Rock Inc.

Rockin’ Out… and Cashin’ In…

KISS Monster Golf

KISS Monster Golf

Margaritaville

Margaritaville

Cabo Wabo

Cabo Wabo

Vince Neil's girls girls girls

Vince Neil's girls girls girls

 

KISS was one of the first bands to put the word “business” into “music business.” Sure, over-the-top theatrics and enduring rock anthems like “Rock and Roll All Nite” put butts in arena seats, but KISS bassist/singer Gene Simmons – born Chaim Weitz in Haifa, Israel – knew there was more he could tap into. Much more.

Simmons, 62, as known for his business acumen and blunt talk as he is for his long tongue and demon makeup, quips: “I never knew there was so much money out there.”

“In all seriousness, though, this has never really been about money,” he says. “The irony is that the band and everybody accuses as if it’s bad. [But it’s] about being businessmen, which I think, is the most ethical behavior to have – to have a business ethic.”

With the rise of digital music, the demise of brick-and-mortar record stores and negligible CD sales (not to mention that bands no longer get big advances and label support), how’s a rock star supposed to make a living these days? For many, the answer is licensing and branded business ventures. That may include alcohol, restaurants, and in the case of the KISS brand, everything from caskets to mini golf to condoms to wine and a line of gear from the FOX Family Guy TV show (which the perfect-for-cartoons band has guested on several times). For the record, there are (count ’em) 3,000 licensed KISS items.

While Simmons is more ambitious – and successful – than many of his ilk, former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar also has made a killing with his non-musical ventures, especially since selling 80 percent of his tequila company, Cabo Wabo Enterprises, to Davide Campari-Milano in 2008.

“The tequila business pays for me to still be in the music business,” Hagar acknowledges in his autobiography. “That’s the great gift of Cabo Wabo. The only people that sell records anymore are brand-new little pop bands that kids buy. That breaks my heart.”

Shep Gordon, restaurateur and manager of shock-rocker Alice Cooper, who owns Cooperstown sports bar and restaurant in downtown Phoenix, worked with Hagar in the early days of the booze biz. “Jimmy Buffett had Margaritaville. Sammy asked me to get involved in his restaurants,” recounts Gordon. “I went down to Cabo, tasted the tequila he was serving in bottles and said, ‘Let’s follow the highway Buffett has paved.’”

Like Buffett, Hagar exemplifies the party-boy beach life, and one of the Red Rocker’s latest ventures is the Hawaiian-grown Sammy’s Beach Rum. Hagar has five Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill locations nationwide. Stephen B. Kauffman, president of Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, says the eateries “came before the rum, much like the Cabo Wabo Cantina in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, came before Cabo Wabo tequila.” The rum is sold in about 25 percent of the U.S., but should be available nationwide by mid-July. Says Kauffman, “We are selling all we can produce. We expect this to be much bigger in volume than the tequila.”

This will make multimillionaire Hagar able to afford even more private planes, and give him the ability to support his less-lucrative but more beloved musical endeavors. As with Simmons and other rockers with branded ventures, “Sammy is involved in all aspects of the business,” says Kauffman. “He is hands-on and is somewhat of a creative workaholic. He calls me night and day with ideas and new concepts. And he’s usually right-on with his instincts.”

Ditto Simmons and another musician who put down Las Vegas roots, Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil. One of his band’s biggest hits is “Girls, Girls, Girls” – and, yes, the band used to dress like girls – sort of. “We’d walk down the street in our high heels and dog collars, down Santa Monica Boulevard (giving out fliers to) anything and everything. It worked. It got people to come to see us. Then once people saw us, they wanted to see us again. That really started the word of mouth.”

All that banter eventually translated into platinum records, world tours and a well-documented decade (plus!) of decadence. At 51, Neil still lives the strip club ‘n’ tattoos lifestyle that put his band on the map, and wisely lends his name to those ventures.

Veteran entertainment reporter Robin Leach asked the singer about Déjà Vu Presents Vince Neil’s Girls, Girls, Girls, which opened recently in Vegas: “It is a dream come true. I don’t know why I waited so long. It’s just a natural for me. Of all the business adventures I’ve invested in, this will be my favorite.” In 2006, he opened Vince Neil Ink, a tattoo shop on the Strip, which recently closed as did his rock bar, Feelgoods, named for Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood record, although the eatery’s West Palm Beach, Fla., location is open for rockin’ patrons.

Other Mötley ventures have included hits and misses. In 1998, Mötley Crüe opened S’Crüe, a store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. It closed in less than a year. Though Neil has had two drunken-driving convictions (including a 1984 crash that killed a friend), he’s still involved in the booze biz, with the 2007 launch of his Tres Rios Cantina (and bar at the LVH Las Vegas Hotel & Casino); a Vince Vineyards winemaking venture, plus his annual “Off the Strip Poker Tournament.”

Neil plans to expand his “tits and tats” ventures beyond Nevada: “I’ve always wanted to have a strip club. It’s … a dream come true. I’ve been going to strip clubs my whole (adult) life, so I might as well own one,” he told the Las Vegas Sun. “In the next two years, we’ll have at least two more clubs open, hopefully more, and I’m looking for club spots right now, in New Orleans and elsewhere where I tour.” Rough life, Vince!

