 192 double-sided LED video screens connected with a specially designed motion control system, which allows them to come together to form a screen 13 feet high and 40 feet wide. At arenas like Montreal's 21,500-capacity Bell Center, the in-theround setup lets the band sell up to 5,500 more tickets than a traditional arena stage would. Wherever possible Bon Jovi plays consecutive nights at the same venue to cut back on setup and strike costs. By playing 12 shows in 19 days at London's O2 arena the band saved $300,000.
"It wasn't some conscious decision to be penny-pinching. I think it's just wise to be efficient," says Bon Jovi. "I know big bands where each of them has personal assistants on the road, each of them has a security guard. We don't have a security guard. Take your own friggin' bags!"
On the revenue side the band's U.S. fans sport an average household income of $78,989, slightly higher than the mean for the 350 music groups tracked by research firm NPD's Brand Link database. The economic difference between Bon Jovi's fans and those of, say, Justin Bieber ($71,389) or Metallica ($71,089) is more than enough to cover a pricey special like the Crush Package, which comes with a grab bag of perks and tchotchkes, including souvenir lanyards, autographed lithographs and two front-row seats that you can fold up and take home after the show. The average cost for this VIP treatment is $2,550 per couple; lowend alternatives set you back $450. Bon Jovi sells an average of 600 individual special package tickets per arena show.
Though regular tickets start at $20, these packages push Bon Jovi's average price to $95, about 50% higher than acts like the Dave Matthews Band ($59) and the Black Eyed Peas ($63). Bon Jovi shows have up to 20 different price points, including special packages; on a recent tour AC/DC offered only one.
"Jon is a businessman," says co-manager David Munns. "He knows what it takes to have a great-quality show, but he also knows how to be efficient with money."
Born in 1962 in Perth Amboy, N.J., a rough port town just south of New York City, Bon Jovi decided to be a rock star at age 13 after seeing the Doobie Brothers in Erie, Pa. His break came when he wrote and recorded the song "Runaway." He sent his tape out to record labels but didn't receive any responses. So in 1983 he took his cassette to Long Island's WAPP, a station so new it didn't yet have a receptionist. He banged on the window of the DJ's booth and convinced him to play the song. Within months it hit number 39 on the Billboard charts. "That same cassette that was sitting on every record guy's desk was suddenly getting me phone calls," he says.
Mercury Records signed Bon Jovi that year. He clipped his name from John Francis Bongiovi Jr. and recruited guitarist Richie Sambora, drummer Tico Torres, keyboardist David Bryan and bassist Alec John Such to form his band. They're still together (minus Such, who left the band in 1994), but it isn't an equal partnership: Bon Jovi keeps the bulk of the earnings, whereas bands like U2 split proceeds evenly.
Slippery When Wet, released in 1986, secured his career. Anthems "Livin' on a Prayer" and "Wanted Dead or Alive" helped sell 28 million copies of the album worldwide and still get standing ovations. In the two years that followed Bon Jovi played 480 shows around the world and released another album. In 1992 an increasingly ambitious Bon Jovi took the group's business into his own hands, forming Bon Jovi Management with longtime tour manager Paul Korzilius-- and dismissed manager Doc McGhee. "It just got to a point where I said, 'I can't pay you 20% of the gross, and I can't see this vision,'" Bon Jovi says. "My peers wanted to be on the cover of Circus. I wanted to be on the cover of Time."
Since then the band has produced hits like "It's My Life" in 2000 and the country-leaning "Who Says You Can't Go Home" in 2006. Last year the band released Greatest Hits: The Ultimate Collection, which reached number one on Billboard's rock charts. It hasn't been all smooth sailing: In April Bon Jovi confirmed Sambora would be "absent from upcoming shows" after the guitarist reportedly checked himself into a rehab center.
But the tour rolls on, at least for now. "I don't know if I want to be 68 and doing 140 shows in a year," Bon Jovi admits. Even if the crowds--and the profits-- are still there.
Zack O'Malley Greenburg is a staff writer at Forbes and author of the new book Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office.