Looking to Mötley Crüe for advice about business might sound a little like asking Warren Buffett for tips on headbanging. Are there really lessons to be learned from the band who, in their 1980s heyday, were as well known for their over-the-top debauchery as for their music? “Looking from the outside,” says bassist and co-founder Nikki Sixx, “I totally understand why people would think there’s no way this band should even still be here.”
Not only is Mötley Crüe still around, they have continued to thrive even as the music industry has contracted around them and other metal bands they came up with have either become nostalgia acts or simply disappeared. Since their founding in 1981, the band--singer Vince Neil, guitarist Mick Mars, drummer Tommy Lee, and Sixx--has sold more than 75 million records, cranking out hits like “Girls, Girls, Girls,” “Kickstart My Heart,” and “Home Sweet Home” despite weathering drug and alcohol addiction, internal strife, arrests, and imprisonment. As the group prepares to wrap up its legendary career with a final worldwide tour before disbanding for good, Sixx and the band’s longtime manager, Allen Kovac, spoke to Fast Company about the business smarts that have kept Crüe cruising for more than 30 years.
In their early years, Mötley Crüe flew largely by the seats of their leather pants, and by the mid-’90s non-stop partying and interpersonal conflict was threatening to tear the band permanently apart. When Kovac signed on to manage them in 1994, he insisted they adopt a more structured and formal approach to their business. “At the time, they were very dysfunctional,” he says. “I said I wasn’t going to take them on unless they had an operating agreement that allowed us to make decisions in a more businesslike way, with shareholders meetings and board of directors meetings. There’s still plenty of chaos in this band, but because of the operating structure, they succeed.” Sixx, who has been the band's primary songwriter and lyricist over the years, was given a tie-breaking vote in collective decisions. Having battled heroin addiction for years, the bassist finally kicked drugs and alcohol in 2001 and put the energy he’d formerly exerted on hedonism into running the group as a disciplined corporate entity. “I wish more bands would run their business like a business and not just wing it,” Sixx says. “Imagine if Coca-Cola or McDonald’s just winged it. For a fan, the idea that this is a business is always touchy. But it’s important that we really deliver the goods to the people who love us.”
It may be tempting to lump Mötley Crüe in with other ’80s metal acts like Whitesnake and Poison, but its members have worked to keep themselves out of that teased-hair-and-power-chords pigeonhole as much as possible. They have steadfastly declined to perform as part of nostalgia package tours with other ’80s metal bands and turned down offers to license their music to soundtracks and compilations that feature other groups of that era. “They’ve refused to take a lot of income to keep the differentiation of what this band is--closer to Van Halen and Metallica than to Warrant and Winger,” says Kovac. Sixx says the band gave up a big payday by not allowing their music be used in the retro-metal Broadway musical Rock of Ages and its 2012 movie version. But decisions like that, he says, are key to maintaining the band’s long-term relevance. “We don’t want to be attached to an era,” says Sixx. “We don’t believe we’re an ’80s band or a ’90s band or anything else--we just believe that we’re a band. So we chose to not be in Rock of Ages, and our instincts were right. The movie flopped.”
Many bands with tumultuous histories have ended up dishing about their ups and downs on VH1’s Behind the Music. Mötley Crüe decided to control their narrative. In 2001, the band collaborated on the bestselling book The Dirt, a remarkably candid and unflinching account of their highs (both career and chemical) and their lows. “That book became a tent post,” says Kovac. “We marketed it like a record and we dropped a greatest hits album with it.” (A film adaptation of The Dirt is now in development, to be directed by Jackass co-creator Jeff Tremaine.) Tommy Lee and Vince Neil both subsequently wrote their own autobiographies, while Sixx reworked journals he’d kept while in the throes of drug addiction into a memoir titled The Heroin Diaries, which is now being made--believe it or not--into a Broadway musical. “Some people said, ‘This book could be career suicide for you,’ but it has connected with so many people,” he says.
In the late ’90s, with Mötley Crüe’s brand of glam metal having fallen out of fashion, the band decided to operate independently. They formed their own label and negotiated a deal with their former label, Elektra, to gain ownership of their masters and publishing rights--a rarity among major bands. “Without owning their own masters and publishing, I don’t know if there would have been a Mötley Crüe in the lean years,” Kovac says. “It’s part of having multiple sources of income for your business, not just one.” Though they have only released one album of new music since 2000, Sixx says that’s more a strategic adaptation to radical shifts in the music business than a reflection of dwindling creativity. “The old business model where you make a record, tour for two years, and then make another record doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “Records don’t sell--people just cherry-pick their favorite songs. If you put a whole record out and people only go for one song, you never get a return on your investment. So we decided to record less music and put it into bigger-picture things, using one new song as a driver for a tour or an advertising partner.”
In January, Mötley Crüe held a press conference to announce their retirement. To add to the air of finality, each member publicly signed a “cessation of touring agreement” that prevents any of them from performing under the Crüe name beyond 2015. The final tour--which will also serve to promote a country tribute album, out this summer--begins July 2 in Michigan. It will give fans a chance to say goodbye and the band a chance to bow out on its own terms. “We’re smart enough to realize that at some point the wheels are going to start to come off the bus--and that’s just not a good look,” says Sixx. “We want to end it with dignity and make the fans feel proud so they can go to their kids and say, ‘There was a time when rock stars roamed the Earth. You have to wear this T-shirt.’ That’s the idea: that Mötley Crüe will live on in the way that certain bands we love, like Led Zeppelin, live on. They’re not here anymore, but we still listen to them. They’re still our band.”