As rock ‘n’ roll success stories go, Gene Simmons’ is pretty impressive. Born Chaim Witz on an Israeli kibbutz to Holocaust survivors, he moved to America, grew up under the spell of Beatlemania, formed a gimmicky band with Paul Stanley (nee Stanley Eisen), and eventually turned the act – Kiss, for anyone who hasn’t heard the tale – into one of the most popular and lucrative franchises in the music industry. Simmons has a new book, Me, Inc: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life and Business, which aims to instruct the rest of us in his personal strategies for making it. They certainly worked for him.
Simmons is correct in pointing out, as he has here and in a lot of previous declarations, that even the most flamboyant pop musicians do well to keep a sharp eye on the bottom line. Many a talented performer has seen their career crash not because the well of inspiration dried up but because no one was paying attention to their legal and financial interests: Simmons’ savvy steering of the Kiss corporate enterprise is an object lesson in how entertainers ought to sustain themselves as self-employed businesspeople. Kiss have some great tunes (“Detroit Rock City,” “Hard Luck Woman,” “Black Diamond” and “Strutter” are four of my faves), but the tunes alone wouldn’t have been enough to make the group the durable draw they’ve proved to be for almost forty years. For that, Simmons the salesman can take a lot of credit.
You have to wonder, though, if Kiss would have earned more money had they not been marketed so aggressively. Most rock stars are probably just as materialistic as Gene Simmons, but the wealthiest got rich at least partly by not being so shameless about it. Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, and Neil Young certainly aren’t hurting for bucks, but they also enjoy a high level of public goodwill for their perceived integrity, an asset which Simmons has completely squandered. Led Zeppelin, to make a striking comparison, have sold more records than Kiss and have brought in as much or more revenue, while keeping a distinctly low media profile, at least through their active life of 1968 to 1980 – no dolls, comic books, or Phantom of the Parks for them, and their bestselling Led Zeppelin IV album famously bore no group identification at all on its sleeve. For an even more glaring contrast, consider the Beatles’ disastrous merchandising tie-ins of their 1960s heyday (manager Brian Epstein’s inexperience meant the actual Beatles got almost zip from all the Fab products sold), and then their hopelessly ill-run Apple Corps., which descended into a litigious mess that outlasted the band itself. Yet the Beatles still made lots of money and their artistic status remains the highest in rock, if not in Twentieth Century pop culture as a whole. Gene Simmons would sneer at Led Zeppelin’s and the Beatles’ business instincts, yet those acts are, by any measure, more successful than Kiss.
It’s one thing when rock ‘n’ rollers effectively license their brand to consumers who’ll shell out for music-related products; it’s something else when rock ‘n’ rollers like Simmons seem to regard their music as a mere excuse for the licensing. No doubt the Demon basks in this sort of criticism: “What do I care? I’ve made more money and slept with more women than you ever will.” Yet if he could see how much better he could have done, financially or sexually, by not bragging so much about how well he already did, perhaps his Me, Inc. could lay off its entire, grotesquely egotistical workforce, and we might mercifully hear the last non-musical expression from Gene Simmons.