If Mötley- and KISS-related endeavors appeal to the wilder, darker side of baby boomers in Vegas, then another rock legend is more sunny-side up. Jimmy Buffett came to Vegas 30 years ago as a starving artist: “I was headed out to Los Angeles for an audition with the New Christy Minstrels to see if I could make it in the music business,” he recalls. “If I’d joined that group, maybe there would be no Coral Reefer Band, no Margaritaville and no ‘5’o’clock somewhere in the world’ slogans.” Back in Vegas a little more flush, he’s now cashing in with the first-ever Margaritaville gaming salon at the Flamingo (after winning a gaming license from the state), with another recently opened in Biloxi, Miss. He’s also got 12 Margaritaville café locations, three “Air Margaritavilles” in airports and a beach hotel in Florida. Buffett says: “It all turned out pretty well. I certainly can’t complain about how things turned out after losing my first audition.”

Neil, Buffett and Hagar are certainly proponents of the brands they back with their names. Alice Cooper’s Cooperstown – with its slogan, “Where rock and jocks meet” – is a natural for Cooper, a beyond-avid golfer and huge baseball and football fan. However, it’s difficult to imagine Simmons having a mad passion for mini-golf. But, as it’s been shown, more than almost any other fan a KISS lover will buy just about anything. Luckily for Simmons and his brethren, Cooper manager Gordon feels there’s really no limit to the amount of licensed and branded ventures for a band or artist. However, Gordon believes “there are the wrong types of products; KISS cigarettes wouldn’t be a good thing.”

Brand identity lawyer Vic Sapphire concurs: “As Billy Idol famously said on the MTV bumpers in the ’80s, ‘Too much is never enough.’ However, artists and their advisers need to be honest about the type of act they are and think strategically about whether too many brand extensions at once may burn out their audience and shorten their music careers in the process. It really comes back to having a plan early on in one’s career.”

Simmons’ plan was always about more, more, more – the logo for his late ’80s $immons Records label was a dollar sign, and he signs his name “$.” Simmons received the Lifetime Achievement award from Forbes at the magazine’s “The Entrepreneur Behind The Icon” event. And, as Simmons told students at the London Business School:“Capitalism is the best thing that ever happened to human beings.”

He’s living proof. The grand opening of Kiss by Monster Mini Golf in March this year represents one of several brand-new KISS-related businesses, which include Simmons’ new Rock & Brews bar/restaurant in El Segundo, Calif. (the first of five slated to open), his A&E reality series, Family Jewels, not to mention Cool Springs Life Equity Strategy, a life insurance premium financing strategy that “protects everything that you’ve worked so hard for,” using a combination of bank loans and insurance products.

His new wife is sure to be pleased about that. Simmons, famously against tying the knot, once said: “Marriage is completely out of the question. I’ve never been married, I refuse to be married. Marriage is a beautiful institution, but you’ve got to be fucking nuts to be in an institution. And I’m not there yet.”

He got to matrimony after many years, marrying former Playboy Playmate Shannon Tweed, mother of his two children, after 28 years of non-wedded bliss. The 2011 nuptials were at the Beverly Hills Hotel, near the couple’s home. But for KISS fanatics who want to follow in the rockers’ boot steps down the aisle, there’s a Hotter than Hell wedding chapel in the Monster Mini Golf complex. A stage, fashioned after KISS’ Love Gun album cover, is replete with theatrical quality lights, sound and fog machines. The invitations mimic concert tickets, and the chapel provides a “tour manager” on the wedding day to make sure the hitching comes off, well, without a hitch. And for $250, the ceremony can be performed by Pastor “LV Gene Simmons” – in full stage regalia, of course.

Besides his wedding, 2011 was a momentous year for Simmons in another way. He visited his native Israel. He described the trip as a “life-changing experience,” and despite his huge success in the U.S., says, “I’m Israeli. I’m a stranger in America. I’m an outsider.” Simmons and his mother, Hungary-born Flóra “Florence” Klein (formerly Kovács) immigrated to New York when the future rock star was 8. She and her brother, Larry Klein, were the only members of the family to survive the Holocaust. Simmons’ father, Feri Witz, remained in Israel. During his 2011 visit, Simmons met his half-brother Kobi and triplet half-sisters Drora, Sharon and Ogenia. Simmons, who speaks Hebrew, and as a child attended the Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn, has said he wants KISS to perform in his home country.

With new KISS-related ventures seemingly launching on a weekly basis, Simmons’ unabashed ambition has never flagged. In 1996, when the four original KISS members reunited after 14 years apart — they hadn’t yet such a glut of products available — Simmons’ credo was still: “Always more. More money, more good tunes, more fame, more women. Once you’re the champion pole-vaulter of the world, and nobody else comes close, aren’t you at home trying to break your own record?” he asks.

“I’m not in competition with anybody. I’m in competition with myself. It’s the striving, the hunt, not the kill. I want more. It’s called living.”

As this first generation of rock stars ages — most classic rock bands are in their late ’50s and ’60s — more and more will certainly look to licensing and branded ventures to capitalize on the name, minus the exhaustion and expense of mounting a concert tour. Still, this summer sees Mötley Crüe and KISS on the road together. Simmons stresses that he’s ever vigilant in protecting every item bearing the KISS brand. “The idea is, like an animal, you have to spray your turf,” he says. “If we’re not out there (selling items), the bootleggers are. I have too much pride in KISS shirts, KISS music, to let somebody else determine what my T-shirt is going to look like. Ultimately, if I work my balls off and there’s a dollar to be had, I should be the one who gets it, not somebody who didn’t work for it.” According to therichest.org, Simmons’ net worth is $300 million, so he’s apparently his due.

KISS guitarist/singer Paul Stanley may not have the overriding ambition or acumen of his Demon bandmate, but he’s a big part of the equation. “For a bunch of guys who have been hailed as marketing geniuses, the only thing that we can take credit for is having very acute hearing,” Stanley says. “When fans ask you for something, you’re an idiot not to give it to them.”