Since 1973, Twisted Sister has performed over 9,000 shows in 37 countries and our music and merchandise is sold in over 100 countries. Our songs are among the most licensed in the world for movies, TV shows, and commercials.
We started out only two years after the Beatles broke up, when nobody and no band ever thought that there was a life outside the time frame of one's immediate success. Here I am 42 years later and Twisted Sister is a worldwide brand. How did we do it?
Lots of hard work, a little luck, and foresight.
But first, it's important to point out that I'm no longer in the music business. I'm in the Twisted Sister business. Believe it or not, those are, today, two very different animals, although they used to be joined at the hip. It used to matter that I read Billboard magazine to check the music charts to follow our record sales. Now it doesn't. It used to matter that I check contemporary radio play to find out how much we get played on terrestrial radio. Now it doesn't. It used to matter how much my tour grosses are. Now it doesn't, because we don't tour; we are headliners on big festivals sharing the bill with dozens of bands. This has grown into a huge performing market and has changed the face of touring for bands of a "certain age."
We operate in a very different world now than we did when we started. The name Twisted Sister itself was created to reflect a specific time in rock music, when the music scene was led by David Bowie, Lou Reed, T Rex, and Sweet. It was a time of androgynous imagery and sexual confusion. This was in 1973, when the band became pretty popular in the club circuit. However, after two years of playing, band disputes led to the first breakup. Over the next two years, several lineup changes occurred and the original glam band style was rapidly changing during a less sexually confusing time in the business, and the name started to date the band. My agent suggested a name change.
At this point we looked like the Velvet Underground. I was singing lead at the time but had limited vocal range. I hired Dee Snider because he could sing Led Zeppelin songs. Dee was a huge Alice Cooper fan and convinced me to double down on the glam image at the same time as The Rocky Horror Picture Show became very successful. We started to become very popular again on the circuit on the strength of our live shows, which were becoming famous for things other than music. We became a performance art band, by mistake and trial and error, leading the Death to Disco movement. Our stage antics became legendary.
As the word of mouth started to make us the most popular band in the history of the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut club circuit (we hold the attendance records for every major club in the tri-state area), we had a much greater dilemma. Record companies couldn't get past our image and passed on us time and time again.
So we had to be smarter and more determined. We believed we could outlast the industry disinterest in the band. The best way to do that was to become so big that we couldn't be ignored.
Eventually we were signed to a U.K.-based record label that "got us." They understood the music, image, and humor. The U.S.-based companies never got it but they eventually succumbed because we became an underground phenomenon.
We developed, to my knowledge, the first computer-based fan club so we could track and mail flyers to our fans. We also started a 24-hour hot line you could call to find out where we were playing (we were playing five days a week, every week, all within a 50-mile radius of Manhattan). But the real "first" was that we used FM radio advertisements in a way that no one ever had before. We bought hundreds of one-minute commercials on all the major FM rock stations every week and tagged the first and last 10 seconds of each ad with information regarding our next live show. For the remaining 40 seconds, we featured original songs that we wrote and recorded. Casual listeners thought that we were being played in regular rotation on several of the biggest FM stations. This gave us a huge image imprint and larger-than-life media presence.
The MTV image that we created and exploited and that brought us to the peak of worldwide popularity in 1984 led to a burnout. Dee quit and went solo in 1988. I didn't. My bass player, Mark Mendoza, and I kept the band's name alive by producing various CDs of live shows over the next 12 years.
I owned the Twisted Sister trademark, and I started to notice the words Twisted Sister were being used in the media, in headlines, usually to describe violent crimes involving crazy women. I also started seeing companies using the name on products. I retained a lawyer and went after many companies trying to exploit the name, among them: Six Flags amusement parks, Urban Decay makeup, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and dozens of small mom-and-pop stores and restaurants. If you own a trademark, you better be ready to protect it or risk losing it.
First, I usually called someone involved with the company and told them who I was. I explained that I own the trademark and that they should stop using it ASAP. Many stopped at that point. If they didn't, our lawyer wrote a cease-and-desist letter. If that didn't work, then we began court proceedings. It can and has cost me a lot of money, and I rarely ever get any money in return. But what you do get is that the trademark infringement is stopped.
We also license our music very aggressively. This is for two reasons: We derive a huge income stream from this exploitation, and our music reaches listeners in new ways, building more fans.
Our ability to license songs like "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "I Wanna Rock," two of the most recognizable stadium anthems of the '80s, was inconceivable 30 years ago, when they were released. It didn't occur to me that it was possible until I was in England in 1988 and found out that the Ben E. King hit "Stand by Me," from 1961, had just hit number one on the charts again, thanks to its use in a popular TV commercial.
At that moment, I realized a whole new use for our music. In 1998, Comtrex Nasal Spray licensed one of our songs and it changed our lives.
Song licensing begins to take on a life of its own after multiple uses over several years. The more any song appears in movies, TV shows, and commercials, the more producers and advertisers consider the value of its familiarity (a very big comfort zone for advertisers) and the song winds up on a short list of "must haves." "I Wanna Rock" and "We're Not Gonna Take It" have reached that exalted status. Every year, like clockwork, these songs are licensed for multiple uses and will probably continue to be for years to come.
I've also found other ways to extract value from the brand. Between the years of 1998 and 2001, when the band reunited, I did several record deals with unreleased masters. This kept the press always interested in case we ever regrouped. The one thing of which I was sure: We would come back only if we could regroup with the original lineup. I knew that that had enormous value. We stayed away for 13 years and created a pent-up market.
So many of our fellow bands fell apart when the hair-band era crashed in 1988 with the emergence of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The scene seemed to disappear like the dinosaurs after the meteor strike. Luckily, we had stopped performing about a year before that Big Bang, and I felt that if we could reemerge one day, it would be kind of like returning from a state of suspended animation.
Two things happened over the past 15 years which, taken together, are responsible for our continued viability.
- The good fortune of having songs that reflect an era and a message that companies want to be associated with. You can't predict these things but you can, once you see a trend, encourage those companies that control your music (usually the publishing company that owns the songs) that there is lots of money to be made in the exploitation of the music.
- A great live product. We always get the best live reviews and audience response, and, until last March, had a rare, fully intact band with the original album lineup, a band that could perform the music live as well as or better than in its heyday. This created huge demand by promoters and the fans.
Such is the demand for great '80s music, both live and in movie soundtracks, TV shows, and commercials, that those who can deliver the goods can really benefit financially.