The David Lee Roth Guide to Legendary Marketing

David Lee Roth image

David Lee Roth and Eddie and Alex Van Halen today officially announced the Van Halen reunion tour slated for this fall. The original line up is missing only Michael Anthony, who will be replaced on bass by Eddie’s 16-year-old son Wolfgang.

For Van Halen fans young and old, this is a pretty big deal. Why? Because after 22 long years, David Lee Roth will be back where he belongs, and the legend will come full circle.

There’s a reason why purists refer to the Sammy Hagar years as Van Hagar, and the Gary Cherone years as little as possible—it’s just not Van Halen without Dave.

Outside of the Van Halen faithful, “Diamond Dave” is considered one of the most egotistical and arrogant clowns in the history of rock and roll, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a legend.

The lesson for bloggers and online marketers is that Roth is a legend of his own making, and he knew exactly what he was doing. Let’s see what we can steal from ol’ DLR when it comes to getting people to take notice and never forget.

Be Fearless

The 1983 Rolling Stone Record Guide called Roth “the most obnoxious singer in human history, an achievement notable in the face of long tradition and heavy competition.” Poor Rolling Stone played right into Dave’s hands, and caused those who loved Roth to love him even more.

It might be hard to see through the sheer size of his exuberant ego, but David Lee Roth is a well read, intelligent and articulate performer with a great sense of humor. People who hate him don’t want to believe that he purposefully set out to create an ironic larger-than-life caricature of the rock and roll lead singer, but Roth doesn’t care about those people. He cares about the fans who love him—the ones who have waited over two decades to see him front Van Halen again.

If Roth had not created and lived a persona that caused passionate reactions—both good and bad—he’d have been forgotten long ago. You may have forgotten him, but millions in his target market clearly have not.

Give People What They Want

In Roth’s 1997 autobiography Crazy From the Heat, Dave says he was just a Jewish kid who wanted to entertain. Like Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS before him, Roth saw rock and roll as an opportunity to put on an amazing show that bordered on extravaganza. His problems with Eddie Van Halen began when Roth resisted Eddie’s desire to become more “artistic,” which Roth feels was more about feeding Eddie’s ego than a desire to serve the fans.

To put this in the parlance of Seth Godin, Roth told people a story he knew they wanted to hear, and then he lived the story full tilt. When Roth left Van Halen, he succeeded as a solo artist first by doing improbable covers of old standards combined with outrageous self-deprecating videos. He then returned to the hard rock the faithful demanded with a super-group lineup, which lead to hugely successful tours in 1986, 1988 and into the 1990s with varying players.

The key to legendary marketing is to give people what they really want, rather than what you think they should want.

Sell Something Big

At first blush, it might seem that the product a rock band sells is music, but that’s not entirely true. These days, the abuses of the recording industry are well known, so it might not surprise you to learn that despite selling tens of millions of records, Van Halen remained dirt poor for several years after breaking out big.

Bands make their money from concerts and merchandise, because the labels are not involved. Roth handled Van Halen’s entire merchandising strategy, and he knew the band needed to sell something bigger than music. His persona helped fuel the strategy. Most bands can sell a few t-shirts to fans, but you don’t achieve the success enjoyed by the ubiquitous Van Halen logo in the late 70s and early 80s with just the tunes.

Roth knew you have to give people something to believe in that they desperately want to associate themselves with. You’ve got to sell something big, and Roth knew no other way.

Be True to Yourself

Because I used the word “persona” above, you might think I’m implying that DLR faked his image. It’s more accurate to say that “rock and roll legend” was the only job description suitable for Roth.

Dave sees his life as one gigantic adventure, and lives life to the fullest via climbing Mt. Everest, mastering several forms of martial art, rock climbing, adventures in third-world countries, training and working as a paramedic, and even being bold enough to attempt a radio show in place of Howard Stern.

Sure, it’s easy enough for David Lee Roth to live his life that way, but he was that way even as a kid. His personal marketing reflects who he is, and that’s why he’s succeeded. It’s so easy to stifle what we really want to do in favor of what we think we ought to do, but that often leads to the double whammy of unhappiness and poor results.

Let the Legend Roll

The key to legendary marketing is not what you say about yourself, but what your fans say about you. In that regard, David Lee Roth’s split from the rest of Van Halen has become a remarkable pop culture meme, with Dave coming out on top.

