A rock and marketing star

Ex-KISS singer Gene Simmons branches out into reality TV, publishing and auto racing

March 15, 2006|By JOSH FRIEDMAN | JOSH FRIEDMAN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- As the tongue-wagging singer for the rock band KISS, Gene Simmons likes to brag about turning a band into a brand.

Behind the garish makeup, Simmons, 56, was the driving force behind a blitzkrieg of KISS-branded products, from lunch pails to caskets. The band's heyday is long gone, but Simmons says he's far from finished.

The Beverly Hills-based impresario is starring in two reality TV shows, developing a magazine, running his own music label and launching an entertainment-themed pay-TV show that will feature uncensored music videos and celebrity interviews. Think Access Hollywood meets Girls Gone Wild.

Simmons, who calls himself "Disney without the overhead," also still occasionally dons his KISS getup to perform as The Demon.

"I'm as ravenous as ever," he said. "I remember when my belly was empty and I didn't like the feeling."

Since January, he and entertainment industry veteran Richard G. Abramson, 58, have been marketing the Indy Racing League, the once-dominant auto racing circuit that has suffered in the past decade since its split from CART, now the Champ Car World Series. Both so-called "open-wheel" leagues trail stock-car racing's NASCAR in popularity, although Indy has the sport's signature race in the Indianapolis 500 and an emerging star in Danica Patrick.

The relationship began last summer, when Simmons met IRL marketing chief Phil Lengyel during a race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

According to Lengyel, Simmons pointed to an IRL sign and said: "Is that your logo? It stinks."

"We started off with a friendly confrontation," Lengyel says, "and we've been brutally honest ever since."

A few days after the race, Simmons invited Lengyel and IRL's top brass to Los Angeles, where he and Abramson pitched a marketing alliance. To launch the effort, Simmons wrote the foot-stomping anthem, "I Am Indy," with the quirky one-man band BAG to serve as the league theme song.

"At the race track, you could just feel and breathe in the dust," Simmons said in an interview at his home, where his sprawling office is packed with KISS merchandise and memorabilia. "It was an old man's game in need of a makeover."

Saying "IRL" sounded like a disease, Simmons set out to rebrand the league as "Indy."

"You've got to personalize the experience. These are individual, personalized rocket ships streaking 220 mph," Simmons said. "With `I am Indy,' you're making a pledge of allegiance to the United Nations of Indy. The phrase knows no bounds - racial, sexual or otherwise. It applies to drivers, fans, sponsors."

Simmons Abramson Marketing might be able to help "bring together what has been a fragmented part of the motor sports industry," said David M. Carter, head of consultancy Sports Business Group in Redondo Beach and a faculty member at the University of Southern California's Marshall School.

Still, all a celebrity like Simmons or Jon Bon Jovi, who founded the Arena Football League's Philadelphia franchise in 2003, can do, he said, is "whet your appetite. It's then up to the sport itself to turn you into a customer."

Abramson and Simmons share the workload, but because of his entrepreneurial reputation, Simmons is usually the one who makes the first phone call, as he did with IRL's brass last summer.

"People will always give us one chance," Simmons said, "but once you get into that room you'd better have the goods."

Simmons and Abramson are uncharacteristically mum when it comes to their pay television venture known as NGTV, short for No Good TV, which will feature frank interviews and nudity. The company plans to make a public offering of stock this spring and is in the so-called "quiet period" imposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Simmons is chairman of the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based company and Abramson is a board member.

Taped segments feature interviews with celebrities, as well as appearances by musicians, the IPO filing says.

"The timing is right for this sort of leading edge, uncensored programming in the pay-per-view business," said Alan L. Jacobs, chief executive of Capital Growth Financial, the Boca Raton, Fla., investment bank that is underwriting the deal.

Financial analyst Tom Taulli, author of Investing in IPOs, advises investors to tread gingerly, noting that underwriter Capital Growth Financial has managed only a handful of obscure IPOs.

Simmons, who says KISS has grossed more than $1 billion since 1974 from the sale of records, concert tickets and 2,800 licensed products, could settle down to a cushy life with his companion of 22 years, actress Shannon Tweed, and their two children.

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