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I’m with the brand! How merchandising saved the music industry | Music

JRavi Scott’s two shows at London’s O2 in August were a huge success, selling out in less than two hours – with tickets for the 20,000-seater venue going for as much as £180. But when it came to profit margins, that was only part of the story. Scott also sold $1m (£900,000) worth of merchandise at those gigs – surpassing a record previously set by BTS in 2019.

Scott’s windfall of this merch was partly down to price (£45 for a cap, £125 for a hoodie) but is also part of a larger trend. With streaming revenue negligible and the cost-of-living crisis meaning ticket sales can be less reliable, merch offers financial gain for artists – and especially those not at Scott’s megastar level. .

Singer-songwriter Liz Lawrence has been producing merchandise for five years. For her latest album, The Avalanche, she has tote bags and t-shirts, and she says merch is now a key part of how she makes a living. “When we look at a tour budget, we say, ‘That should be fine if we’re doing this or that in merchandising,'” she explains. not [money] is a merchant. Expenses [for playing] have not increased, but everything else has increased. You need something to fill the void.

A Billie Eilish fan with a hat and poster entering the singer's show in Bangkok.
A Billie Eilish fan with a hat and poster entering the singer’s show in Bangkok. Photography: Matt Hunt/Neato/REX/Shutterstock

Music merch is an industry in its own right, with global retail sales valued at $3.5 billion in 2018. Los Angeles-based company Bravado produces merchandise for Scott as well as Billie Eilish, the Rolling Stones and the Weekend. Ceremony of Roses, founded in 2016 and receiving an investment from Sony this year, produces merchandise for Adele, Olivia Rodrigo and A$AP Rocky. Sandbag, founded in the UK in 2002 with Radiohead their first client, has worked with BTS, Abba and Justice.

Jordan Gaster, A&R manager at Sandbag, says merch has become a much higher priority over the past decade. “Unless you’re a mainstream pop artist, [artists are] make more money with their merchandise than with a record. This was exacerbated during the pandemic when the revenue stream from live concerts disappeared. Everpress, a marketplace where creatives sell limited runs of products and only print what’s ordered, reported that sales have doubled during the pandemic and estimates around 25% of the T-shirts it sells come from musicians or record companies.

Merch has also become fashionable. Over the past 10 years, brands such as Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton and Acne have included very expensive versions of band t-shirts in their runway collections. Meanwhile, much to the chagrin of traditionalists, Primark and Urban Outfitters are selling Fleetwood Mac and the Doors t-shirts to youngsters who might like the logo more than the back catalogue. Metallica collaborated with Netflix on a T-shirt combining their logo with that of the Hellfire Club from Stranger Things.

Daniel-Yaw Miller, editorial partner at The Business of Fashion, says merch isn’t just about music, it’s also about sports and even automobiles — “like the car companies releasing a $450 sneaker.” But merchandising is also “a legitimate part of mainstream fashion now,” he says — in fact, it’s had an impact on fashion itself. “Fashion companies are selling merchandise that fans can wear and it’s no longer cringe,” he says. “It’s pretty cool now to have that logo on your chest or your shoe.”

The merchandising of certain artists is particularly sought after – as evidenced by its resale value. Streetwear resale site StockX reports that a sweatshirt from the merchandise series of Kids See Ghosts, Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s 2018 project, typically sells for 533% more than it was sold for retail – even after West wore a White Lives Matter t-shirt for his Yeezy show earlier this month.

Justin Bieber fans in New York for his 2011 tour.
All the gear… Justin Bieber fans in New York for his 2011 tour. Photo: Startraks Photo/REX Shutterstock

“Musicians have never been more culturally influential,” says Derek Morrison, vice president of StockX. “Artists like Travis Scott [are] authentic fashion players. Their point of view is more than a simple “Hey, I was at that concert”.

We’ve, of course, been reporting “Hey, I was at that gig” for decades. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis recounts how the singer’s manager, Colonel Parker, caught on to this trend early on, churning out merchandise – including the famous I Hate Elvis badges – in the mid-1950s. The Beatles capitalized on their mania the decade next with everything from wigs to Ringo dolls. In 1964, the company of their director Brian Epstein received 46% of all profits on goods.

