An interview with Paul Stanley, Kiss’ hirsute party-starting frontman, doesn’t go in any way, shape or form as a longtime fan might expect. This is, after all, Starchild, who back in the day in his rocktastic onstage falsetto-tinged banter would ask such trenchant questions as, “How many of you girls like to get licked?” or more famously on 1975’s Alive! “How many people here like to take a taste of alcohol!?”
But with age (he’s now 65), road miles (43 years) and family life (four kids between the ages of 5-22) comes wisdom. The Kiss frontman is thoughtful, articulate and touches upon such philosophical topics as human fallibility, finding your path and the value of altruism and self-empowerment and not so much partying every day. Stanley, these days, seems more Star Wars‘ Yoda than Starchild.
The irony is as uninterested in the material world as he now seems, we’re discussing the band’s latest merchandising milestone: Over the last year, with the help of longtime merch partner Epic Rights, Kiss hit the 125 global licensing deal benchmark. The band throughout it’s career has sold some half a billion dollars retail value at stores and concerts which helps backs Kiss’ claim to being the most merchandised band of all time. For context, in 2015 the group made the Top 150 Licensors List published in License Global whic, based on 2014 revenues, reported their merch at $100 million.
“Sometimes people who will watch the band from the periphery and talk to me about the band’s ‘golden years,'” Stanley says. “And I go, ‘These are the golden years, these here now.’ This has been a steam roller that has only picked up steam in terms of monetary compensation — nothing compares to today.”
Indeed while Kiss trailblazed new merch and fan club territory in the mid-1970s with a torrent of t-shirts, patches, posters, lunch boxes and the formation of the Kiss Army, its vast merch arsenal today continues breaking new ground. It’s millennial-friendly wares now include Kiss emojis, mobile video games, moisturizing face masks, carbon fiber bikes and credit/debit cards (see Billboard’s Gallery of New Kiss merch).
Billboard caught up with Stanley to discuss the band’s licensing juggernaut, its origins, the odds of another reunion and how from Kiss condoms to Kiss coffins the band “get you coming and going…”
Billboard: Congratulations on Kiss’ latest merch milestone, 125 global licenses.
Paul Stanley: We’ve had thousands of licensing partners over the years but my objective has never been to have bragging rights by accumulating volumes of licensing partners; rather, it’s been about using decades of successes as a spring board to elevate our position in terms of gaining higher stature affiliations.
How did Kiss’ merchandising begin?
Organically. We came at a time when fan clubs were frowned upon. Fan clubs harkened back to an age of Fabian and Frankie Avalon and seen as a ploy by management and record companies to sell the flavor of the week. But when we came into being people wanted to align themselves with us. They were the ones who said, ‘We want a t-shirt, a belt buckle.’ It’s very easy to tag us as marketing geniuses, but I would rather say we have very acute hearing.
Who was the main force behind it all?
Bill Aucoin, our original manager, was a visionary and the fifth Kiss member and more than just some token title. It was his vision to merchandise the band. In the beginning we all scratched our heads, but it was his idea for the fan club and creating belt buckles, t-shirts and initially partnered Ron Boutwell . That spawned everything that came afterward.
Who came up with the face paint?
Was Starboy was your invention?
Yeah, it certainly came from me, but there was a syncronicity to it. Something”s going on when four people are on a journey together, so in some way we all certainly impacted each other.
Who made the Kiss logo?
The initial design was done by Ace [Frehley] but the one that to this day appears on everything was actually drafted by me. I did it on my parents coffee table with a ruler and a piece of white oak tag–a kind of poster board. The two S’s are not actually parallel to each other because I did it by eye. When we got our record deal we were asked if we wanted to have the logo straightened and I said, “It got us this far, leave it alone.”
How did the cardboard Love Gun come about?
The love gun came in the album of the same name. What we tried to do even with the albums, for lack of a better comparison, was create a Cracker Jacks box. We wanted people to get something special inside knowing that anything we did was unique and a signature of who we are. We wanted our albums to be an event
Did you ever get criticized for the merchandising?
We were snickered at by other bands until they saw the checks we were getting and all of a sudden they joined the parade. I tend to think we live by a law of commonality. In other words, no one is that different from anyone else and when i can provide something that I want and satisfy a need in myself I satisfy a need in someone else.
How does that apply to say the Kiss condoms and caskets?
I just believe we can get you coming and going [laughs].
What’s your favorite piece of merch?
I love all Kiss merch – if I didn’t we wouldn’t sell it. But my favorite items are shirts, shirts and more shirts. Our concerts are a sea of 40 years of Kiss shirts. We’ve done a 1,000 designs and sold close to $5 million in shirts. Also, my family loves playing the Stern Kiss pinball game. It’s an incredible piece of technology and a very worthy successor to the original 1970’s Bally model. I also love my Kiss credit card.
The diversity of mercch is amazing
We are just so malleable in terms of what we can be whether it’s stuffed animals or Kiss Monopoly,
I was surprised by the craftsmanship of the Japanese merch with kabuki masks, calligraphy and handmade prints.
There is a ancient Japanese art form, Ukiyo-e, and you have these artisans who spends months creating these traditional images incorporating Kiss. They’re spectacular. Its mind-boggling.
Do you ever turn down merchandising deals?
Sure. There is nothing that’s worth doing that is immoral or unethical — i think if you stick with that you’re in good shape. There were times we were offered significants amounts of money for either playing some place we thought was not holding up their end in terms of social, political or humanitarian activity and we also said no to tobacco companies. Over the years, and more so now than ever, I realize I have to answer to my children. They can’t see their father as a fraud.
