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.