Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Kiss and Sell | Lefsetz Letter

This is a bad book.

Stars write tomes that leave the dirt out.

Outsiders write short briefs of sour grapes with the details included.

Unlike the former, Chris Lendt can actually write, but he goes on interminably with details we don’t care about and doesn’t reveal those we do.

This is an old book. Published in 1997. But a reader recommended it, after reading my words about Noel Monk’s Van Halen book.

Needless to say, “Kiss and Tell” is out of print. So I ordered a used copy on Amazon. And two weeks later I got a Spanish language book. But after getting a refund I reordered the right book from a different reseller and it arrived.

I wish I’d never bought it.

Ever since I got a Kindle I finish books. I read the sample chapter, decide whether to buy or not, and if I do, I slog through to the end. Don’t ask me why, it’s my personal achievement in a world where nothing seems to matter. No one can read everything and the older you get the more you wonder where you fit in, what’s your status, do you count, and it’s these little accomplishments that keep you going.

And since I’d gone through all the trouble of actually getting the book, I dove in. But after reading the umpteenth description of what some peripheral character wore to a meeting, I wanted to throw the book against the wall.

So the bottom line is Kiss is not as rich as you think they are, at least not at the time this book was written.

That’s right, Gene Simmons lies all the time. And in the era the band was big, the seventies, there was no internet, no way to correct him.

And after believing their own hype, they were close to broke and had to go on the road to pay their bills.

Now they’re an oldies act playing to nostalgic fans and young ‘uns who want to see what it was all about.

And there you have the paradigm of all the classic acts that still survive.

And they’re dying on a regular basis.

But Paul and Gene were not abusers, barring the Big C, or some other malady, they’ll be able to tour a long while.

So for those who weren’t around the first time, Kiss was an abhorred band that got no respect that ultimately landed a hit, a live take of “Rock and Roll All Nite,” and established a place in the mainstream.

Then Bob Ezrin helped them create their apotheosis, “Destroyer,” and they got an initial victory lap before it all fell apart.

It ends. You think it goes on forever, but you can only be the new thing once. And the audience wants new things. The business people remain, now more than ever, but you’ve got the fame, which you can trade on.

Chris Lendt, the accountant who wrote this book, is an adjunct professor at NYU and a consultant, whatever that means. But Gene and Paul…are still Gene and Paul.

So if you’re looking for bucks, stay on the business side.

If you need the adulation, become a star.

Now the fascinating thing about Kiss is it was not built by the usual suspects. Bill Aucoin was a TV director and Glickman and Marks, the businessmen, were a Wall Streeter and advertising guru respectively. Where else can you go from zero to hero but the music business? Based on pure pluck, intuition.

And the label was run by Neil Bogart, who thought money grew on trees. A hypester from the bubblegum side of the business, Bogart was enthralled by the trappings, until it all caved in, he liked the fame more than the business, and as we’ve established above, you’ve got to choose one or the other.

And by the late seventies, Kiss was drinking their own kool-aid. And even though their over-the-top live show was losing money, they refused to cut back, they needed to be the biggest and the baddest.

But it imploded the band.

Well, first came a lame TV movie.

And then the decision to play to kids. The costumes were now glitzy instead of street, the danger was eviscerated, and the hard core didn’t want to come anymore.

Meanwhile, they couldn’t compete with the likes of Bon Jovi, who used to open for them!

And once you’re past your peak, good luck climbing the mountaintop once again, it’s almost impossible.

So what we learn is Peter and Ace were unreliable, but audience members were attached to them. Beware of kicking out band members, the folks at home don’t know they’re a pain in the ass and can’t play.

Give the people what they want. If you’re selling experimentation, it’s fine to change direction. But if you’re selling meat and potatoes, deliver that. Kiss’s stab at art, “The Elder,” was a failure, it flummoxed its audience.

It’s not gonna go on forever, so watch your pennies.

But no one ever does. They’ve been starving forever. They can’t resist spending. Then they believe their own hype. And most end up back on the street, broke and busted. If you were a good businessman, you wouldn’t be a player, and vice versa.

Beware of living up to your image. Turns out most people don’t’ care, especially today.

And that’s the big takeaway from this book, how different the business is.

You don’t get stiffed, because you play for Live Nation or AEG.

You can play around the world, no problem. When Kiss ultimately goes to Brazil in the eighties, they get the cash up front, but due to a quirk in the law, their equipment is held up and they’ve got to ransom it back for six figures.

You see music is now a mature business. The risks have been squeezed out. Other than the basic risk of supply and demand.

Once upon a time anybody could be a manager and anybody could be a promoter.

Hell, before that anybody could start a label.

But the labels all sold out to majors and today’s top managers are so experienced and we’ve already covered the promoter paradigm.

So what we’ve got is people playing by the rules, and that’s no fun.

But streaming has upset the apple cart, the whole damn internet, and I’m not talking about monetization, that’s old thinking, I’m talking about utilizing the new tools. You can make and distribute for bupkes. You can take chances. And the funny thing is those who do are the biggest winners. Drake doesn’t worry about overloading the audience. Nor does Bieber. As for Chance the Rapper, he doesn’t even have a record deal!
And that’s right, streaming is dominated by hip-hop, because they’re the outsiders, they went where there was opportunity, and the old farts can’t fathom this, they want to go back to the way it once was.

But it never will.

You can’t hype like Kiss, people find out the truth.

And although aged bands can tour to beaucoup bucks, it’s hard for developing acts to do this, you need to make inroads with your records.

And radio means less than ever before, did you read Neil Portnow’s screed? Every day I get pro-radio e-mail, it’s like these lifers are living in an alternative universe.

Kiss found a formula. And drove it into the ground. They wouldn’t take no for an answer. They wanted to be rock stars.

And they succeeded, but the truth is when it was all done all they were left with was their fame. So, if you want cash, go work at the bank, get a degree and climb the corporate ladder.

But people believed in Kiss, they paid attention.

And that’s hard to get, eyeballs.

And they were heroes to zeroes, but even I’ll admit some of those songs were good, in retrospect.

But it was still a crappy band.

But Gene needed to be famous.

He achieved his goal.

Paul too.

Ask yourself what you want in this world.

And if you do it in a different way, in an undermined niche…

You too can succeed.

“KIss and Sell: The Making of a Supergroup”

“Portnow: Artists No Longer Thank Radio”

P.S. If you’re interested in the story of Neil Bogart and Casablanca Records, I recommend the far superior book by Larry Harris:

And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records

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