Interview with Bill Aucoin from 2003 for House of Hair Online
By Ray Van Horn, Jr.
Writer’s Note: In 2003 I was working on a personal project related to the music industry when I was graciously steered towards former Kiss, Billy Idol and Billy Squier manager Bill Aucoin. As a young fan of Kiss in the seventies, the recurring name of Bill Aucoin rang to my eyes on the album credits as an orchestrator of the magic in league with Gene, Paul, Peter and Ace. Little did I know back then Bill was THE orchestrator. Having the opportunity to speak with Bill was a milestone in my journalism career. His gentle candor reminded me of Mr. True Believer himself, Stan Lee, yet in the case of Bill Aucoin, no truer believer existed in his time ushering the hottest band in the world to the masses.
Upon receiving the news of Bill Aucoin’s recent passing, I was initially mortified. During the same interview sessions for this 2003 venture, I’d spoken with Quiet Riot vocalist Kevin Dubrow and Enuff Z’nuff drummer Ricky Parent, both of whom have likewise passed on. This interview with Mr. Aucoin was conducted at the height of a business day. Bill was multitasking with a headset on as we spoke and I was in awe he conveyed such a detailed and poignant interview. Given recent anecdotes by those close to him, we can assume Bill Aucoin’s principles in the music industry are unparalleled. Proof positive given in the interview you’re about to read, presented for the first time as a House of Hair Online exclusive.
I’d like to thank both Lisa Walker and Carol Kaye for their roles in making this fabulous event in my writing life happen.
RAY VAN HORN, JR.: Easily the story that fascinates me the most about you in relation to Kiss is how you financed the Dressed to Kill tour on an American Express card!
BILL AUCOIN: (laughs)
RVH: It seems like you went on a leap of faith with Kiss that you would use a credit card like AMEX, which usually demands payment in full of the balance at the end of the month. Were you sweating any bullets at the time?
BA: Well, at that time we were kind of in an awkward situation, though. The record company was going independent. Initially Casablanca Records was being financed by Warner Brothers, and there’s an interesting story there where Warners didn’t believe in Kiss and they didn’t think a band in makeup would make it at all. So they sent a private memo around saying that “Although we believe in Neil Bogart and we back Casablanca, our feelings are that we won’t back the Kiss group.” So basically they were saying “Let it come out and die and let’s go to the next artist.” Neil got a hold of the memo and of course it was one of his first acts out, and he just felt it was horrible. First of all, this was a private internal memo that he didn’t know about and they went against him on a group that he wanted to try to make happen. It got to be such uproar that he went in to talk to the co-presidents of Warners. Neil had decided he didn’t want to work that way and was going to leave Warners. So that was at the same time we were getting ready to do a tour, so effectively what happened was the money stopped and Neil had to mortgage his house just to keep the record label going; it certainly wasn’t money for touring.
BA: At that point, I was totally committed to Kiss. I just said I was going to put it on my American Express card thinking somehow a miracle would happen. To be honest with you, I don’t think I had put any more than $150 on my American Express card before that, and this month it was going to be $25,000 with all the bills that were coming in and bills we were trying to take care of so we could continue touring. In any case, I went and did it and of course at the end of the month, American Express called me and said “Mr. Aucoin, what do you think you’re going to do? Do you believe you’re going to pay this bill? After all, you haven’t ever spent this kind of money before!” I said “Oh, yes, I definitely think I’m going to pay the bill,” and they really let me get away with it effectively for another week or two. They called back and I said, “Unfortunately, the money we expected to come in didn’t come in.” In those days, which it wouldn’t be the same today, American Express allowed me to keep the card. I said to them I wouldn’t spend any more money until I paid it off, and I think it took me another couple of months. Today they just cancel the card and your credit goes right down the tubes. In those days it wasn’t quite as bad as it is today, and they actually allowed me to spend a couple of months paying it off and in due enough time, we finally got more money than we didn’t, but it was really just one of those situations where you hope somehow you would make it happen.
