Everlasting KISS: The Branding of the World’s Most Commercial Band

Sandra Canosa


More than 40 years after their initial formation in New York City in 1973, the band KISS is still living – and selling – large. Since their misleadingly-named “KISS Farewell Tour” in 2001, the group has toured consistently nearly every year, performing over 450 concerts in stadiums and amphitheatres across North and South America, Europe, and Japan; their merchandise sales alone within the same 15-year span topple $500 million.

The particular KISS brand – and the merchandise that so often accompanies it – has long been a site of either fascination or derision, depending on who you ask. The band’s aggressive marketing schemes and gimmicks – from their pyrotechnic stage show to their extensive line of licensed goods that includes action-figure dolls, comic books printed with traces of blood, branded condoms, a line of ladies’ perfumes, and, perhaps the granddaddy of them all, the KISS Kasket – seem proof enough that the band is nothing more than a “sell-out,” an artless grab for commercial profit that, to some, desecrates the good name of rock’n’roll. But this doesn’t seem to trouble the band members’ consciences at all: “Yeah, we sell out,” bassist Gene Simmons says in their VH1 Behind the Music special; “we sell out [our concerts] every night.”

Working and thriving under such auspicious, blatant commercial aims, unabashedly proud – sometimes even arrogant – of their successes, KISS is typically cast as everything authentic rock music ought to be against; the genre’s critical tastemakers and gatekeepers tend to view them only as laughable, unrefined, and unworthy of serious consideration. For example, KISS was only just inducted into Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 2014, more than 15 years after their initial eligibility (even Swedish pop group ABBA got in before them) – and, until that very same year, they had not once graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. “Here we are tonight, inducted basically for the things we were left out for,” frontman Paul Stanley said at the Hall of Fame ceremony honoring them, referring to the alleged 100 million records KISS has sold worldwide. “The people buy albums. The people who nominate do not.”

To their fans, who are notoriously loyal, devoted, and even militant – the “KISS Army” began in earnest when fans in Indiana surrounded their local radio station and demanded they play more KISS records – the band is obviously more than just four overgrown men in black leather spandex, platform boots, and full-faced makeup – though that’s clearly a huge part of their appeal. The four original “characters” – Gene Simmons’ “Demon,” Paul Stanley’s “Starchild,” Peter Criss’ “Catman,” and Ace Frehley’s “Spaceman” – are some of the most instantly recognizable faces in the history of popular music. In fact, they even overshadow their own creators: no one knew what the actual faces of the band members looked like until a dramatically staged “unveiling” on MTV in 1983.

This is exactly what made the group so immediately powerful, and what no doubt has contributed greatly to their enormous longevity. Essentially, it’s not Simmons, Stanley, Criss, or Frehley who are the true members of KISS; it’s the characters who make up the band. And unlike their flesh-and-blood counterparts, these characters never age, never get tired; they don’t have drug problems, day jobs, spouses, or joint pain. They exist entirely within one dimensionality, and with one sole purpose: to rock your face off.

KISS is not so much a band as it is a brand – a brilliantly capitalistic take on rock music that has proved to be both a blessing and a curse for its progenitors. The logics of branding and the rock-star character creations allowed KISS easy extension into the world of merchandising in unprecedented ways, building a nest egg of brand recognition and free advertising through the sheer extent of their line of goods. It’s hard to imagine, for example, a series of Bob Dylan action figures – not only because such capitalistic schemes inherently go against deep-seated romantic notions of rock music’s “authenticity” and the artist’s selfless pursuit of truth and beauty, but also because Dylan is a full, three-dimensional person that cannot be so easily contained within molded plastic. But the Catman exists only as the drummer for KISS – and when you buy his toy likeness, you can put him in any pose you want.

While branding, marketing, and merchandising helped the band accrue their massive crop of fans in the 1970s, it also served as a point of tension within the group. Drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley were dismissed from the band or resigned, respectively, by the early 1980s, Frehley later telling Behind the Music that it was “too much merchandising and not enough focus on the music for me… I consider myself an entertainer second and a musician first.”



Remaining members Simmons and Stanley’s attempts to create new characters with new band members, however – including Eric Carr’s Fox and Vinnie Vincent’s Wiz – coincided with a gradual waning of the group’s popularity. Their “non-makeup years,” from 1983 to 1996, earned for the band relatively steady commercial success, but still diminished compared to their initial prominence. In many ways, non-makeup KISS was simply not the same band as KISS; today, few songs from that era are even performed at KISS concerts.

Simmons claims he was motivated in the mid-‘90s to reunite the original four members – with full makeup – because he noticed the growing popularity of KISS tribute bands and KISS conventions, where people dressed and made themselves up in the old ‘70s look. “We just shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘this is probably what the fans want,” he told VH1.

But KISStory, like history, has a habit of repeating itself. When the four original characters got back together, so did their same problems. Criss was again dismissed from the group in 2001 over contract disputes and Frehley left in 2002, again citing artistic frustration. This time around, however, Simmons and Stanley found a new way to keep the ball rolling: in a move they both apparently now regret, Criss and Frehley sold (or licensed – there appear to be some conflicting views) the creative rights of their character makeup to Stanley and Simmons. Now, anyone can be a Cat or a Spaceman – or, indeed, a Demon or Starchild. Stanley and Simmons, both now in their 60s, told Rolling Stone a few years ago that they planned to eventually replace their own characters with new actors, effectively allowing KISS to go on forever.

This makes good business sense, on one hand. There’s clearly money to be made in franchising out KISS; Simmons estimates the brand’s value in terms of multiple billions of dollars. And in many ways, a revolving door of rock band members should not seem so strange; after all, this is how we routinely experience staged plays, musicals, ballets, and even orchestras. Yet there is something about rock music that seems to recoil from the idea that a rock star could be replaceable – indeed, willingly want to replace himself.



When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sought to induct KISS, they only intended to honor the four original members – a symbolic gesture Simmons and Stanley adamantly argued against. Because where the institution of Rock – embodied within the Hall of Fame – likes to think of its artists as unique, original, irreducible representatives of genius, KISS steps in to declare just the opposite. On Planet KISS, it doesn’t matter so much who’s behind the mask of makeup or wearing the platform boots, so long as the audience is having a good time. In fact, even as Stanley and Simmons tour with their fellow current band members, there are hundreds of officially-sanctioned KISS tribute bands performing across the world. Like a food franchise – Starbucks, or McDonald’s, for example – all these KISS bands deliver the same menu of rock’n’roll in a way that is comforting in its instant recognition. Above all, it’s what the people want.

KISS has always put their fans first – and for that, they’ve been accused of lacking integrity, artistic merit, and authenticity. And in fact, these are precisely the ideas about rock music KISS seeks to undermine. Even from their humble beginnings, KISS sought to spread their particular vision for the ultimate rock’n’roll group as far as possible. “What we were doing was undeniable,” Stanley told VH1 about their early days in New York; “we knew that we would take over the world.”


Author Bio:

Sandra Canosa is Highbrow Magazine’s chief music critic.

For Highbrow Magazine

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