Prisoner of rock
Gene Simmons, of Kiss, held me captive
A hotel in Mayfair. I have come to talk with the rock star Gene Simmons, of Kiss. But not about music. He’s come to Britain to talk about his real love – making money – in a speech to business leaders of the future at London Business School.
Our time together has not passed entirely smoothly. After blowing my head off with extremely loud music by somebody else, the man who enjoys the stage name The Demon accused me of being on crack and then held me captive for half an hour, in a tiny space with The Sunday Times’s photographer, Julian Andrews, under orders to keep our voices down.
To meet Simmons, 62, I was led into an subterranean screening room where he sat in plush armchairs with three women rockers. He told me it was a pleasure to meet him (sic), then sat me down to see one of his latest products, which turned out to be the youngest of the three women. Rejoicing in the name Cobra, she wore feathers in her hair and contact lenses that gave her eyes a reptilian appearance. Simmons has signed Cobra to his Simmons Universal record label, and before I am allowed to talk about anything else I must watch her forthcoming video, and listen to demo tracks – at volumes that cause one of the other women to complain about bleeding ears.
This striking young woman is going to be huge, he announces. “The metal goddess cometh.” Then he sent her away so he can give The Sunday Times the business tips he would later share with London Business School’s MBA class.
In the music business, Kiss is legendary – or notorious – for its merchandising. The band claims to sell several times as much merchandise as any other rock band, making every concert extraordinarily lucrative. There are about 3,000 licensed products, including Kiss condoms and $4,500 Kiss coffins (for another $500 the band will autograph these). There are Kiss cafes, which make more per customer than Starbucks, and there was recently a lucrative Kiss cruise: thousands of people paid thousands of dollars for five days on a boat with the band. But the highest margin is probably on T-shirts: 80 per cent of gross, he says.
Simmons owns the trademark “Planet Kiss”, he says, in hope that he may one day rule the world. But he will be a benevolent dictator. He will put criminals into forests, chopping wood in fresh air, and appoint entrepreneurs like himself to run countries as businesses. Top of the list: Richard Branson and Donald Trump.
It doesn’t cost much to take out a trademark, he says, but it costs millions to stop others exploiting it with knock-offs. “We sue people all the time.”
But his business interests extend more widely than mere merchandising. One surprising wheeze involves financial services for the super-rich, enabling individuals to save on life insurance and death duties by avoiding tax (legally). “But you need to be worth millions to get that,” he says. Another is an IT product named Ortsbo, which claims to provide instantaneous translation, compatible with MSN Messenger, Google Talk and Facebook Chat.
And how could I forgot: the band has also sold a lot of its own records. Simmons forgets how many albums there have been, but says Kiss outsells the Beatles and Elvis combined – but then, he makes other claims later on that cause me to question his mathematical accuracy.
Which other bands are good at business? The Rolling Stones? “Nobody is as good as us.” I mention David Bowie, who famously sold off the rights to future earnings for jam today. “He sold it cheap. I should have been in charge. I’d have sold the music to commercials and cartoons.”
Why don’t other bands do merchandise like Kiss? He pulls out a Kiss-branded Visa card. “Does Bruce Springsteen have one of these? The other bands aren’t interested.”
But do people actually buy all these Kiss-branded items? How many Kiss coffins have you sold? “About ten thousand.” I find this hard to credit, but press on.
Could any band do the same?
“Who wants a Radiohead casket? I love that band, but they are just music.”
Simmons does not pretend that music is his only interest: it’s profit. “Without profit you can’t feed your family.” He sits back. “I’m going to give you the secret of success. Live like a squirrel. Eat as much as you can and bury the rest.”
The most important thing, he says, is to get rich. “The more you make, the more attractive you are. I will show you the oldest, smallest, bald guy, hung like a two year old, but if he’s rich he’s the most attractive person. What women don’t want is a good looking guy who works on a garbage truck.”
Simmons knows what he’s talking about because he claims to have slept with 4,600 or so women. His new wife is a former Playmate, Shannon Tweed. They married this year, because he loves her, he says. But for 28 years they lived together and had children under a contractual arrangement that ensured neither would get the other’s money if they split.
He was born Chaim Witz, and came to the US aged six when his mother, a concentration camp survivor, divorced his father. He had a tough childhood, and took his first job (delivering papers) aged eight. He went to college, got a degree in education, and became a teacher in New York. He taught Jane Eyre to Puerto Ricans who were not particularly interested, and only for six months because in his spare time he had formed a band, and Kiss was soon playing in stadiums.
Teachers are a higher level of being than him, he says, but he wasn’t happy standing in front of 30 people. He wanted 30,000. “It was more fun, and more profitable.”
Ah, profit again. Would he describe his interest as obsessive? “It’s religious.” Does he ever stop to enjoy his profit? He looks at me like I’m an imbecile. “The point of the profit is to generate more profit. It’s not the kill. It’s the hunt. If you are a hunter, you don’t go home and say, I’ve killed something, you go to kill something else.”
Simmons can’t understand why I don’t get this. “Are you on crack?” he asks, looking genuinely annoyed.
Suddenly, his people enter the room and bundle me and the photographer into a small annex, telling us to keep quiet.
For a long while, we study the plum-coloured walls. Then Julian tries the door, but finds himself staring into the snake eyes of Cobra, and shuts it again. The air becomes stale. Feeling increasingly faint, I wonder about phoning the police. But then we’re released, and taken back to Simmons, who stands over a plate of sandwiches and chips. Would we like some?
It turns out that we were ejected so that he could fit in an interview with a radio station.
I don’t have long, because I must leave when Simmons stops eating. So I ask him about music. He makes up a song for me, freely improvising meaningless rhymes as he bites into a sandwich, tapping his metal-tipped cowhide boots on the carpet. But he hasn’t brought a guitar on this trip, he says. (A telling admission, I think.)
He’s on his last chip. Can he give me a final piece of financial advice? He does, but it’s not not a tip that will please retailers, or governments eager to promote growth, nor even the people who work so hard to sell Kiss merchandise. “Cut down on spending,” he says sternly. “Because every penny you spend, you have to earn another penny for tax.”