RVH: So in those early days, it was more about breaking even.
BA: If you’re lucky, yeah. Most of the time we didn’t break even because we put a pretty good-sized stage show together even at the beginning of their career, and with the road crew, the effects and everything else, it was a little tortuous for everyone involved. Like anything else, when you have a lot of people working together that really believe, that makes it a lot easier and a lot more exciting.
RVH: The big money started coming in for Kiss around ’77, ’78…
RVH: How did you overcome those dry years as a manager?
BA: Well, it’s funny, your determination and belief carries you through an awful lot. I’ll tell you a couple of stories. One, a lot of my friends thought that because I came out of television and film that I had just gone off-the-wall, and this group with makeup was a little foolish. They knew I had spent all the money from my production company on the group and they started to be concerned that maybe I wasn’t even eating because there wasn’t enough money and they had secretly talked to each other and said “Look at him, we’d better take him out to dinner and at least make sure he’s eating because he’s so involved with this Kiss group.” So they would plan to take me out two or three times a week. Some would take me out on Tuesdays, some would take me out on Thursdays and some would take me out over the weekend to make sure I would get a complete meal! I had some good friends (laughs), even though they had doubts about the whole Kiss thing.
BA: It got so bad I remember one time when Paul Stanley came into my office and he was coming in to borrow five dollars. He didn’t want to come and ask me right away, so he came in and started talking to me and as he was talking, he noticed that I had a hole in sweater. This was in the winter. So he started to get a little nervous and as he kept talking I couldn’t quite understand what he wanted to talk about, but we were just chatting. So I leaned back in my chair and I put my feet up on the desk and he saw that I had a hole in my shoe! (laughs) When he saw the hole in my shoe, he said he couldn’t ask for the five dollars! (laughs) He made some excuse and left the office. So that’s how bad it got, and we were all in the same boat. Sometimes when you have a team that’s all in the same boat fighting for the same thing, you can get through almost anything.
RVH: You obviously had a lot of faith that Kiss would take over the world as they did!
BA: Yeah, I always had that faith. In fact, I very seldom work with artists that don’t have that determination backing them, whether it was Billy Squier or Billy Idol. The idea is really to make it all work and to think that you’re going to take over the world, because it’s exciting to travel and to meet and play for people around the world. I think any artist should feel that way.
RVH: Like many of us fans, I grew up on Kiss. They were my absolute favorites at the time, and for merchandising, that’s the be all, end all for any band’s success, I think. You yourself had a flair for getting the Kiss marketing machine going with the t.v. specials, the Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park movie, trading cards, action figures, even the Kiss Marvel comic book. Licensing was so important, and I remember there was an episode of the original Incredible Hulk and Scooby Doo with villains wearing something similar to Gene Simmons’ demon makeup.
BA: A little bit, yeah. That was close, but we had a love/hate affair with all of that. It was a big part of the whole Kiss organization and in 1978. We did about 119 million dollars of which 55 million was from merchandising. If you translate that today, that would be like doing half a billion dollars a year. So it was significant in one respect, and we had a lot of breakthroughs that most bands weren’t doing at the time. Everything for stage shows you were using pyrotechnics in different ways that people weren’t. Certainly the blood and the spitting of the fire and everything else, no bands were doing at that point, and along the way we did an incredible amount of merchandising.
When Kiss and I decided to break up, that became a bone of contention, because they felt that it was too kiddie-like and it wasn’t quite what they wanted to do, and they were thinking about taking off the makeup and everything else. Of course, after developing all of this with them for many years, it was really a trauma to me. Significantly trying to protect all of this from people who would use their logo and/or use their merchandising was just as tough. It took me four years to get their faces in the Library of Congress, and they were thinking about taking all of that off, so that became a bone of contention later on, but it was certainly exciting while we were doing it.
RVH: What was it like nurturing a band where Gene and Paul were the general spokespeople, whereas Ace and Peter did their press in increments?
