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Steppenwolf's John Kay: My Biggest Mistake

The lead singer of Steppenwolf learned about the need to be hands-on with the business as well as the music.
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JOHN KAY
Lead singer and founder of the rock band "Steppenwolf"

Thirty years ago our song "Born to Be Wild" became a huge hit. But like most bands, we let our managers handle the business stuff. I always thought that accounting was boring.

In the '70s, after I decided to take some time off to be with my family, another band started using the name Steppenwolf. After years of legal battles, we began touring again as "John Kay and Steppenwolf." Most fans knew I was the founder. It was our competitive edge on the tour circuit. But damage had been done to the name. People were disappointed when they paid to see us and instead saw the other band. A tough four or five years followed.

We were on a shoestring budget--no presidential suites or Lear jets. In the '80s, we decided that we would have to understand the economics of the band. It was the first time I ever cared about numbers--when I finally took responsibility for my own money. I remember the shock when the price of diesel fuel went up a penny a gallon. We were on the road 200 days a year!

We hired a fan of ours named Charley Wolf to help with merchandising, which now makes up 28% of our revenues. Charley helped us build our database and got us an 800 number. As a fan himself, he relates to our fans in a way that I never could. He's like their man on the inside.

What I've found ironic is that our band, which has been around for a long time now, is doing better than ever. Last year was our best in the past 20 in terms of income. Yet we've learned how to mind the store and build assets. And instead of the business side being dull, it's actually very liberating.

It all sounds terribly mercenary, but it's really rooted in Steppenwolf's desire not to have some corporate entity between us and our fans.

Last updated: Oct 1, 1999




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