In comedies ranging from The Wedding Singer to Airheads and Joe Dirt, as well as in numerous songs by various artists, the message is clear—if you are on Dave’s side in the Van Halen feud, then you’re cool. The comic strip Bloom County (legendary in its own right) once noted that the United States has “been going to hell in a hand basket” ever since Roth left Van Halen.

At this point you might note that if this is the case, why can’t Dave shut up and let others do the talking for him? Well, he should—but nobody’s perfect.

Relax… You Don’t Have to be Dave

Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a big yacht so you can drift up next to it and offer it a drink. ~David Lee Roth

He’ll never win any sensitivity awards, but many a teenage boy has dreamed of being David Lee Roth. In fact, some of those teenage boys are now middle-aged and still wish they were Dave, but will have to settle for a Corvette.

You don’t have to be outrageous and over-the-top to succeed. Dave managed to find a rare connection between his fans and his ego that became self-reinforcing. It’s likely your path will be completely different.

But take another look at the underlying characteristics that fueled Roth’s success. All he really did was create a passionate audience by catering to their needs on several levels, and by having the courage to be remarkable. Despite appearances to the contrary, he accomplished that by not taking himself too seriously, and by focusing on the adventure instead of fretting about everyone liking him.

P.S. If you want to have a David Lee Roth versus Sammy Hagar or Eddie Van Halen debate in the comments section, have at it. Please note that I didn’t actually take sides, so leave me out of it. ;)

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Comments

  1. Yep….in other words — Be Ballsy.

    50% are and the other 50% wish they were. Be part of the first group and you’ll have both on your side.

  2. I bow down to your mightyness, O’ Master of the Rockstar post.

    That was educational, big, creative, thought provoking, link worthy, oh hell, YOU THE MAN !

    I give in, but not up ;-)

    BTW – I never liked Eddie, because he stole Valerie from me. She still calls, but it’s too late, I’m happily married. She had her chance and chose poorly.

  3. Heh. Poor Valerie.

    And thanks Mike, you’re too kind as always.

  4. He’s not known as “Diamond Dave” for nothing! Interesting how some of the “worst” rock performers of the 80’s have become huge marketable successes.

  5. A buddy of mine once used masking tape to make the VH logo on his back. He spent the next couple days tanning, took the tape off, and wore the logo proudly for the rest of summer.

    Good marketing sears itself into our lives and our memories.

  6. You either live unhappy, or you live happy. David Lee Roth chose to be true to himself. I applaud that. if only more bloggers got off the ‘mainstream’ please everyone tour and just started pleasing their own readership the internet would be a much more interesting and fulfilling place.

    David Lee Roth learned that you don’t have to please everyone in fact doing so was not true to self. Be true to self and please those who give a shit.

  7. Sammy was great as Sammy, but not as the VH frontman. I saw them live lots of times, and even though I went for Eddie’s finger taps, the shows just weren’t the same without Dave.

    When it comes to creating a persona, we all do it everyday. The genius comes from consciously doing it.

  8. You’re bang on, Brian. He might have been rock n roll’s resident court jester during the 80s, but there was some method to the madness. I’m not sure know how any self-respecting copywriter or online marketer of substance could prefer the Hagar-era Van Halen over Van Halen with DLR behind the wheel :-)

    And any man who is willing to go into the mini-mart and order “a bottle of anything …. and a glazed doughnut – to go” while in full tribal makeup has my respect: http://tinyurl.com/ysctb5

  9. OMG… Yankee Rose–the opening is outrageous, but so is Dave during the performance. I should imbed that.

    And what a slap to Eddie to go out and get Steve Vai on your team, right?

  10. Brian,

    You have just reinforced exactly why you are my favorite blogger. This post (ahem) rocks.

    PS – Saw Dave and his first super group at the Eat ‘Em And Smile Tour… It was Outrageous.

    More Dave Whackiness: He even produced and sang on a Spanish version of that same album: Sonrisa Salvaje.

  11. What caught my eye about this post is that I can remember when Wolfgang was born. I was in my early 20s. I think Eddie recorded an instrumental for him on one of the albums around that time.

    Now he’s playing with Dad and Uncle Al. Must be a kid’s dream come true.

