On Feb. 18, 1974, Casablanca Records released Kiss’s first album, Kiss. It didn’t do very well. Critics and listeners who had followed rock music in its post-Beatles era turn into serious, high-minded stuff dismissed the band as a novelty act. Upon seeing them perform for the first time, executives from Warner Bros. dissolved their partnership with Casablanca. Despite a considerable amount of tinkering and several attempts at releasing a single that would catch on with pop listeners it initially sold only 75,000 copies, a flop at the time.
Forty years later Kiss’s debut is ensconced firmly in the rock canon, and after years of being passed over for acts with more critical respect the band will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this April. Some of the credit goes to the music itself, which blended bits of glam and heavy metal with unexpected pop hooks. But mostly the album, and the group that made it, were a success because of some of the most brilliant and successful marketing the music industry’s ever seen. From makeup to caskets, here’s a look back at Kiss’s marketing strategy.
Alice Cooper had been wearing outlandish makeup for years by the time Kiss came around, and David Bowie had already popularized glittery spaceman costumes, but there was something about the way Kiss pulled them together that transcended their influences. Never allowing themselves to be seen by the public outside of their sci-fi kabuki getups, the members seemed somehow more than human, and helped add a bit of mythical heft to their unpretentious musical arrangements and frequently juvenile lyrics. Without the makeup Kiss could have been successful, but they never would have been as big as Kiss.
Along with their distinctive costumes and makeup, each member of Kiss came up with his own supernatural alter ego: Gen Simmons was the Demon, Paul Stanley was Starchild, Ace Frehley was the Spaceman, and Peter Criss was the Catman. While the stage personas were only vaguely sketched out, they were more than enough for the creative staff at Marvel Comics to develop them into full-on comic book superheroes in 1977, complete with superpowers and interactions with the X-Men and Dr. Doom. Twenty years later, Kiss collaborated with Image Comics on a series tied into their Psycho Circus album that ran for an impressive 31 issues.
Kiss’s many critics liked to dismiss the band as kids’ stuff compared to, say, Lou Reed and Todd Rundgren, who also released records the same week as Kiss. A band more concerned with their critical reputation wouldn’t have signed on to release action figures through the Mego company in 1978, but Kiss was strictly focused on the commercial end and embraced the segment of their audience that happened to overlap with Saturday morning cartoons. Reed and Rundgren may have made more important music, but they never had their own lines of toys.
In 1978 pinball still had a juvenile-delinquent edge, so it was perfectly synergistic to give the band that confused and outraged parental types more than any other of the era its own machine. From a strictly pinball perspective it wasn’t anything special, but the fact that it had the faces of Kiss plastered all over it has meant there are still a remarkable number of them that fanatic owners have kept in playable condition.
The live album had been around for ages by the time Kiss released Alive! in 1975, but few acts before or after exploited the format as effectively as they did. Although the rumors about tapes being tinkered with extensively in the studio afterward call into question whether or not it technically qualifies as a live recording, Alive! managed to finally capture the band’s on-stage energy that the previous three studio albums couldn’t, and finally got them a break with a mainstream pop audience. Considering its massive success, it’s not surprising that they’ve released six more live albums since.
Musicians in popular acts release solo albums all the time, but only an act as willing to push the limits of their audience’s budgets as Kiss would contrive to release one solo album per member (complete with coordinating sleeve art) on the same day. That there was only about one LP’s worth of good material spread over four of them seriously tested their fan base’s limits, but the sheer hubris of the act has made it a legendary moment in music business history.
Pop culture fan clubs are mostly aimed at teenage girls and sci-fi geeks, but when the Kiss marketing machine was at the peak of its powers it transformed a two-man fan club in Terre Haute, Ind., called the Kiss Army into an organization with an estimated 100,000 members that allegedly brought in $5,000 a day, whose emblem hardcore rock fans proudly displayed on their jean jackets.
'Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park'
Kiss was a multimedia entertainment company before “multimedia” even existed. It only made sense that at some point they’d try their hand at filmmaking. Produced by Hanna-Barbera (the studio best known for making Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones) and aired on NBC (CMCSA), 1978’s Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park was a complete mess that would eventually become legendary among pop culture aficionados for its all-encompassing badness, but even in its massive failure it’s a tribute to the band’s willingness to think big.
Removing the makeup
When your brand identity is so intrinsically tied to one element, like only appearing in public wearing full-face makeup, when the gimmick’s novelty runs out the smart move is to make a big deal out of getting rid of it. That’s what Kiss did in 1983 when they released Lick It Up, appearing on the album cover and in public au natural (or as close as 1980s rock got to it) for the first time in the band’s existence and causing a brief but massive media explosion. Although it only gave a temporary boost to a band that was faltering (Frehley and Criss had left by then), the spectacle the act generated is an excellent lesson in PR judo.
From the start Kiss’ commercial ambition was considered unseemly, even by the crass standards of the 1970s music industry, and that reputation has remained one of the only constants in its existence. In 2001 they stirred up a fair amount of popular outrage by unveiling the Kiss Kasket, a Kiss-themed coffin retailing for nearly $5,000 that wasn’t intended strictly as a novelty item but as a legitimate option for devoted Kiss fans to be buried in. It’s proven so popular that the band now sells two different designs, and for those who’d prefer to be cremated there’s also a Kiss urn.