The 5 most business-savvy rock bands


The top rock bands—despite any anti-capitalist, working-class-hero pretensions—eventually became exceptional business teams.

The numbers (in dollars and cents) don’t lie. Here are my favorite examples, in no particular order.

KISS. From a marketing standpoint they were geniuses. They got it about brand. Their visuals—costumes, makeup, pyrotechnics—made their live shows legendary, building a large and loyal young male fan base. They got it about merchandising too, and raked in more merch dollars than any other musical act in history—nearly a billion by some estimates.

Rolling Stones. They were onto brand early (even if no one used the term then). They stuck to their musical roots as basic rock & rollers, played up their “bad boy” image for media and fans, and exploited their iconic tongue & lips logo. In time they also got wise to royalty percentages and learned how to maximize box office profits. They—and U2—have grossed more in concert sales than any other band, well north of a billion dollars.

U2. They’ve led the pack in managing their own business ops AND their intellectual property. Early on they regained their copyrights from their record company (Island Records) and took a 10% ownership in the company, which was later acquired by Polydor. They also moved their operations to the Netherlands to lower their tax bill. Though they’re virtually tied with the Stones in total box office revenue they’re young enough to eclipse them in that category in the years ahead.

Grateful Dead. They epitomized customer focus and virtually invented the “give-it-away-free” business model by performing hundreds of free concerts and encouraging free taping of performances. (The “Freemium” model of internet business can be directly traced to this.) Their attentiveness to customers paid off in generations of fanatic Deadheads who loyally followed the band from venue to venue and bought truckloads of Grateful Dead merchandise.

Beatles. They (including manager Brian Epstein) made major mistakes—including giving away merchandising rights and getting a low royalty rate on record sales—but that was typical of the times. More importantly, Epstein internalized the band’s desire to be “bigger than Elvis” and consistently took the long view in building their reputation in Britain. They exploited a unique visual image (a “moptop” hairdo) and a unique style of melodic rock to break through worldwide and become the biggest and the best-selling (nearly a billion units) rock band in history.

None of these bands—including their initial managers—were especially business-savvy in the beginning, but through trial and error each managed to build a financial juggernaut that will be earning millions for decades to come.

For more on the Rolling Stones check here. For U2, here. For the Grateful Dead, here.

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  1. Even while I was deriding Kiss for, well, being themselves, I was amazed at their marketability. I had friends who didn't know the difference between The Stones and The Dead, but it was hard to confuse Kiss with anybody.

    1. Watching the Beatles Anthology, one thing that struck me was how intelligent Peter Gabriel sounded.

      Some rockers are obviously not great thinkers. Gabriel is someone I love to spend a month shadowing as he goes about his business.

  2. He's not a band and he's not quite in the same league as the acts you cite, John, but an honourable mention perhaps for Mr. Chuck Berry - a man who has always had a keen sense of his own value and a stubborn refusal to be ripped off by anyone.

    I reckon a lot of his early motivation was a) not wanting to be ripped off by the white man and b) not wanting to be ripped off like so many of his contemporaries were. His legendary insistence on cash in advance perhaps marks him out as slightly less sophisticated than the Stones and the Dead but, as ever with Chuck, he was a pioneer in terms of music, business, race and so many other aspects.

    1. Unfortunately, I don't think Chuck has ended up as successful as he could have been. I think if I had one of the most recognizable brands in the world, I'd manage it a little differently.

      1. I think you're right, Joel. Had he been a little more financially aware or trusted a manager (assuming he found one that was trustworthy) he could have made much more money. I'm a Chuck fan and I really think he was a pioneer. In his case, I think he rather straddles the divide between a lot of early acts who were royally ripped off by labels, promoters, publishers et al and then acts like the Beatles and the Stones who were able to get the money flowing back to the artists. Like many pioneers, Chuck didn't reap the same rewards as many of those who followed but he did an awful lot to pave the way for them.

        1. Indeed. Someone said that if Bo Diddely was paid every time his riff was used in a song, he'd be rich. In fact, if Chess records had made more artist-friendly contracts, a handful of blues artists would have made a wee bit more.

          Chuck seemed to struggle with doing the art and accepting the money. Instead, he started out loving the art and ended up chasing the money, which doesn't work 'cause money can outrun the best of us.

    2. One of the true greats, as I've written about many times. Chuck actually saw a lot of the money he earned, but somehow he forgot to pay taxes on a lot of it. (Oops.)

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