KISS And Tell – Gene Simmons Interview
KISS revolutionised the music industry, applying an entrepreneurial flair to rock stardom earning them a fortune beyond every other artist ever to pick up a guitar. Mark Southern caught up with the billion dollar business brain of rock to discover the secret of making music millions.
As first published in MoneyMaker Magazine, 2012.
Pop quiz, hotshot. What links golf courses, coffee shops, comic books, coffee brands, real estate and action figures? Oh, and best-selling Visa cards, custom coffins, board games and Zippo lighters? And don’t forget Pepsi, Coke and Dr Pepper, alongside a host of other international brands?
If you guessed it’s a Tory MP’s expense claim then you’d have been under-estimating the scale of ambition of the correct answer, as we could have listed over three thousand products and services to go alongside the above, although there are no duck islands just yet.
No, putting Westminster firmly in the shade alongside the industry into the record industry is the KISS bassist and hardest working rockstar on planet Earth, Gene Simmons.
As founder and musical inspiration behind the band that pioneered enterprise in entertainment, Simmons knows a thing or two about how to make a living and then some from music.
KISS was formed in 1973, and nearly forty years later show no signs of slowing down. Made up primarily of Simmons and singer Paul Stanley, alongside a lineup that has changed over the years, the band realised quickly that to conform was to blend into the rock scene, and not standing out from the crowd was a one way ticket to failure.
It’s a scenario that entrepreneurs the world over face when launching into new ventures and so, like Jobs, Branson and Zuckerberg after them, KISS adopted a deliberately different style from the rest, culminating in their on-stage metamorphoses into seven foot tall, comic-book inspired rock and roll superheroes. The four band members each had an alter-ego, with their outlandish clothing and trademark black and white makeup identifying their unique personality, and a legend was born. Unlike any that had come before, KISS was eminently memorable, and in a position to dominate their market.
But, what came next was truly remarkable. Simmons, sensing opportunity like the very best entrepreneurs, realised the scale of potential enterprise bubbling under the rock and roll scene, like an untapped source of near limitless oil. Sure, 100 million album sales, including 28 gold albums, will pay the bills, but what if you’ve got a burning ambition to conquer capitalism through music? What if you’re prepared to go further than any other music mogul had gone before to make music pay?
Simmons had an audience that every other brand would dream of; they loved him, his band, and got a rush from being affiliated to the band in any way. After all, most people live unfulfilled lives of missed ambition, and whether it be Stanley’s romantic ‘Starchild’, Frehley’s sci-fi inspired ‘Space Ace’, or Simmons’ own dark desires manifested in his ‘Demon’ persona, the flight to a different life would be as simple as being but a small part of the phenomena that was KISS.
With the loyal and passionate fanbase in place, and the fantastical concept so powerful and inclusive in its appeal, Simmons sought to give his fans a chance to experience KISS in a huge multitude of ways via licensing the band’s image rights to thousands of eclectic products and services.
Fans were soon able to bring a little KISS magic into their daily lives in a way that music artists had never before managed. They’d be able to shower with KISS branded shampoo, whilst listening to their KISS radio, and play KISS pinball, all bought with their KISS Visa card. Fans could even buy KISS condoms and be buried in a KISS Kasket – a luxury coffin with Simmons’ face emblazoned across it.
Like sharp businesspeople across the world, ‘normal’ was the only enemy, and they constantly adapted to secure column inches, including a smart PR device which saw the four band members drop some of their own blood into the red ink at the factory that printed their comic book, thus giving their rockstar DNA to the pages.
Through this ceaseless promotion, unrelenting commitment to touring worldwide, and a steady stream of album and single releases, Simmons pioneered the role of rockstar businessman, jettisoning the expensive hangers-on which burdened so many of his contemporaries, and very much doing it his way.
Today, the KISS brand is estimated to be worth more than $1 billion, which accountants believe makes the band the most profitable in the world, with only The Beatles a genuine rival for this crown. Simmons has certainly come a long way.
When we meet the ‘Demon’ himself, he and his band mates are in London for, surprisingly enough, promotion of another first; the world’s only coffee tabled sized coffee table book. The KISS Monster book costs $4,250 and stands at three foot tall and nearly three feet wide, with just 1,000 available. All are personally signed by the band, and are hand-made in Italy. Like the band, it’s anything but subtle, but it’s undeniably striking, and a sound investment for music memorabilia MoneyMakers.
Simmons is not a conventional man, and when we sit down to talk his rockstar aura is subtly different from most you’ll encounter in the flesh. He possesses that charismatic confidence that only fronting a rock and roll band can provide, but lacks the inherent shirking of responsibility that so many creative people in music and other industries suffer from. He has a sharp keenness about him, hidden underneath layers of rockstar cool; a pulsing and electrified desire for making the most of every moment, whilst never missing a beat.
