I’m with the brand! How merch saved the music industry
Travis 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-capacity 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) of merchandise at these concerts – surpassing a record previously set by BTS in 2019.
Scott’s windfall from this merch was partly due to the prices (£45 for a cap, £125 for a hoodie) but is also part of a wider trend. With revenue from streaming negligible and the cost-of-living crisis meaning that ticket sales may be less reliable, merch provides a financial win for artists – and especially those not at Scott’s megastar level.
Singer-songwriter Liz Lawrence has been producing merch for the last five years. For her most recent album, The Avalanche, she has tote bags and T-shirts, and she says merch is now a key part of how she makes her living. “When we look at a touring budget, we’ll say, ‘This should do the job if we make so and so in merch,’” she explains. “I’m pretty sure the only reason we don’t lose [money] is merch. The fees [for playing] haven’t gone up but everything else has. You need something to fill the gap.”
Music merch is an industry in its own right – one with global retail sales valued at $3.5bn in 2018. The LA-based company Bravado produces merch for Scott as well as Billie Eilish, the Rolling Stones and the Weeknd. Ceremony of Roses, founded in 2016 and the subject of investment from Sony this year, produces merch for Adele, Olivia Rodrigo and A$AP Rocky. Sandbag, founded in the UK in 2002 with Radiohead their first client, have worked with BTS, Abba and Justice.
Jordan Gaster, head of A&R at Sandbag, says merch has become much more of a priority in the last decade. “Unless you’re a mainstream pop artist, [artists are] making more money on their merchandise than they are from a record.” This was exacerbated during the pandemic when the income stream from live gigs disappeared. Everpress, a marketplace where creatives sell limited runs of merch and only print what is ordered, reported sales doubling in the pandemic and estimate that about 25% of the T-shirts it sells are from musicians or record labels.
Merch has also become fashionable. Over the last 10 years, brands including Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton and Acne have included very expensive versions of band T-shirts in their catwalk collections. Meanwhile, much to traditionalists’ chagrin, Primark and Urban Outfitters sell T-shirts of Fleetwood Mac and the Doors to young people 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 associate at The Business of Fashion, says merch is not just about music but also sport and even automobiles – “like car companies launching a $450 sneaker”. But merch is also “a legitimate part of mainstream fashion now”, he says – in fact, it has had an impact on fashion itself. “Fashion companies are selling merch products for fans to wear and it’s no longer cringe,” he says. “It’s kind of cool now to have that logo on your chest or your shoe.”
Merch from certain artists is particularly sought after – as evidenced by its its resale value. The streetwear resale site StockX reports that a sweatshirt from the merch run of Kids See Ghosts, the 2018 project by Kanye West and Kid Cudi, typically sells for 533% higher than it retailed for – even after West wore a White Lives Matter T-shirt for his Yeezy show earlier this month.
“Musicians have never been more culturally influential,” says Derek Morrison, vice president of StockX. “Artists like Travis Scott [are] authentic participants in fashion. Their point of view is more than just, ‘Hey, I was at this concert.’”
We have, of course, been signposting “Hey, I was at this concert” for decades. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis tells of how the singer’s manager, Colonel Parker, caught this trend early, producing merchandise – including the famous I Hate Elvis badges – in the mid-50s. The Beatles capitalised on their mania the following decade with everything from wigs to Ringo dolls. By 1964, their manager Brian Epstein’s company received 46% of all merchandise profit.
The Rolling Stones ramped things up with the release of Sticky Fingers in 1971, the first album to feature their famous lips logo, designed by a British art student. A T-shirt from the tour, with a zip like the one on the cover of the album, is currently for sale on eBay for £685.
The 70s saw the tour T-shirt become standard, with rock bands like AC/DC and Kiss using bold graphics as part of their image. But eye-catching merch has not always been seen positively: in the 90s, acts like James and the Farm were derided as “T-shirt bands”, implying that their merch was more popular than their music.
That view now feels old-fashioned in a world where the most successful musicians are multi-hyphenates. As well as Scott, artists like Beyoncé, Billie Eilish, Justin Bieber and Frank Ocean have made merch a central part of their brand, and many also have their own fashion lines.
These artists push imaginative, fan-led ideas in their merch rather than a dashed-off logo on a black T-shirt. When Frank Ocean played Lovebox in 2017, he set up a screenprinting stall for fans to print on their own T-shirts; it was so popular they ran out of ink. Eilish, known for her love of oversized clothes, has made the XXL hoodie a style signature among her fanbase. Bieber worked with cult label Fear of God on merch for his Purpose tour. And for Beyoncé’s album Renaissance, a box was available to pre-order, with a CD and T-shirt featuring the singer in one of various poses.
“Beyoncé understands that the ‘BeyHive’ is always down to give her money, regardless of price, so she makes sure to release interesting merch every time,” says Ineye Komonibo, a 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 organised so that none of us would get the same pose and even had theories about what each pose or box would be.”
But even though merch is now part of music’s culture and economy, artists are still forced to compromise on revenue: some venues take a 25% cut from sales at gigs. This revelation, last year, was followed by a campaign from Featured Artists Coalition (FAC) – the UK trade body representing the rights and interests of musicians – for venues where commission is waived. David Martin, the CEO of FAC, says the issue affects more artists than fans might think: “The margins are very, very tiny even at the level where most people assume that the people on stage are doing very well for themselves.”
This has caused friction between parties. In an interview with the Independent this month, Brighton band the Big Moon explained how they sold merch at a nearby pub after an argument with a venue asking for 25% of the sales. “Merch is actually the main way that you make anything,” said singer Juliette Jackson, “and then to have venues go, ‘Oh we want that too’? I’m like ‘Give me 25% of your bar takings, because everyone’s here to see our band!’”
Brexit is another factor threatening revenue. Jon Collins, CEO of Live, the body that represents the UK’s live music business, says touring in Europe has become far more complicated. “There are all sorts of restrictions about what you can take now. For every country that you go in, [you have to] do import duty, VAT, and if you’re not registered in each and every one of those countries – which you are almost certainly not – you can’t claim the money back.” Collins contributed to an all-party parliamentary group report arguing that these difficulties have stopped some bands touring altogether.
Yet merch remains part of many musicians’ business models – with online shopping one way to circumvent these complications. “We’re seeing more and more artists direct fans to their website, because they don’t want to pay that commission,” says Martin. Sandbag’s A&R head Gaster argues that merch is future-proofed, unlike other parts of the music business: “You can’t illegally download a T-shirt,” he says.
You can, however, buy a T-shirt that doesn’t physically exist. For Travis Scott’s concert in the video game Fortnite, the rapper sold avatar merch, contributing to the $20m he reportedly earned.
Miller is sceptical about whether digital merch could become as highly prized as physical. “I think the reason merch 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 creepy,” he says, “but when you love an artist, you want to have a piece of them with you – so you can be connected somehow.”