In September, 2014, Jay Jay French began writing a bi-weekly column for Inc. Magazine’s web site. This is an idea that nearly took root on an early version of, but due to the band’s reunion and subsequent performance schedule, it never came about. But every good idea eventually sees the light of day, and the inc. column is the result. Here are all of the columns from 2014.

The Major Killer of Startups (and Rock Bands)

Originally published December 22, 2014

How Clear Is Your Vision?

The story goes that when the Beatles were depressed because of a lack of momentum in their career, usually after a long night playing the bars in Hamburg or another long and depressing ride in a van, John would yell out, “Where are we goin,’ fellas?” Paul, George, and Ringo would then respond loudly, “To the top, Johnny!” Then John would continue, “And where’s that, fellas?” To which they would scream back, “To the toppermost of the poppermost!”

How simple. How unified. How straightforward. How perfectly correct.

When Twisted Sister started in 1973, we sat around at the very first rehearsal and voiced our vision for the band. (Not that we knew that we were doing something that would be described in Inc. 40 years later!)

We all wanted the same things: to be in a great rock band, become very popular in the local bar scene, get a record deal, make great albums, tour the world, have girls chasing us, become very rich and very famous. All of us were in lockstep with that goal. We were all very clear and very committed–we had clarity of purpose.

Conflicting Goals

I am approached everyday by new bands to give them advice. The first question I ask is: What is your vision? This question really is the only one that matters when starting a new venture, whether it’s a band, a software business, or a construction company. If you are committed to success and that success means you are doing this with partners, the group vision has to be as clear as day.

Because the music business has shifted so dramatically in the past 10 years, the answers I get these days from bands generally lack the kind of singular focus and clarity that I know is absolutely essential for success.

I hear just about everything …

“I just want to make great music.” (That’s admirable.)

“I just want to earn enough to make a living at it.” (That’s possibly doable.)

“I want to sell millions of records.” (Those days are over.)

“I want my band to be on tour as the opening band for [fill in the blank with a really big headliner].” (Because record labels don’t give bands tour support, those days are way over!)

The problem is that I hear this from members of the same band! This is a big issue: no clear, unified vision. It is not the musical differences that kill bands early on; it’s the approach to success that can do bands in.

Creativity Is Not Enough

Besides the obvious (it’s not called “the music business” for nothing), any business that doesn’t take a “dual track” approach that really involves the integration of creativity and vision will absolutely fail.

Remember this: If you don’t have a unified vision up front, you won’t last very long. You may have that moment of spiritual oneness–that special once-in-a-lifetime event when a creation is made by the confluence of energy and inspiration that occurs when humans come together to write that great melody and hit that “lost chord”–when you collectively see the “Stairway to Heaven” in what you believe in your heart was a “meant-to-be moment.”

But if you don’t make sure you are all on board for the exact same goal, then that wondrous moment, within months if not weeks, will most surely dissipate, like dust in the wind.

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The Best Business Advice I Ever Got

Originally published December 8, 2014

In truth, what I am about to lay on you is actually one of the keys of life. It’s like the 800-pound gorilla of keys. It has the power to transform and impact the very DNA that courses through your body. It is so important that Moses should have added it to the Ten Commandments. In fact, I think Moses probably left the mount about two minutes early and missed the last piece of advice coming from up above.

I mean, isn’t the Ten Commandments just another list? The Bible would sell more copies if they retitled it:

The 10 Ways God Wants You to Lead a Better Life

Forward by Tony Robbins!

Before I tell you what this key of life is, I will tell you how I was told.

In the late ’70s, my band Twisted Sister was working five nights a week trying to become more popular. It soon became clear that our little light show (bar bands carried around their own lights in those days) was really inadequate. We needed to make a statement, and a big impressive light show was very important. But there was a big problem: The lights were very expensive, and we didn’t have the money.

As fate would have it (fate was always there when we needed it), a guy named Tony Sklarew came to one of our shows and became friends with our roadie/light man. Tony worked for one of the biggest lighting companies in the world: Altman Stage Lighting, based in Yonkers, N.Y. It made all the really huge spotlights and associated gear for the biggest arenas and shows around the world. Tony loved the band and invited me to meet his boss, Ronnie Altman. I went to the factory, a huge complex on the Hudson River in Yonkers. I had never seen anything like this operation.

