By Jay Tilles
So, you’re in an incredibly successful band with six albums (four of which are platinum or multi-platinum) to your name, millions of devout fans and huge-grossing world tours to your credit. And then you leave it behind to focus on other projects. To the uninformed outsider, it appears that you’ve flaked out, and tossed the gig of a lifetime away on a whim to write comic books and sing about aliens. And that’s probably what many Blink-182 fans think about Tom Delonge these days.
But you’re actually Tom DeLonge and this could not be farther from reality.
Sure, DeLonge is an artist, but what those outside his immediate circle may not know is that the Blink-182 co-founder is a serial entrepreneur with a dizzying number of companies with full staff, office space, warehouses and more—all operating simultaneously.
DeLonge found himself so overwhelmed by his business ventures and family duties that something had to give. That something, unfortunately for Blink fans, was the band that put him on the map in the first place. Juggling requires multiple hands, and DeLonge’s doctor refused to sew on a third. So, in January of this year, the decision to depart the band was made for him.
During Blink’s early days, DeLonge and bandmate Mark Hoppus assumed the band would never go anywhere, as is the case with many suburban kids who start bands. So, creating a back-up plan was simply a sensible precaution. This was 1999. The internet was taking off. Action sports were more popular than ever. Excited by technology and having grown up a skate rat in San Diego, DeLonge decided to combine his two loves to create LoserKids. The website would offer a curated selection of surf and skate gear.
Then, in 2001 DeLonge and Hoppus started Atticus Clothing, an art-driven surf and skate apparel company; DeLonge sold his share of the company in 2007. Having served as an unofficial endorser of various apparel lines like Hurley—which Blink-182 introduced to million of fans worldwide—DeLonge realized that he should be publicizing his own clothing line instead of someone else’s. Macbeth Footwear was born. The line, which started with just shows diversified into multitude of outerwear. In 2014, the major stake in the company was sold to licencing giant and Power Rangers owner, Saban which now officially runs the Macbeth’s day-to-day operations.
Then came DeLonge’s digital evolution. Modlife is a business which markets artist’s merchandise online. Having taken two years to build, Modlife offers a platform designed to aid artists of any size in monetizing their wares and helps them interact with fans in both the physical and digital worlds. “With Modlife’s platform of selling directly from artist to consumer, major-label artists can now make money independently,” DeLonge told FastCompany last year. DeLonge’s team didn’t just set out to help fellow punk bands sell t-shirts. His lofty goal of creating a new direct-to-consumer business model gained him clients including Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam and Kanye West.
But according to DeLonge, Modlife was actually designed to help launch DeLonge’s most creative endeavor, To The Stars. Founded in 2011 by DeLonge and his sister Kari (who had worked with him at every company since 2001) as a record label and entertainment company to independently release the double album Love Part One and Love Part Two alongside his first feature film Love. The Poet franchise derived from that experience.
Over the next three years, DeLonge’s team at To The Stars will roll out four major franchises. He explains, “Each franchise is vastly different, super f—–g cool, super ambitious, and each one has a series of novels, feature films, television series and music with it. It’s like, crazy.” With comics already shipping and the first of three Poet Anderson novels touching down October 6, the team has their hands full.
And then there’s Reissued, a curated social marketplace app to buy and sell vintage, one-of-a-kind, handmade and hard-to-find items. DeLonge owns that with his wife Jennifer, a product and interior design specialist.
As if that wasn’t enough, DeLonge, along with friend Jon Humphrey, operate a funhouse for creative types aptly titled Really Likable People. DeLonge explains that about 12 years ago he decided to build “a place for all my talented friends (without college degrees) to succeed with their ideas in a young and fun environment.” What started as a haven for creative types developed into a bustling business that has its fingers in all of DeLonge’s other endeavors.
And then there’s the band. Angels & Airwaves. With five albums and two EPs, it’s far from the side project that Blink fans once referred to it as.
“We were always pretty savvy dudes and fans of all types of art but with Blink-182 it was a vehicle for emotion,” DeLonge tells Radio.com. “It wasn’t about musicianship or whatever. It was a group of skate rats that didn’t like how they grew up. But for me, as an individual, when you’re part of something that big, you’re branded as a very specific thing. And I get it.”
It’s hard to digest for many. How could a young man who’s so widely known for singing about bodily functions run a small empire? DeLonge isn’t fazed by the question. He gives a lot of credit to Blink’s fans for knowing that they were smarter than the media may have given them credit for. And, it turns out, they were.
