Joe Bonamassa first picked up a guitar at 4 and he was playing with B.B. King at 12.
But don’t call him a child prodigy.
Bonamassa, 39, said there was nothing magical about how or why he got good.
“I always kept to myself,” he said. “Truth be told, I still do. All I ever do is practice. That hasn’t changed. I never thought I had anything special. I just worked hard and tried to make the best music I could. Nothing has changed.”
Bonamassa performs Dec. 2 at the Embassy Theatre.
His reputation is that of an indefatigable and dauntless promoter of the Bonamassa brand and of blues music in general.
Bonamassa has never been afraid to buck whatever the conventional wisdom is at any given moment.
In 2006, he grew tired of playing the small clubs, and of promoters and venue managers who didn’t see him expanding beyond the small clubs.
So he rented out two theaters with his own money: The Florida Theatre in Jacksonville and the Embassy Theatre in Fort Wayne.
Bonamassa stoically reasoned at the time that if he only drew a few hundred concertgoers instead of a thousand, then he’d know it wasn’t time to step things up after all.
“If we had only drawn 200 or 300 people, we would have been back at Piere’s at the end of the day,” he said.
But Bonamassa ended up drawing 1300 or 1400 attendees locally.
“Fort Wayne has always been good to us,” he said. “We rented out the theater because we thought we could do a bigger venue and nobody wanted to take a chance on us. I mean, how do you get to those nice places if nobody is willing to take a chance on you? The way to do it is to take a chance on yourself.”
The 2006 theater experiment became the Bonamassa touring model: a strategy Bonamassa refers to as “the four wall.” The four wall concept means Bonamassa continues to rent theaters himself and maximize profits by cutting out middlemen.
Given Bonamassa’s courage and creativity, it should come as a surprise to no one to learn that the bluesman formed his own label long before it was clear to everyone that the music industry as it had been known for decades had collapsed.
Bonamassa had worked with a number of established labels before launching J&R Adventures in 2003 and his experiences had been less than satisfying.
“The pressure is that you have to sell units,” he said. “To sell units, you actually have to find an audience. And a lot of times, a label will give you really bad advice on how to find that audience.”
It soon became clear to Bonamassa that the traditional model was not going to work for him.
“My manager of 25 years and I, we decided we needed to something really different and it’s been great,” he said. “To be able to set your own hours and make your own rules and control the creativity of it all – that’s really valuable.”
Bonamassa said most musicians have since come to understand that there’s no money in pursuing a career the traditional way.
Musicians today have to be savvier about everything their music touches, he said.
“A lot people forget the business aspect of the business,” Bonamassa said. “It’s really important that you learn all sides of the business. Just because you know how to make a plate of spaghetti doesn’t mean you know how to run an Italian restaurant.”
A few years ago, one of the biggest obstacles to success as a professional musician was illegal downloads. Now it’s streaming.
Bonamassa doesn’t see much difference between the two.
“How to make something illegal, legal? You just refer to it by a different name,” he said.
The streaming of recorded music doesn’t bother Bonamassa. Streaming live concerts, however, strikes him as counterintuitive.
“Some artists think streaming concerts is the coolest thing in the world,” he said. “Ultimately, they find out that they don’t have enough money to get two of the three beans that Jack was purchasing.”
Artists like Bonamassa pride themselves on giving live performances that can’t be reproduced or duplicated successfully anywhere else in any other way.
If you want the best of Bonamassa, you have to buy a ticket.
Even as Bonamassa was devising new ways to succeed, he also devised a new way to pay it forward.
He launched the Keep the Blues Alive Foundation, which helps raise awareness about the blues genre and music in general.
“It’s a way to give new instruments and money to schools that need resources,” he said. “It’s a way for me to give back to the fans that have given to me, to give back to their kids.”