    Saw Dave on the Skyscraper tour here in Australia. It was brilliant. Who else could get Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan after leaving Eddie?

  12. I was watching a press conference today on VH1 or something about Van Halen’s reunion. I was astonished at how each of the guys have aged, except for the youngin’, natch.

    Anyway, while I was watching the press conference I said aloud, “Van Halen is reuniting with Dave again?” I wan’t questioning the wisdom in such a decision. I was just remembering that there was a previous attempt at this that went sour awhile back.

    My husband kept insisting to me that what I was watching wasn’t current. He insisted it was old and that I was watching the failed attempt at reuniting.

    I have to admit it will be kind of fun to rub my husband’s nose in it. He isn’t always right like he imagines he is. :)

  13. Ha… Your husband may be remembering the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards, where all four original members came on stage to a raucous standing ovation.

    That “reunion” fell apart quickly, with Dave claiming Eddie faked the whole thing with no intention of bringing Dave back. Ostensibly, this was Eddie’s attempt to kill the “bring back Dave” meme, and if true, it didn’t work.

    Go easy on the husband… when it comes to Van Halen reunions, there are announcements with no action every few years. The last announcement was earlier this year, but Eddie needed to go to rehab for a bit. ;)

  14. So I take it you’re a Van Halen fan?

  15. All this is fascinating, but what really impresses me is Dave working as a paramedic–for free and without publicizing it. Which I think is important when your image is based in flash and show. Every once in a while you need to do something ACTUALLY grounded. Look at the backlash with Madonna’s African adoption. There is a fine line between publicity and “is nothing sacred?” I think Dave would have found that adulation missing had he tried to capitalize on the paramedic stuff.

  16. I’ve been a DLR fan forever. It wasn’t until I read Crazy from the Heat in 2002 that I got the full scope of Dave. It’s like you get to see the puppetmaster behind the persona. It’s an entertaining read for music fans, but I think marketers could learn a think or two from it as well.

  17. I definitely think a secret to their success is their real nature. VH never hid who they were: good, bad and ugly. Cancer, alcoholism, DLR getting busted for pot smoking. All of it. And I admire their human nature.

  18. While Van Halen and David Lee Roth were before my time, I have all the respect in the world for him. He went for it and did something special, and most people are far too afraid to take those kinds of risks.

  19. Great post, Brian! I am a big fan of Van Halen too. :)

  20. Long live Van Halen…….

  21. Excellent post about a rarity in modern pop culture – a true rock star. Not just a rock star – but a rock god. While he has become a caricature of himself over the past 20 years, those of us who were young enough to worship at the alter of the original Van Halen know that David Lee Roth was one of the greatest frontmen of all time. You will never see anything like that again (not even on this reunion train wreck). And that’s to take nothing away from Sammy, who helped write some of the best (and worst) rock songs of all time and put on an amazing show himself back in the day (Shoreline Amphitheater, September 1991, Carnal Knowledge Tour… awesome.) But yes, we can all learn a lot from Dave, including his ability to just be completely resiliant and live life to the fullest on the largest scale possible (lest we forget his stint in Vegas in the mid-’90s).

    “One break… COMIN’ UP!!!”

  22. great post

    (DLR was horrible on the radio though, i wish more of his outrageousness and fun had come through, but, alas……..)

  23. I think you’re giving too much credit to Dave.

    You’ve taken a self-indulged, drug-induced rockstar and making him out be a marketing genius – that truly is good writing Brian.

    Hey, I’m a 35 year old guy – so I love Van Halen as much as the next guy, but DLR is a jackass of a person that made some ‘fun’ music.

    As far as Sammy vs Dave — again DLR created some fun party jam music; real great stuff. But, Sammy is a better vocalist, better song writer and all around better musician.

    The only reason for the tour is the all must need the money…

  24. Mark, Sammy is a better mountain biker too, but I digress. DLR rules when it comes to VH.

  25. “U2’S Brand Destroyed By Bono?”

    For u2, when does Bono’s celebrity override the brand the entire band have created?

    It seems like Bono the person is overshadowing u2 the rock n roll band. Is this a campaign gone too far?

    I guess i’m saying, “How do both worlds mix?” The rock world and the what you do on your own time if you are famous world.