“What people don’t know about me, because I’ve never been out there telegraphing it, is that I’ve been building companies for a long time and I learned quite a hell of a lot. And, the skill sets that I’ve acquired for the past 15 years in terms of understanding the monetization of the arts—I built a platform that Kanye and Nine Inch Nails and Pearl Jam would use to monetize all of their art, their fan clubs, ticketing and all that stuff—to building hard core skateboarding companies and surf companies where the culture involved is super snobby and picky. I grew up skateboarding most of my life. I really learned how to identify with a core group of people that hated everything. So, at this point in my life I just know a lot of things and it’s a better use of the skill sets that I’ve acquired to be doing what I’m doing now than just being on stage playing the songs over and over again—even though it’s fun as s–t when there’s pyrotechnics and lasers—I love that. But I’ve never needed attention to feel good about myself… even though it’s f—–g awesome and I love attention, don’t get me wrong, but I need to create things. That’s where I win emotionally I guess.”
But for many, the decision to part ways with the band that gave him a voice, and frankly, a bankroll, is still hard for fans to wrap their head around.
“I hit a very specific part in my life,” confesses DeLonge. “I’m 39 years old. If I was to continue to stay in the studio for a year to write a record that I need to rehearse for eight weeks to go on tour for another six months, and it’s only about those twelve songs I’m going to be severely limited in what I can achieve artistically and I’m going to be looking back when I’m 50 kinda going, ‘F—-, I really love all these other forms of art, I really wish I could have done something with it. So what happened was that I decided that… [pauses] just to do it. I decide to do it because it afforded me the ability to be with my family a hell of a lot more. It afforded me to inspire other artists. It afforded me to use all the other skill-sets I’ve acquired of bringing people together and putting a business model to a new form of art. Guys are creating graphic novels, guys are writing books, guys are making movies, guys are making animations… I created a system of glue to pull all those people together into one vehicle and make it happen, then it’s bigger for everybody.”
DeLonge’s favorite skill, it seems, is his ability to assemble talented teams. And for To The Stars, DeLonge tapped staffers from a few of his other companies, since he already knew what they were capable of. “If I was the one trying to figure out a calendar to manufacture all these products and to ship them and stuff, I would’ve f—–d it all up,” he jokes.
“But I feel confident in my team. Was I scared looking at the size of the operation and kinda going ‘What the f—k am I doing?’ Yeah, absolutely. But then I would stop and go, ‘But it’s so f—–g cool!’ It’s not hard, it just takes passion and endurance. I know that I wasn’t going to be writing the book myself. I knew that I wan’t going to be typing the whole thing by myself. You find people that are going to be teammates. You find people that are really good at something and you’re really good at something that they’re not good at and you put it together, that takes off the burden of being scared. When you’re all by yourself, it could be nerve-racking to think you’re going to accomplish all these things on your own. But when you have people around you that believe in you it gets you through those times.”
“This is the thing,” says DeLonge with some authority in his voice. “You have to think about what you absolutely love. Not about work. Not about anything other than what you love. It can’t be about ‘What’s the best job I can have?’ or ‘What’s the best career I can have?’ It has to be about, ‘What do I love doing?’ That’s really what people fail to do. They never think what they love doing could be their job or their life. They always think what they love doing is what happens on weekends when they’re not working.”
When asked why he hasn’t been asked to speak at a TED event, DeLonge laughs, explaining that neither the average person, nor the organizers of TED events, have any idea of what he does outside of his former band, much less the people who book TED talks. “No one knows what the f—k I’m doing. I know what people may or may not think of me for the most part. I don’t find it necessary to go and constantly promote myself. I talk on my social networks to my fans about what I’m doing. I clue them in but I’m just not wired that way. I think over time the art should speak for itself.”
And DeLonge’s art will speak loudly, he hopes, via surround sound movie theaters around the world. DeLonge has learned a few things about film-making since 2011’s Love, a DIY film DeLonge’s team shot in their space station constructed in their backyard. He’s not looking to shoot art house films these days.
Although hesitant to discuss figures at first, DeLonge divulged that the budget for the live-action Poet Anderson feature film could approach $100 million. “When you’re dealing with budgets like that,” he points out, “what you’re able to do with a budget like that—for lack of a better word—is dream up some cool s–t. You can do anything.” Inking a deal for a film of that scope underscores just how credible, and frankly, what a good businessman DeLonge really is.
For the film’s production DeLonge teamed with Brett Ratner and James Packer’s RatPac, known most recently for having produced the Academy Award-winning film Gravity with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
“They read the novel. We sent them an advance copy and they, ‘We’re in.’ From day one, ‘We’re in.'”
He’s come a long way from focusing his life only on being the guitarist/singer in a very successful band. These days, besides his family, he’s responsible to his many employees, shareholders and partners. After all, when you have a $100 million budget on the line, “I’m rehearsing for our summer tour” isn’t a good excuse for missing a meeting.
So, when fans ask why DeLonge bailed on the band that made him famous, he didn’t leave Blink-182 because he’s crazy, stupid or self-indulgent. He’s simply a grown up with responsibilities and ambitions that reach all the way to the stars.