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.
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.
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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