The Rolling Stones kicked things up a notch with the release of Sticky Fingers in 1971, the first album to feature their famous lips logo, designed by a British art student. A tour T-shirt, with a zip like the one on the album cover, is currently on sale on eBay for £685.

Beatles merchandise for sale in California.
I can’t buy myself love… Beatles merchandise is on sale in California. Photography: Etienne Laurent/EPA

The 70s saw the tour t-shirt become the norm, with rock bands like AC/DC and Kiss using bold graphics as part of their image. But catchy merch wasn’t always viewed positively: In the ’90s bands like James and the Farm were derided as “t-shirt bands”, implying that their merch was more popular than their music.

This view now seems outdated in a world where the most successful musicians are multi-hyphenate. In addition to Scott, artists like Beyoncé, Billie Eilish, Justin Bieber and Frank Ocean have made merchandising a central part of their brand, and many have their own fashion lines as well.

These artists push imaginative, fan-driven ideas into their product rather than a dotted logo on a black T-shirt. When Frank Ocean performed at Lovebox in 2017, he set up a screen printing booth for fans to print on their own t-shirts; he was so popular that they ran out of ink. Eilish, known for her love of oversized clothes, has made the XXL hoodie a style signature among her fans. Bieber worked with cult label Fear of God on merchandising for his Purpose Tour. And for Beyoncé’s Renaissance album, a box set was available for pre-order, with a CD and a T-shirt featuring the singer in one of several different poses.

Can't always get what they want?  …customers browse the Rolling Stones store in London.
Can’t always get what they want? …customers browse the Rolling Stones store in London. Photography: Nils Jorgensen/REX/Shutterstock

“Beyoncé understands that the ‘BeyHive’ is always ready to give her money, no matter the cost, so she makes sure to release great products every time,” says Ineye Komonibo, culture critic at Refinery29. “Part of the fun of getting the box was the mystery behind what it would be and what pose I would get. My friends and I arranged that neither of us would get the same pose and even had theories on what each pose or box would be.

But even though merchandising has become part of the culture and economy of music, artists are still forced to compromise on revenue: some venues take a 25% cut on concert sales. That revelation last year was followed by a campaign by the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC) – the UK trade body representing the rights and interests of musicians – for venues where the commission is scrapped. FAC CEO David Martin says the issue affects more artists than fans realize: “Margins are very, very small, even at the level where most people assume people on stage are doing just fine. .”

This caused friction between the parties. In an interview with The Independent this month, Brighton band The Big Moon explained how they were selling produce at a nearby pub after a row with a venue demanding 25% of sales. “Merchandising is actually the main way of doing anything,” singer Juliette Jackson said, “and then having theaters say, ‘Oh, we want that too’? I’m like, ‘Give me 25% of your bar recipes, because everyone is here to see our band!'”

Brexit is another revenue threatening factor. Jon Collins, CEO of Live, the body that represents the UK live music industry, says touring Europe has become much more complicated. “There are all kinds of restrictions on what you can take now. For each country you go to, [you have to] do import duties, VAT, and if you’re not registered in each of these countries – which you almost certainly aren’t – you can’t claim the refund. Collins contributed to a report by an all-party parliamentary group claiming that these difficulties completely prevented some groups from touring.

BTS fans browse a pop-up store dedicated to the group in Seoul.
Tickled pink… BTS fans browse a pop-up store dedicated to the group in Seoul. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Yet merchandising is still part of many musicians’ business models, with online shopping being a way around these complications. “We’re seeing more and more artists directing their fans to their website because they don’t want to pay that commission,” says Martin. Sandbag’s A&R manager, Gaster, says the merchandising is future-proof, unlike other parts of the music industry: “You can’t illegally download a T-shirt,” he says.

You can, however, buy a T-shirt that does not physically exist. For Travis Scott’s concert in the Fortnite video game, the rapper sold avatar merchandise, contributing to the $20 million he would have earned.

Miller is skeptical whether digital merchandise could become as popular as physical. “I think the reason merchandising is so interesting is that it’s tangible and people can interact with it – communities are formed,” he says.

Komonibo says that for fans, wearing something created by your idol remains irresistible. “It sounds scary,” he says, “but when you love an artist, you want to have a piece of them with you — so you can be connected in some way.”


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