Ronnie came over to meet me. He was a short man with a huge, bellowing voice. He was very brusque and intense. He wore jeans and a work shirt. I got the feeling that he was a very hard-working, blue-collar guy, who was all business. I was so right, and then some.

Tony told Ronnie about the band and what we needed. Ronnie said that the cost of the light show that Tony described would be around $10,000. Ronnie looked at me and asked if we could afford it. I said that we couldn’t. He took me aside and said, “Tony tells me your band is really good, and that you are a good guy. I’m going to rent you this light show for $25 a week. Can you afford that?” I was blown away. I never thought you could do business at this level on a handshake. This is exactly what we needed, and it wasn’t costing me anything up front. I also knew that the lighting rig would evolve over time, so I wouldn’t be burdened with having to resell it.

“Good,” he replied. “You can pay me that $25 every week, whether in person, by mail, or carrier pigeon. The week that you miss the payment, you lose me as a friend. The lighting rig that I’m giving you is something that I wont miss. The 10 grand will not make a difference in my life. You, however, will never do business with me again if you miss the payment.”

I had never heard anything like this before. Ronnie was, in effect, daring me to be honest–and giving me my own noose with which to hang myself if I wasn’t.

I never missed the payment. And, over time, Ronnie’s trust in me grew, and he gave us more and more equipment. Every couple of months we got more items, and the lighting system kept growing at no extra charge. I think that he thought of us as a pet project that he could be a part of and tell his friends that we did business together. But he wanted to know that I was true to my word. That I was responsible enough that he could trust me. This is really “old school” stuff where trust is built on an instinct and a handshake. I have run my business with that same sense of responsibility every day since my first meeting with Ronnie.

Ronnie passed away around 1981 as we were leaving the club scene. We didn’t need a light show by that time. (In fact, the days when local bands carried this stuff around are long gone.) But Ronnie’s lesson really has nothing to do with a lighting rig, the delivery of an album, or appearing on stage at a contracted time. It’s about understanding that your word is worth more than anything in a contract. It’s about the credibility that you bring to a situation. The more people can count on your commitment, the more opportunity you will have to show your character, and the more you will learn to expect from the people that you do business with.

I recently called Altman Stage Lighting to see if it was still in business and wound up speaking to Ronnie’s granddaughter. I told her the lesson that Ronnie taught me. She started to cry and said that was the kind of person he was.

That, my friends, is the greatest business advice I ever got. It is my 11th commandment: “Always do what you say you are going to do.”

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How To Negotiate With Intimidating People

Originally published November 24, 2014

This week, I’ll be in Amsterdam at the International Documentary Film Festival, attending the debut of a documentary about the first 10 years in the history of Twisted Sister.

Invariably, when we tell the story of how the band survived 10 years in the New York and New Jersey bar scene while struggling to get a record deal, people want to hear war stories about shady club owners and how we dealt with the implied “mob scene.” Yes, it is true that many of the owners, bartenders, and bouncers had names like Tony, Sal, Vinnie, Tiny, Fat Scotty, Muscles Marinara, and Spicy Potato Salad. (OK, maybe not the last two.) I can also tell you that in the very early days, we were instructed to do whatever we were told. (If they tell you you’re too loud, turn it down! If they say you’re not playing enough Rolling Stones, add more Stones songs!)

So when it came time to negotiate for more money, I had to figure out how to do that without fear of winding up at the bottom of a bay. I realized that demanding more money probably wouldn’t go over well, so I decided to take a much more methodical approach.

Bringing Brains to a Gunfight

First, I started hanging out with the club owners. I’d tell them jokes, and at the end of the night (assuming everybody was in a good mood), I’d ask how many people came to see our show. The answers I got usually weren’t very accurate. I was able to size up a room pretty well, and the numbers they gave me were often low. They never wanted the bands to know how well they were doing.

So, I started bringing in a friend to sit at the bar and use a clicker to count how many people paid to get in. Then, I’d ask the club owner how many people came. Even if he said 150, I would know there were more than 200 paid that night. I also started to hang out after hours with the bartenders, and they’d tell me how much they made in tips and what percentage that amount was of their total bar take. I multiplied that amount by the number of registers, divided by the number of customers, and pretty soon I had a good idea of how much the club was making per head on the nights we played.