BA: It’s not unusual that one or two people in a band are a little more outspoken than others. That came to a head ironically on the Tom Snyder Show on NBC where Ace and Peter got their just due, and we were all kind of turned around because Tom liked Ace’s sense of humor and so he kind of went to Ace and Peter, but it didn’t always work for Gene. It worked all the time for Paul, but Gene at the beginning we actually forbade him to talk. The reason was he came across way too intelligent, and he came across as a school teacher as opposed to this monster. So we actually forbade Gene to talk to the press for a few years because we didn’t want him to talk like a school teacher. He had to be the monster and fit the image of Kiss, so it didn’t always work out.
RVH: All part of the mystique.
BA: Mmm hmm.
RVH: Let’s talk about later seventies-early eighties era of Kiss: the solo albums, Dynasty, The Elder and Unmasked. They came out in such a blitz like the mid-seventies work, but they weren’t received by listeners in the same light. How did this constant movement play into your role as manager?
BA: It had to do with the fact these guys were working day and night. When we weren’t on the road, we were in the studio. They didn’t have much time. They started making money, they started feeling a little more independent, and we had to give them a break of some sort. The idea then came up that they would love the opportunity to do solo albums—and not necessarily all at once—but solo albums and they loved that idea. They could go off on their own and do what they wanted to do and get away from each other for awhile, then come back and do another Kiss album and tour.
Well, they all started doing it and we came up with the idea of each solo album and they were all going to be ready about the same time…how about putting out four solo albums? That was kind of a bone of contention until Neil had actually gotten some feedback from distributors and the distributors thought “Well, they’re so popular, why not? We’ll just make that much more money.” As the orders started coming in for the potential albums, Neil felt that he could do it and of course we were all excited about it. All of a sudden we get more albums out than we’d ever seen in our lives, and that fell through to everyone else. You could walk into a store and see so many Kiss albums that never looked like anyone was ever buying them and that statement came back. The Kiss solo albums went out gold and they returned platinum, but the truth of the matter is, all of them went multi-platinum, and in due time it was a little much to do it all at once. I’m not sure anyone else is going to try it! (laughs) But that’s what happened.
RVH: (laughs) Do you think there was a control issue on behalf of Casablanca with the handling of the solo albums?
BA: Well, yeah, it was a couple of things. One was they pressed way too many albums, and it happens. The Hamlin Group, which was a major distributor in those days, ordered a million units! Well, God, one distributor ordering a million units! We’d better press up another couple of million! (laughs) So it was kind of one those things, everyone got carried away. Then our advertising agency made a mistake and sent out the wrong ad! We had done three ads: one, the announcement of the solo records, two, going gold and three, going platinum. They sent out the gold ad first, which kind of got everyone nuts. “Oh my God, is it really?” So now people are thinking we should press more! (laughs) It was a mistake that it even went out that way! We were just supposed to have an ad to announce the fact that the albums were coming, so there were little screw-ups along the way, but ultimately they all sold what we thought they would sell. It just got very complicated in-between.
RVH: Kind of an overt sense of giddiness in getting them out.
BA: Yeah, you got it.
RVH: You had some trouble marketing Kiss in Britain for awhile. In your eyes, what is it like marketing a band domestically versus abroad?
BA: Well, it depends. I think the British market felt the same as initially the American market: “What the hell is this band doing with this makeup, and why and how,” and it certainly didn’t fit a lot of the British artists who were making it at the time, so we were kind of out-of-step. It really took us many years for us to keep going back and forth, back and forth between Britain and the States before it all kind of sunk in. But yeah, I don’t think they could see that type of a band working in England, especially when you had a lot of the English groups making it here in the U.S. Kiss certainly didn’t follow that routine at all.
RVH: What I find ironic in today’s market for hard rock and heavy metal is that it’s kind of flip-flopped. It’s like a half and half market in America but it seems to be doing really well in Europe, Japan and South America.
