Last week, Kiss co-founder and frontman Paul Stanley was busy preparing for an upcoming co-headlining tour with Motley Crue, just after putting the final touches on the group’s studio record, “Monster,” which is due out this fall and will be inevitably followed by yet another tour.
By now, this is all old hat for the 60-year-old arena rock veteran. Yet as staunchly stratified as Kiss’ flashpot-and-greasepaint-aesthetic has become, the group seems set to enter its 40th anniversary year in 2013 amidst a music industry that has in many ways reformed into the band’s own image.
Though no longer attempting to stay abreast of every change in the musical weather, — as it did with disco and glam metal in its middle period — Kiss has managed to keep its name in the pop music conversation admirably well, slotting in on “American Idol” and launching a previous co-headlining tour with Aerosmith. Yet what’s perhaps most remarkable is the degree to which Kiss’ longtime operating procedure — aggressive multimedia licensing and an overall reliance on touring over record sales — has positioned the group for the industry upheavals of the last decade.
The band has a catalog of 3,000 officially licensed, branded Kiss products, and recently signed a worldwide licensing deal with Hello Kitty owner Sanrio. (Kiss beer, coffins and condoms have also recently joined its immense catalog of apparel and toys.) Of course, Kiss’ uber-capitalist stance was once regarded as anathema to the countercultural spirit of rock and roll, yet given the explosion of music branding, licensing and marketing agencies over recent years (as well as such ventures as Dr. Dre’s Beats by Dre electronics line and David Guetta’s new sponsorship platform), the band’s gung-ho branding approach now seems to rival only George Lucas’ “Star Wars” merchandising deals in its prescience.
“Our credibility is defined by our own criteria, and we are as credible as we are profitable.” Stanley said. “It’s undeniable that the (non-traditional) revenue streams can be enormous, and to not maximize your potential outside of music would be absurd. It is the music business, and the business element doesn’t negate or detract from the other end of it. We’re a band, and we’re a brand. And without one, the other suffers.
“Just to give an example, when we first started our (Kiss Army) fan club, people snickered, critics snickered, other bands snickered. And the fact of the matter was, what’s wrong with organizing and affiliating yourself with your fans? It seemed to me incredibly self-absorbed to do the opposite, and not acknowledge and nurture it. In the beginning, we were surprised with the hostility it met. But we’ve always stuck to our guns. There are a lot bands that can’t do the same because, quite honestly, they’re boring.”
Despite such self-promotional chest-thumping that has always accompanied Kiss’ music and business ventures, Stanley casts a sympathetic eye on the acts following in his band’s wake, especially given new digital models that, he notes, “force the artist to go along with a royalty system that they might have never agreed to” if they had the choice.
“I would hate to be a band starting out now, because the pot of gold isn’t there to be had,” he said. “We came up on a route that, in essence, wasn’t far removed from vaudeville. You started fourth on the bill and gradually worked your way up. You graduated from clubs to theaters to arenas. By the time we were headliners, we damned well knew how to headline. That’s an opportunity most bands today will never get, and it shows in their performances.”
While Kiss’ recorded output has long been perceived as supplementary to its maximalist stage show — a model to which, of late, the rest of the music business has been forced to conform — Stanley has taken the reins on the recording side in recent years, self-producing “Monster” as he previously did with 2009’s “Sonic Boom,” which notched the band’s highest rung on the Billboard album chart to date, topping out at No. 2.
“It came from me saying, ‘either I produce or we don’t do albums,’ ” he said, bluntly. “I think we reached a point where democracy showed itself to be highly overrated.”
Similarly, Stanley is remarkably upfront about his own songwriting style (“I’m not a brooding, miserable artist. I won. This is exactly what I wanted”); the band’s missteps (“nothing would have been worse than for our last recorded album to have been (1998 reunion album) ‘Psycho Circus.’ That was an epitaph I didn’t want”); and on his own expectations for the band’s new material (“no matter how great the songs are, nothing on this album is going to have anywhere near the impact that ‘Love Gun’ had on people”). He’s just as straightforward about his unique relationship with bassist-singer Gene Simmons — his constant bandmate since even prior to Kiss’ founding — and who often takes the role of public spokesman for the band: “Over the years, you learn to accept the dynamic, and the best way to make for a great partnership is to accept its limitations. Do my shoulders sometimes get sore from someone standing on them all the time? Sure. But that’s part of the dynamic. … And for all the bluster, I still put 50% of what he gets into my bank account.”
But when asked about the band’s future as it crosses over into its fifth decade, Stanley turned contemplative.
“Kiss will far outlive me,” he said. “I can’t shut it down, nor would I want to. At some point I’ll be gone — to say that other people have been expendable (in the band) and not include myself would be narcissistic and ridiculous. There’s someone out there who can do what I do at least as well, add something else to the band, and take it further. Even as a brand, Kiss is only in its infancy. It’s timeless in the same way Batman and Superman are timeless. Kiss doesn’t age.”
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