What is it that makes Kiss endure?
There’s a tremendous sense of validation for fans who have stood by us over the years, whether it’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction or the endurance of the band over the years I almost see us at this point somewhere between the largest cult in the world and a tribe.
In terms of your career and these global licensing deals are your revenues as much as it’s ever been?
More, more. What people perceive as the pinnacle of the band tends to be the mid-1970s when we first came on the scene. In terms of our impact and in terms of monetary compensation, nothing compares today.
How did you get involved with Epic Rights?
The history of Epic Rights is Dell Furano. Dell was with Bill Graham and literally sold Grateful Dead t-shirts in the Bay Area. Dell has been our partner for as long as I can remember. Dell’s proven himself with other acts too and dare I say other acts have gone to him too because of his relationship with Kiss.
Touring has become more monetized than ever and streaming has risen dramatically–where else do your revenues come from?
It’s all of it. It’s all become much more refined and it’s become business in every sense as well it should because you want to maximize your earning potential. When we played Anaheim Stadium in 1977 tickets were probably six or eight dollars. I grew up in an era where I’d go to the Fillmore East to see Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Who or all these fabulous bands for $3.00.
How about the VIP packages I saw on your website?
We pretty much invented the VIP package. It’s a way for those who are in a position to get to experience something others don’t get a chance to. When you take part in a platinum package we make sure it’s a memorable event. You get to hear us play acoustic for a maximum of 75 people usually in the late-afternoon. Then we sign things, take photos before the show and you’re guaranteed seating in the first rows — it’s something unique. If you can give somebody something and they thank you after they’ve paid you, you’ve done your job.
How do you like doing meet and greets?
I love it. I do, I want to meet those people. It’s also an opportunity, as we’ve done on our recent tours to spotlight friends who are in the military. On this last tour we gave $150,000 to military vet organizations and every night we brought vets out on stage and a color guard on stage. I often get a chance to meet people who are less fortunate or physically disabled, and meeting and being with those people can go a long way.
What’s the Kiss demographic now?
Kiss is an anomaly in that if you go to a show you might see your neighbor a few rows up or if you come with your dad or your grandfather, you’re all sharing this secret society you all covet and love. There’s a sense in families of almost passing it down, wanting your children to experience the wonder and joy and power this band gives people.
Is there a message that brings Kiss fans together?
If we preach anything it’s self empowerment, which enables you to do anything. We are very much the showpiece for what is possible if you believe in yourself and your expectations. Success doesn’t necessarily come easy, but how hard you’re willing to work for something is in direct correlation to how important something is to you. We walk it like we talk it. Our work ethic, our belief in ourselves and our belief in fans is without equal.
You really seem to love your fans.
I have nothing but gratitude and a sense of obligation to the people who made us successful. Part of my responsibility is in as many ways as possible to give back, whether it’s just joy, monetary or charitable donations or anything. My book [Face the Music], was eye opening for people who perhaps felt different and may have had issues–whether they are psychological or physica–and realize that somebody who they looked up to and were inspired by, is really no different them. I have the same issues and the same struggles they do.
Who knew you were so philosophical and Yoda-like?
Those are the seeds that grow a great tree…but I’m not Yoda.
Have you ever done anything spiritual or philosophical with your merch?
Hopefully we inspire people by what we do but I would not see us in a position of a instructor. Each one of us has to find our own truth and our own path. Always be weary of the person who says to you, ‘Well if I were you I would…; Well you’re not me. So the best i can do is lead by example.
What’s coming up?
We go out in May. We just did 40 shows in 10 weeks in America, which is not what many bands do at this point. Now we’re home, we’re doing the Mardis Gras –we’re Kings of Mardi Gras at Endymion. We were actually kings of Endymion in 1979 in New Orleans but there was a police strike so we couldn’t participate. Then we have a tour of Europe coming up.
What are your tours like these days?
Every time we hit the road now it’s a victory lap, we’re celebrating what we’ve done and it’s a joyous night with people who either have been there since the beginning or people who may have joined yesterday.
How’s your manager Doc McGhee?
Doc has been the perfect fit. When we decided to stop self-managing and put the reunion tour in the works — we knew that it was getting much too big to do ourselves. And the only meeting we had was with Doc. His vision and his total getting of who we are, who we’ve been and where we wanted to go was undeniable. I can remember years before when we thought about perhaps bringing a manager onboard and meeting with a very famous manager and he said to us, ‘Why don’t you wear makeup on half your face?’ And i said, ‘Why don’t you get my car…’
I saw something in the paper about Ace willing to join back up again, any original members reunion possibilities?
No. And that’s not coming from any place of animosity. I sang on Ace’s most recent album and did a video with him. I have the connection and the reconnection and to celebrate the good things we’ve done together is terrific. The band as it is—I’ve played with Eric Singer for I think 25 years and Tommy’s [Thayer] been in the band probably 15 years at this point. I have no thoughts of re-visiting the past. With that said I am happy to enhance or do whatever i can for anyone who has helped put me where I am, but that doesn’t include getting hitched again to somebody I unhitched from.
Would you ever have guessed you’d be doing this for 43 years?
No because there was no precedent. I hoped for five years because that was the norm. Bands didn’t’ last decades. The era before us was an era, for the most part, of teen idols and they lasted until the audience got tired and then they were served a new teen idol. It was a very different situation when those people were singing the songs of songwriters as opposed to writing songs that reflected their own experiences. Once artists began to write their own tunes then anything is possible. As long as you reflect your audience you can continue.