BA: Yeah, it is, but you know, the heavy metal market is a strong market. It always has been. It’s a niche market. The fans are very loyal, and I think certainly for heavy metal it’s getting better and better. If anything, I think it’s probably going to be a little more industrial in the years to come, but it’s still strong, and I think it’s getting stronger every day.
RVH: Eric Carr was my idol when I was learning to play drums. At least in the beginning he appeared to be the odd man out in Kiss though later portrayals show him as one of the family. Happens in transition periods, I’d assume. What are your impressions?
BA: Well, he’s terrific. Eric was one of my favorites because he’s a sweetheart. When I tell you he’s a sweetheart, he’s absolutely a sweetheart! He cared so much for the fans. I mean Eric would spend hours with the fans. He just loved it and he was a real precious item, I think, with Kiss when we needed him. Unfortunately he was the odd man out because both Gene and Paul had decided at the time there was not going to be another true member. He really was a true rock ‘n roller and he cared so much about the idea of being that rock ‘n roller. Mostly he cared about the fans. He was just terrific. I mean, did you ever have a chance to meet him?
RVH: Wish I could say yes.
BA: He was just an incredible human being, and there’s a story behind that. When we finally picked Eric out of 70 drummers, we had to come up with new makeup and a new costume and all that stuff. We’re going on a European tour, but we’re going to do one show in New York and announce Eric as the new drummer. We’re rehearsing the show and things aren’t coming together. Paul and Gene got so frustrated because this was the night before we’re going to do the show. The costume isn’t quite ready, we haven’t really decided totally on the makeup although we’re almost there, and Gene and Paul in the dressing room after rehearsal turned around to me and said “You are the manager, you’ve got to get it together!” and they walked out. Literally, man, and it wasn’t because they were mad at me or anything else; they were just so frustrated like, “Oh my God, what are we going to do? Tomorrow we’re going to present Eric as the drummer and we still have all these loose ends!”
RVH: Zero hour.
BA: Eric and I literally stayed up all night, finished everything, got his costume, got his makeup, and when Gene and Paul came in the next day, it was done. But it was really tense because here we are changing a member of the group and no one ever really thought that would happen! And then all these loose little ends that were still loose the night before we’re going to announce and play…but Eric turned out to be just the best. He really was.
RVH: You eventually created Dreamscape Entertainment and as you mentioned, you were managing Billy Idol and Billy Squier for awhile. What was on your mind during this post-Kiss transition? Did you feel it was important for you to put Kiss behind you, at least professionally?
BA: Professionally, yeah, because you had to go on, there’s no question. Actually, we’re doing some work together now again, but it’s a whole different thing. Everything mellows over the years and you get to know each other again on a different level, and so it’s kind of exciting to be working and talking to them again.
I think especially when I asked Billy Idol to come to the States I had actually managed him on the last Generation X album. I had said “Look, if this doesn’t work, would you leave the group and come to the United States?” That was a little more difficult than I had originally thought, because when I brought him over to the United States, the label didn’t want him. They kind of said “Oh boy, I know it’s the sister label and we’re part of Chrysalis, but punk never worked in the United States and his career wasn’t working in the U.S. The company was going to let Generation X go after this album and now you’re forcing him on us!” So we went through all of that, which I never told Billy, but I said “Look, he’s a star in his own right. Let me have a chance to work this out,” and fortunately because the owners of the company had the power to force some issues, it happened.
RVH: Right, right.
BA: But you always run into some sort of roadblock along the way. If you think about whether it’s a heavy metal artist or any other artist, generally speaking, a label comes around with the same thoughts for every artist: “We need a marketing plan,” so they call the marketing guy and say “Come up with a plan!” Well, after you do a few hundred of them, what the hell are you going to come up with? (laughs)
BA: So it tends to pretty much be the same thing, and okay, you call the p.r. guy and it’s like “Okay, I have to make sure everyone knows this artist,” or “What am I going to say about this artist that I haven’t said before about some other artist?” So I think it really behooves any artist to get together with their own team and management that hopefully has some foresight. One that can work out some ideas that work specifically for them and come up with ideas for the record label along with ideas the label may already have. That makes it more exciting. It focuses on what they need and it also helps the people at the label because they’re so used to “Here’s another act, here’s another, here’s another,” and it all becomes the same thing.