Then, I would come on nights that other bands were playing–bands that I knew were being paid more than we were–and I’d do the same calculations. If we were bringing in the same amount of sales or better, we could ask for a raise confident that the club owner needed us just as much as we needed him.

Building Partnerships

The strategy worked, and slowly we got paid more. We poured the money into better equipment, put on better shows, and started to move up the ranks of the club scene. Because the legal drinking age was 18, the pool of customers was huge–and so were many of the bars. Some of them held as many as 5,000 people. In other words, the club owners had a lot invested in these rooms, and they needed to fill them.

As we grew more popular and started to draw thousands of fans four and five nights a week, all within a 75-mile radius of Manhattan, the pressure increased to keep the rooms full. Our approach was to convince the club owners that we were partners. On nights when the gas crisis or bad weather wreaked havoc on the local bar scene, I recognized that just because we had a guaranteed fee, some nights were not financially successful. I would sit with these owners and actually hand them back several hundred dollars. I did it before they asked. That way they knew that I understood their problems. Over time, we built trust. Other bands that didn’t do this suffered. They created bad blood, and as soon as their crowds began to shrink, the club owners couldn’t wait to cut their pay and be less cooperative in many other ways.

We, on the other hand, had a very different experience. I would sit down with these guys and say that we needed more print ads or more radio advertising. They almost always agreed, because we invested some of our own money into this promotion pool. We would sink or swim together. The band became the biggest guaranteed draw in the history of the New York and New Jersey bar scene. The club owners even started to root for us to get out of the circuit and represent the best rock had to offer from the New York and New Jersey area. Many of them lent us money (advances for future shows, without the “vig”) for demo tapes, rehearsals, and trips to Europe.

To this day, the club owners who are still alive remain friends of the band, and some even appear in the documentary. Yes, in the early days some thought we played too loud, and, yes, some didn’t like that we wanted to play original material, but the relationship was always respectful. We were never threatened. We always proved our point with an economic model that worked for all parties. To quote Michael Corleone in The Godfather: “It’s just business, Sonny. Strictly business.”

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How To Network Like A Rock Star

Originally published on November 10, 2014

Lately, there’s been a lot of media buzz about the amazing resurgence of vinyl record albums. Wow, what’s next, people actually talking on the phone?

What’s old is new again, because it’s better. Millennials are buying vinyl again, because it’s a better way to listen. I’d argue that some of the old ways are better when it comes to business relationships, too. Personal contact is still the better pathway to success, whether you are in the music business or any other kind of business.

The most often repeated fear that I hear these days is that the art of communicating among the millennial generation is being lost to new technology. The problem is that without real human contact, the person you’re doing business with looks at you as just another name on a list. Your name has no context, no story, no connectivity, and ultimately, no network of people who want to work with you and help you succeed.

Friends and Fuel

I learned my first big lesson about the importance of relationships during the 1973 oil crisis. Our band Twisted Sister was only eight months old, and we were living in a house in Northern New Jersey when the great gas crisis hit in November of that year. Everyone in the band had a car, and we also had a truck rented weekly. We were working six nights a week at that time.

We always used to get gas from a station on Route 17, close to our band’s house. The guy who ran it was in his mid-20s, and I would always have conversations with him about the music he listened to. Eventually, I invited him to come see us play in the local bars. We had been playing out for only a few months when the gas crisis hit. The new emergency laws mandated that you could only buy gas on the odd or even day of the week that matched the last number of your license plate.

This would have been a huge problem for us, because we had to drive to the clubs six night a week. Plus, our truck was old and had terrible gas mileage. But since I had a good relationship with the gas station employee who had become a friend and a fan, he would sneak us in late at night whenever we needed to fill up. He liked me, he knew my story (and I knew his), and he wanted to see me and the band succeed.

As the crisis wore on (it lasted about seven months), it got to the point that no one was even allowed to buy gas on Sundays, period. Many gas stations were being robbed of their gas on those days. That’s how desperate it got. The gas stations would barricade their driveways with large trucks to protect them. But my friend would meet us under the cover of darkness (3 a.m.) on Sunday mornings, roll back the trucks, and sneak us in to fill our vehicles up. We never missed a show during that very trying time!