When Simmons starts speaking he cuts through the ice with short, humble sentences, designed to charm and draw attention. “Can you understand my colonial brogue?”, he asks in his mellifluously dulcet drawl, before checking both I and the Queen are well. Simmons asks questions and engages with his audience, whether it be a solitary British journalist with no real idea of the Queen’s well-being, or 100,000 screaming rock and roll fans in a stadium. It’s what he does best, and it’s stood him in good stead all these decades.
However, when he gets going, there’s no stopping him. Simmons riffs like there’s no tomorrow, sharing his very own version of the American dream, and how Britain can follow in his considerable footsteps.
“The ethos of MoneyMaker Magazine of living your own life and choosing your own path is intrinsically not very British, unfortunately. Take the class system, or class warfare, as I see it. You’ve got your old money, and your new money, and the new money doesn’t have the respect as it doesn’t have lineage, and it all comes down to the blue-bloods, and the serfs, and the fiefdoms, and all those other big words like gymnasium. It’s even worse in India. We don’t have that class burden in the United States. Back home, ‘who the fuck do you think you are?’ is actually a positive greeting!”
Patriotism is a fundamental part of Gene Simmons’ life. A fierce advocate of his home country and a firm believer in George Washington’s aspirations for a positive entrepreneurial nation of succeeders, regardless of background, Simmons metaphorically wraps himself in Old Glory, whilst he delivers his own critique of the USA’s outlook on life.
“When you think about America, this is the country that invented jeans. After the war with the Native American Indians, Levi Strauss bought up all of the US military’s blue tents, and used the material to make clothes for the workers. Strauss found that the clothes lasted literally for a lifetime, and ever since then they’ve been a fundamental part of American culture.
“To this day, the richest people in the United States wear jeans every day to form a link with the working man, with Warren Buffett, for example, getting up early every morning to put on his jeans and go to work. He’s worth $50 billion now, but he still lives in the same house he bought when he made his first million thirty years ago, and drives a beat-up second-hand car. The point is, we don’t need castles, and whilst the rest of the world is looking to its past, America is walking on other planets.
“Part and parcel of that is that, in America, you can come from anywhere or be anyone and make it big. Entrepreneur may be a French word that we can’t pronounce or spell but, let me tell you something, it is alive and well in America. Facebook, Google, they’re the products of inspired entrepreneurialism. Take a look at Zuckerberg and the rest. They played the system, and this system doesn’t look at you and ask who your mother or father is. It asks just one question – ‘what’ve you got?’.
So Simmons still believes the American Dream is alive and well?
“Bigger and better than ever. Brits have to forget about the past, and look to the future. You’ve got a Royal Family, and in America we think they look cool, and they live in a castle and all, but it means fuck all in the US – they’ve done nothing to earn their position. In America, kids look to Zuckerberg as royalty, as he created his empire himself. From Hollywood to the lightbulb, these things were made by individuals who dared to dream, and they changed the whole world. Why did the world’s most important inventions happen in America? It’s because it allows people to become whatever they want to be and to scale the heights, despite the fact that you came from the Bronx.”
When we speak, the newspapers are full of Olympic positivity, with young people being celebrated in the British media. However, it was only a year ago when fires burned in the streets of London as a disaffected youth rebelled against widespread unemployment and a perceived lack of opportunity. Does he see a difference between young Americans’ entrepreneurial spirit and that of their European counterparts?
“Yes, there’s a big divide between the two. American unemployment is about 8% against the Spanish rate of nearly 25%. It’s over 50% in Greece. And it’s simple, capitalism isn’t being allowed to work there. The social welfare system does not work.
“People forget, countries are businesses, and if you treat them that way everyone will benefit. It’s wonderful to be altruistic and take care of the population, but if you can’t afford it everything gets flushed down the toilet. Every cheque the government pays out for someone who breaks their leg, or who is out of work, or who needs some help comes at a cost, and if they pay out more than they get in, excuse my language, well, they’re fucked.
“When government becomes mom and dad, the country stops becoming a business and transforms into a charity, and then you have a horrific business model that hurts everybody, poor and rich alike. So you end up with a dependent population that passes the buck at every turn, finding other people to blame rather than take responsibility – you can only afford a £100,000 house? Then why would you get a mortgage for a £400,000 home?
“And that’s how so many countries in Europe, including Britain to some extent, have failed, and if you’ve got a young generation suckling on the breast of the state, how are they going to develop their entrepreneurial instinct?”
Where does the rock star businessman stand on entrepreneurialism?
“People need to be more entrepreneurial across the world, and they’ve got to treat their entrepreneurship with personal responsibility. You have an inferred fiduciary duty to your own fucking self to take care of business. And if we all take this personal responsibility for increasing our own wealth, we’ll all benefit.