RVH: As far as the day-to-day operations of being a manager is concerned, how would you describe the typical manager’s role in interacting with bands, labels and publicists?
BA: It depends. I love that interaction. I think a manager has to be involved with every part of it, assuming that they understand it and can deal with it without being frustrated. A lot of managers think of their role as more of the business side. If I make the deal and everything at the label works, I kind of sit back and make sure the band’s happy. Well, I think that’s part of it, but the real energy of a manager has got to be that communication between the label and the p.r., the marketing and touring. I mean real communication, even to the point where even if you’re bright enough to understand it, then shut up and listen. Get to know what you should know about it and then be able to communicate with it, because everyone’s doing so much and everyone is expected to do so much.
They’re working with so many artists, and your job really is to not only communicate but to get them excited about your artist, and also come up with ideas to help them. No one’s going to come up with that great idea. You do it so they don’t feel they’re out there by themselves having to show you that they can do everything. They need inspiration and help as well and basically we’re all not only working for the artists, we’re also being inspired by the artists. The artists can’t just sit back and hope that it’s all going to happen. The artists should be giving managers and everybody else their ideas that should really flow through the manager so that the manager is excited and then can go bring that excitement to everyone else. No one should be left out of the creative process, no matter who they are.
RVH: You’ve had so many personalities to deal with as a rock ‘n roll manager that you’ve probably had to act as a mentor or paternal figure. Would that be a safe assumption?
BA: Yeah, I think so. You become the mentor and paternal figure all the time and sometimes it changes minute-to-minute! (laughs) That’s just something I think you have to accept and almost let it roll off your back because it can be frustrating. You can’t let it get to you because it’s just part of the norm of the human way. Everyone has different problems at different times and different personalities. Whether it’s a personal or a band problem or record problem or whatever it is, it might even be a photo problem! How do you tell an artist that the photo session is going the wrong way or they look terrible or they’re wearing the wrong clothes or whatever it is, and get through it? Kiss in particular. I never let anything go out unless I saw it first and they agreed to it and we all knew we had the same approach. You can’t always do that, but if you can, then work it out so everyone’s on the same page.
RVH: How frustrating is it to see so many bands come and go over the years? Tastes and preferences—particularly in America—are so cyclical, and I’m sure it plays havoc on one’s marketing plan especially with changing demographics.
BA: I don’t think that’s so much the case. I think we haven’t had really good artist development, you know? What I mean by that is that someone from a label sees an artist for one purpose or for one idea and they run with it, probably more so in the pop market than anything. It’s like, “Oh my God, they have a hit single we can get played on the radio!” Well, are there any other songs? (laughs)
BA: We have a generation that’s grown up on one part that, okay, they’ve learned a little more about music and so forth and that’s great. On the other hand, they don’t see a CD as being anything unique because a lot of times if they’ve bought a CD there’s one song that they like and the rest of it doesn’t work! So we have two problems. One is artist development and knowing how to develop an artist and teach them what they need to know musically as much as anything else. The other side is to make sure that they have things together before you just throw them to the wolves and that’s basically it. A lot of artists you see come and go for one album have just been thrown out there. Where is the artist development, along with the A&R? I mean, A&R is damn important and a lot of times that’s not done because everyone just wants to get out that song they can get radio airplay on. The other side of it is how about some artist development so they can actually tour, and they know what to do and how to develop the artist over a period of years? That has kind of gone too, you know? Everyone’s out for the quick buck! Unfortunately that quick buck can go as quickly as it comes.
RVH: You’ve probably had to keep a stiff upper lip as far as promoting new talent, because as you’re mentioning, there’s a lot of potential pitfalls associated with developing an artist. Of course, the scene changes and many record labels expect instant success like people in general today expect instant gratification.