This was the first of many business relationships that we benefited from. We built personal relationships with lighting companies, trucking companies, music instrument stores, radio station DJs and general mangers, club owners, recording studio owners, engineers, and other bands. Could we have made it without close working relationships with all of these people? Probably. But with all of these people on our side, it made the experience much more manageable–and a lot more pleasant.

Building a Human Network

How do you develop these relationships? It’s actually pretty simple. Look people straight in eye and shake their hands. Ask their names and repeat it back to them as many times as you have to when asking questions (an old bartender’s trick to remember customers’ names). And ask a lot of general personal questions (Where did you go to school? Where were you born? Any family?). When asked subtlety, you would be surprised what people will tell you. As soon as you can, jot down their names and info into a document or whatever database you use. And then follow up with an email less than 24 hours later. (Oh, and drinking with people also helps.)

There are levels of nuance to all of this, of course. You can’t overdo it. And when you are building your network, keep these four tips in mind:

1. Don’t be demanding.

2. Be grateful for what you do get.

3. Always be gracious.

4. Compliment the person helping you out.

5. Always ask if there is something you can do for them.

At the end of the day, it comes down to being the kind of person that other people want to help succeed.

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The 5 Questions That Keep You Up at Night

Originally published October 27, 2014

This is how all the self doubting starts. The TV may be flickering, the bottle of wine may not yet be finished, but you’re playing the scenarios over and over in your mind. What if I had said this? Or done that? You are sure that the outcome would have been totally different.

I’ve been there myself many times over the course of my career as a founder, guitar player, and manager of Twisted Sister. These were (and continue to be) the questions that have kept me up the most:

1. How did I blow this opportunity?

After every failed attempt to get a record deal, I couldn’t sleep. When confronted with a business opportunity, a variety of factors collide. Hope and success mixes in with fear, doubt, greed, and failure. Being able to step away and take a cold, calculating look at your options as well as getting as much input as you can from people you trust and know you is the blueprint for making an educated decision. There will always be risk, but the more you know, the better you will be at seeing the road that lies ahead.

2. Why didn’t I see this coming?

As band members came and went, I just used to sit back in amazement that I didn’t read the clues about the problems that laid ahead. When you get gobsmacked by a situation that you never saw coming, most people don’t react well and can’t successfully turn on a dime. That’s normal. Every situation may be a little different, but the tools for dealing with them are not. Take a deep breath and calm down. Don’t be afraid to talk about this with a close friend or business associate. They may help you gain a perspective that you might not have even been aware of.

3. Am I really smart enough to succeed?

This is really the big one. Self doubt is the biggest killer of dreams. I must have come to this point a dozen times in my life. Fighting through this one is the greatest challenge, but deep, deep down, you must find that reservoir of self belief. There are people who feel that the world owes them a living. I decided years ago that I would never work with people like that again. On those days when I was really down on myself, I asked this simple question: Was what I did today the best that I could do? If the answer was yes then I could go to sleep. If the answer was no, then I vowed that the next day would be different. Just don’t make the same mistake twice.

4. Should I let this person go?

Whether you have a business or personal relationship, figuring out to to keep and who to jettison is often the difference between success and failure. Our original bass player was a great musician and a great friend. I thought that we would stay together to the finish line, but it wasn’t meant to be. He admitted to me that he had a drinking problem and to his credit, joined AA. Well, the worst place on earth for a recovering drinker to work is in a bar, and, although we tried to make it work, there was no way that didn’t put his recovery in jeopardy. He had to leave the band. It just so happened that our current bass player, Mark Mendoza of the seminal punk band The Dictators, was working for us at the time and stepped in. It was a tough decision, but it was the right one. Mark was the right guy at the right time. Just make sure you are losing someone for the right reasons. Follow a strong moral compass and don’t ever let greed be the arbiter. That will lead you down a dark tunnel that will only bring you great dissatisfaction.

5. How can I recover from this crisis?

I’ve dealt with my share of disasters–too many of them to mention here. Here’s how I’ve learned to bounce back:

Mourn: You have that right. Be sad–then get over it.