“Take a look at Mother Nature, because she is inherently more entrepreneurial in spirit than human beings. Take a look at the squirrel, and those little guys have got a very good business model to follow. Squirrels like nuts. They run around picking up as many as they can find whilst they’re around, but they always collect more nuts than they need, and bury the rest for a rainy day. So, when it snows, or there are no new nuts, they’ll just dig ‘em up. If squirrels are taking care of business, how come human beings aren’t?”
Does he feel 2012 is a good time for entrepreneurs?
“Ever since time began, commerce has worked best when cultures collide and new ideas are smashed into each other, with people of different colour and creed bartering and moving capitalism on. Whenever I go anywhere I meet new people, and every new person represents a new business opportunity in some way. It’s a fundamental corner stone of entrepreneurialism, and if you’re not doing it, then start fucking doing it today. You’ve got to get up every morning and take on each day every day.
“You’ve got to keep your money moving, because money that doesn’t is like still water, full of disease. The healthiest water is water that runs, and the healthiest money ping pongs back and forth to one another. So, old money is dangerous, boring and bad for people. Take your money, throw it around, invest, build, gamble, do whatever you want, but don’t let it stand still.”
Simmons has made himself and his bandmates very rich men thanks to his business smarts, but how does he feel about those who question the role of the businesspeople in music?
“When Elvis Presley died, the most iconic figure in all of music history, his entire net worth was $3.5 million. It’s pathetic. He should have been worth a hundred times that. And that’s because he didn’t take care of business – there was no business model. For one thing he allowed Colonel Tom Parker to own 51% of Elvis Presley Incorporated. Elvis himself only got 49%, out of which he had to pay all the expenses for both himself and Parker. He didn’t take care of business.
“Most people think what we do is called music, but if you believe in truth of advertising it wasn’t then, it isn’t now, and it won’t be in the future called music. It has always been the music business. If you’re in show, you’re in show business. It’s right up there in flashing lights, can’t you read, you idiot? Everything in life is business – even God passes the hat around the congregation in church.”
As another British Olympian secures Gold, conversation moves onto how young people can achieve their own dreams, with a little help from the Simmons school of how-to get rich.
“I mean this in the most sincere way, kids of all ages must honour thy mother and father. They know far more than your friends do, so listen to them. I was not born rich, I came from a ghetto, but everyone in this world can become rich if they put the hours in when they are young.
“Everything is connected in this world, your lifestyle, what you put in your body, this all affects everything you do, including how you make money. Kids should learn to love labour at the earliest age, washing cars, whatever, but just learn to enjoy the art of working at the earliest age possible, rather than just looking for a job.”
And for those a little older who want to break into a new way of life?
“Work six days a week, and be the absolute best you can be. You can sleep at night, one day of rest is more than enough. Dress British, act Yiddish, learn to speak the right language, and learn to appreciate the axis of power, which is language skills, people skills, or in the old vernacular, when in Rome do as the Romans.
“So you wanna work in the City? They all wear suits and ties, so if you want what they’ve got, put on that uniform and be fucking proud of it. You wanna join the military, or the healthcare service, or the priesthood? Put on that uniform and wear it proudly. Be who you want to be, and don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do.”
As the successful Olympian is interviewed on the television before us we hear them humbly playing down their success, a trait we can all acknowledge in the more docile British psyche. But Gene Simmons didn’t get where he is by not understanding his own worth.
“When I was a kid, I heard Cassius Clay state that he was the greatest. Whether it was true or not to other people is irrelevant, it was to him. Self-aggrandisement isn’t a crime, and there is no-one stopping you from achieving your dreams apart from you. So don’t stop yourself, idiot. Be the person you want to be.
“Treat success in business like you would if you won the lottery. If your numbers came up, you’d be running down the street waving that ticket in the air. But when you make it on your own the sensation should be even greater. You’ve worked hard for it, you’ve sweated for it, so why wouldn’t you stand up proudly, stick your chest out and be happy with yourself, man? Shout out loud, ‘I’m successful, I deserve this!’ Why wouldn’t you?”
As our time approaches an end, it’s clear that Gene Simmons could win Olympic Gold himself in the business advice stakes, although he might argue platinum would be more appropriate. As the driving force behind one of entertainment’s most powerful brands he is supremely placed to be a guiding light for artists of every nature to make exceptional livings from their gifts, if only they’d understand his modus operandi. As a closing question I ask him, if he still has the stomach for the fight with KISS?
“Are you kidding?” he replies, with a steel running through his trademark charm. “Everything is a business, and everything is about money. There’s an old adage that says that money is the root of all evil. Bullshit. Lack of money is the root of all evil. KISS has a golf course in Vegas, KISS has coffee houses, KISS has a tie-in with Hello Kitty, which just rolled out in ninety countries, KISS will never end. This is Planet KISS, and you’re just living on it.”