BA: Well, the record labels have really changed. When I first began, record labels used to sign an artist for five albums and you used to feel they’d give them at least three albums maybe four, before they might decide to let them go from the label if it didn’t work. Today, if they don’t see if happen on the first album, there’s a big question mark. They may go to the second album, but their hearts aren’t even into the second album because the first album didn’t do what they expected. A lot of times they may even pay the artist to do the second album knowing they’re not even going to work it, just to kind of fulfill their contract. I still think there’s a way to develop artists that you’ll have a better percentage of artists that’ll last for many years if you know how to handle them. You have to know how to teach them development, or help them through that time where they think “Wow, I got the contract, I’m set now!” because that isn’t the case. I’ve always told every artist that I’ve worked with where I said “Look, at this point, you’re minus something. When we finally get a record deal, we’ve finally made it to zero.” When you start your record deal, you’re trying to work from zero to a hundred, so if you think the record contract is the end-all, it really isn’t. In my mind, you’ve just finally made it to zero.
RVH: What would you consider some of the good things to being a band manager and some of the bad?
BA: Well, there’s two ways of looking at it: I’m going to be a rock ‘n roll manager so I can get rich or I’m going to be a rock n’ roll manager because I love the industry and I love to make something happen that’s creative and exciting. To me, the latter was always my motivation. If there’s a chance to make a lot of money, hey, that’s wonderful, but if that’s the only thing, then my God, you could be just as broke so quickly! It’s unbelievable! (laughs)
BA: It’s much easier to be broke in this market than it is to make money. I think first of all, you need to have a real positive outlook about wanting to be around the artist, enjoying the artist, enjoying their music, enjoying the concept of what they want to achieve. That’s got to the basis for it all. Then you’ve got to realize you have to take a part in some way, shape or form. You can’t just sit back, hoping everybody else is going to do the job. It just doesn’t work that way, and the communication between the artist and the manager has really got to be true. The minute that’s falling apart, it’s pretty much over. I think one of your jobs is to make sure that communication is there, because if it is, you’re going to find out faster when things are going right or when things are going wrong. Probably the most exciting time in my life has always been the few weeks of a month or so that you know everything is happening before anyone else, where people are still questioning your comments and questioning what you’re doing with this artist or that artist, but you know you’re starting to really sell. The shows are selling out, and so those few weeks before it’s known that you have a hit, before you know that you have a great artist that’s breaking, everyone is still questioning it. You’re like, “I don’t know if I’m going to do it,” those few weeks that the band and the manager have an inside clue. Those are the most exciting times because it’s like you’re grinning inside while people are still telling you it’s not happening and you know it’s happening! It’s really very exciting.
RVH: If a band really wants to catch your attention, what are some of the criteria you’d be looking for?
BA: Obviously there’s a visual content. My background comes from being a film and video cameraman into directing and producing, so I generally want to see some sort of image that I believe in. My next criterion, other than music obviously, is determination. I’ve met many brilliant artists who are so frustrated they give up, even though they may be more talented than a lot of other artists I’ve seen. So determination through the ups and downs is probably the strongest element.
You have to really want to make it so much, and it has to really be a team effort if it’s a band. It can’t be one person who wants to make it and everyone else wants to toddle along. It’s got to be “We’ve got to make it, no matter what!” And it doesn’t just stop when you have a hit record. A lot of times when a band has a hit record, they then wind up competing with themselves, which is even harder, you know? You’ve got a hit record; well, what are you going to do next time? You’re not so much competing against someone else in the industry; you start competing with yourself, which is kind of tough! The thought process is “What am I going to do so I can have another hit album the next time around? And if that CD doesn’t work, what do I do now?” In the heavy metal market, I think you’re a little bit luckier because heavy metal fans are loyal fans in general and they stick by their artists. So if you’re a heavy metal band, I think you’ve got a leg up on a lot of other artists.