  26. You can view the entire press conference at http://tinyurl.com/22pedu .

    It is important viewing for us copywriters for several reasons, not the least of which is that David Lee Roth is an absolute master salesman and pitch artist. I mean, listen to him sell this tour – and he does it all on the fly!

    “Music that is as familiar to you as the roof of your mouth.” I challenge any copywriter to top a line like that. I don’t think it’s even possible!

    Say what you will about the guy (and there is a lot to say), but he is absolutely fascinating to watch and listen to. I bet he could knock out a sales letter in an instant! (Though the tone would probably be a bit more aggressive than most of us prefer.) It certainly wouldn’t be short on personality.

  27. Cory, funny enough, I was on the phone with Tony Clark today and mentioned Dave’s perfect comments at the press conference. His turns of phrases are indeed incredible.

    But, let me respectfully suggest that Dave made up every one of those witty phrases in advance. I do it all the time, and I bet you do too.

    Many times, the key to effective spontaneity is forethought and rehearsal. ;)

  28. Yes, I’m sure most of his best lines were rehearsed. But he still had to come up with them (or at least give the illusion that he did). It’s the same thing as listening to Robin William being interviewed. He’s got an arsenal of prepared jokes and one-liners that are funny the first time, but not so much the 3rd or 4th time.

    The advantage DLR has though is that we haven’t seen him on the talk shows too often in the past 20 years (give or take a VH1 special and radio appearance now and then) and you forget how completely over the top he is. It looked like Eddie forgot too when he came rushing to the defense of his porn-star buddy after Dave went after him.

    This reunion is gonna be fun to watch. You know Sammy and Michael are sipping tequila and just watching with baited breath.

  29. Roth comes on pretty strong, but indeed the man is no fool. He’s also very funny. Ages ago I saw him on Letterman, and Roth was actually stealing the show from Letterman. I’d like to see that on YouTube.

  30. Now those are some rules for success that I can relate too! You just saved me $500 on self-help books! Thanks CB!

  31. Even though I never grew up around Van Halen I still know who they are. Respect to their marketing skills.

  32. Jay Cross, Jr. :

    I think Dave is better for Van Halen, in terms of that trademark sound. But when it comes to sheer singing and vocal talent, it’s Sammy hands down. Dave isn’t coming close to the vocals on Dreams or Right Now.

  33. Brian,

    So glad I found your blog. You rock. And that’s what I like.

    “Give people what they really want, rather than what you think they should want” – absolutely. That’s what we tell our clients about their buyers all the time. Know thy buyer first and give thine valuable things of knowledge and joy, and only then sell them useful wares.

    By the way, there’s great book about 80’s heavy metal called Fargo Rock City, by Chuck Klosterman. In it he states that Roth and early Van Halen’s music was “accessible” to the masses” and that’s what helped to propel and keep them in the graces of rock’s faithful.

    First rock concert I ever saw was VH’s Diver Down show. Now I get to see them 25 years later. Sweet.

    “Unchained, nothing stays the same…” Oh, but it does, Dave…

  34. It’s good to see someone recognize the achievement Dave has made from a business point of view. I was very impressed with his autobiography in this regard – he’s nothing without his honesty; “Hey, I’m a big mouth rock and roll star, don’t crucify me for it – I am what I am”.

  35. I was always a big fan of both incarnations of Van Halen (Gary whatever doesn’t count).

    David Lee Roth WAS Van Halen when they began. If you saw them live in the early days then Eddie impressed with his revolutionary guitar work but Roth was the master showman.

    Unfortunately, Roth had a crap voice, and his ego could get in the way, so the arrival of Hagar led to more pleasant sounding and commercial music which brought huge success and the band’s first number one album.

    Having seen both versions of Van Halen play live I remember Sammy Hagar as being a quality singer who was ultimately unfulfilling because he lacked the stage presence of Roth.

    Translated into the blogging context, I would rather read the work of someone who isn’t afraid to go out on a limb because there are far too many bloggers who play it safe in the hope of making money by following a formula.

  36. I wouldn’t be the Baroness I am today if I didn’t stick to my guns and be the best me I can be with no apologies! Leave your mark or just leave!