Reassess: List all of the good things you did, and then list the lessons that you learned from the crisis.

Reinvent: Come up with a better way to solve the problem.

Reapply yourself: Make these ideas the new reality.

Most importantly, remember that things will always look better in the morning. After a good nights sleep, what seemed like a disaster 12 hours earlier usually does work itself out in the light of day!

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How I Negotiated My First Deal

Originally Published October 13, 2014

Many people don’t realize that good salesmanship is just as important for starting a rock band as it is for starting a business. In fact, being good at sales is what helped me get my first instrument and, eventually, launch my music career.

In 1965, inspired by the British Invasion and the arrival of Bob Dylan, I decided it was time to put together my first band at age 13. The only problem was that I didn’t own an electric guitar or a amplifier. And my parents pretty much gave me the sense that they weren’t buying one for me, either–they were always telling me that they didn’t have any money.

Nonetheless, I decided to go for it, borrowing instruments from other kids. I formed a band with some kids in my junior high (we broke up after a day) and another band with some of the kids in my neighborhood (we got kicked out of the school talent show for playing “I Couldn’t Get High” by the Fugs–and then we broke up).

I really wanted my own instrument. I decided that there was a need for bass players, since it seemed that everyone played guitar. The one I wanted cost $25 dollars at the pawn shop, but that was more than I could afford.

That’s when the Boy Scouts called, asking for fundraising help. Yeah, that’s right, I was a Boy Scout. I had dropped out just short of Eagle Scout, because they required a letter from your religious leader vouching for your character. (My family, though Jewish, wasn’t religious. My father said he knew plenty of rabbis and could get a letter, no problem. But I thought that felt like a con job. Plus, they had been giving me grief about growing my hair longer.)

But now, the Scouts wanted my help. One thing that most people don’t know about the Boy Scouts is that they, like the Girl Scouts, also used to sell cookies. (Now, they sell popcorn.) The year before, I had set the record for cookie sales by selling 110 boxes. So, the scoutmaster called me up to ask if I would sell cookies to help them keep the quota up. I wasn’t good enough to be in the Scouts, but they wanted me to sell cookies!

After getting some advice from my dad, I made the scoutmaster a deal: I would sell the cookies if he paid me a commision of 10 cents a box. He agreed, and I got to work selling those cookies.

In the end, I sold 242 boxes, and I was paid $24.20. My dad threw in the other 80 cents (big spender), and I bought my first guitar: a Red Hagstrom bass, which I still own to this day.

I also took something else away from the experience: I actually negotiated a deal. Sure, it wasn’t the smoothest delivery–I was a little scared by the possibility of getting turned down. But I made an offer and it was accepted! That skill became very important for me later when I had to cut deals with clubs, record companies, you name it. But, at the time, I was able to focus on my music skills–using my very own, hard-earned bass guitar.

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Finding Your Big Bang Moment

Originally published on September 29, 2014

Whether you are an artist or an entrepreneur, your story usually begins with passion, a moment that goes something like this: “The first time I either witnessed, touched, smelled, felt, heard [this object of passion], I just knew that I would do anything, risk anything to be a part of this life…”

That Big Bang moment truly defines you. Most people can tell you the exact date and time that this tsunami of inspiration and passion washed over their brain cells, rendering them helpless to the immutable forces that drive the human spirit.

My Big Bang happened on February 9th, 1964 at 8:03 p.m.

That night, I (and 73 million other Americans) saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. I was 11 years old, but I emphatically told my mother that I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star on that very night. Over the next couple of weeks, after reading every Beatle magazine that appeared magically the day after the Sullivan show, my actual goal started to crystallize: I wanted to make great rock ‘n’ roll music, play to screaming girls, get a gold record, and be a millionaire!

Like many entrepreneurs who are first starting out, I had no idea how any of this was going to happen. I just knew that it had to happen. But achieving your goals not only takes passion, it takes patience.

I did finally get that gold record. It happened in July of 1984, 20 years and five months after I set my goal. It was a long journey, but it taught me every lesson that I ever wanted (and didn’t want) to learn, including how to market a brand, how to negotiate deals, how to handle a crisis, and how to manage some big personalities. But without passion, without that Big Bang, I would have never had the drive to get started–or to keep going.

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