  37. AND…Van Halen isn’t Van Halen without DLR. He had an absolutely incomprehensible voice…let’s hope it has lasted! Props to Sammy, though, he gave it the old college try but sadly, the shoe didn’t fit.

  38. The man’s fanbase is called “The Roth Army”, there are thousands of “soldiers” world wide.

    His fans are as true to him as he has been to himself.

  39. Say what you will about Diamond Dave. Yeah his persona on stage was egoticstical, but…

    I have a coworker who worked the local Hilton door and airport van for years during those classic Van Halen days and he says Dave was one of the most gracious “famous” people he had the chance to meet.

    I’m not saying he put on an act for the public, but for me my friend’s story reinforces the post’s idea that he knew exactly what he was doing all along.

  40. With comments like these you will all get some leg tonight for sure.

  41. C’mon Dave, give us a break!

  42. Excellent post. But, I wonder if Warner Bros should get a little more credit than Dave? He certainly created a unique, marketable persona. But, it begs the question…

    IF he was in fact such a marketing expert, why did he spend the past 2 decades in obscurity singing vegas showtunes and flopping on the talk show circuit? While VanHalen continued to rise in the charts after his departure? And, while other front men of his era launched successful solo careers, i.e., Sting?

    Maybe the marketing behemoth of the recording industry had a little something to do with DLR’s success? ;)

  43. I want to get in touch with DLR by e-mail or phone. Does anyone know how to contact him and where he resides now?

  44. richard branson did the same for the retail music and entertainment industry and look where he is at…

    great article for aspiring rock n roll billionaires!

  45. Classic! Thanks! When are you and Diamond Dave publishing this in book form?

  46. Well, I ran into Dave during the day. I had read somewhere where he was slagging off vegetarians who “eat birdseed.” I met him in a veggie fast food joint, and he seemed a nice guy. And he said he loved his veggie burger.

    He struck me as someone who had his role down, but seemed well-grounded.

  47. Have always been a true Van Halen fan from the get go! Even saw them on their first world tour at the San Diego sports Arena and several times since, I think their style of anthem sound with Eddie’s unique talent and David Lee Roth’s charismatic incredible stage performances are incredibly legendary! I think their reunion is fantastic! Craziest thing I’ve had people come up to me all my life even strangers and tell me I look like David Lee Roth? I’ll tell you what, I truly wish I could’ve lived in his shoes, I admire everything about the band, they are classic, unique, colorful, and a one-of-a-kind, there will never be anything like a another Van Halen! Etc. etc. their reunion is sweeping everybody off their feet at every performance! I really believe they’ve gotten better with time! And I agree with everybody out there that believes van halen isn’t van halen without David Lee Roth!!! His colorful antics and showmanship is part of what made them famous! Of course eddies style of tapping and harmonics play the other role, what a incredible classic band! From Pasadena to around the world many times over and I hope it continues on and on, have a nice day folks.

  48. Cool article, but just one technical note: Dave was still with VH when he did the “Crazy From the Heat” EP; “EEAS” was his first post-VH solo record. It was definitely “one foot out the door,” but at the time he said that his “tribal instincts are still intact.”

    Check out the DLR Band record, essentially self-released back in 98 or so. It’s the best VH record since Fair Warning.

  49. Marketing Genius is only part of it. Roth maintained a physique and gymnastic ability that propelled him even further into rock god legend. Try doing that with all the excesses of touring, night after night, city after city, and country after country. I’ll never understand how Guns did it and adapted to it sooo quickly with the excess they ingested, and still (albeit barely sometimes) lived to tell about it. What made this whole thing so hard and is so similar to the Guns story is that in each case, more than one band member has legendary status and his own massive following. The vision and direction aren’t always shared or at least amicably compromised and it implodes, shredding these creative legendary masterpeices that come along maybe a half dozen times in a century. Few ever have this kind of power: How else would Van Halen, 22 years absent from Dave, produce the highest grossing tour of the year and of their careers once reunited? Forgive me please by again making the GNR connection, however Axl remained a recluse but the fan following and demand after all this time is enough to sell out arena’s even without the marquee original lineup. That is so extraordinary. I can’t wait to hear a full studio album from the reunion. The only thing that bugs me is the inability to keep Anthony, an underrated bassist and perhaps one of the very greatest backup vocalists on hard rock history.