Music Merchandising Moves On


A T-shirt or a flimsy tour programme was the bulk of merchandise in the “old days” – mass-produced items to shift quickly when an act was on tour. Fortunately, things have changed dramatically in recent years – with a clear drive to be as environmentally aware as possible. Print-on-demand technology is also allowing acts to offer broader ranges of products while acting in a more efficient and lean way. From rucksacks made out of bottles and venue-specific tour programmes to the virtual possibilities of Fortnite, we look at how merchandising has finally come of age. 

The strength of merchandise and direct-to-consumer (D2C) sales have been well documented in a music industry that, two decades on, is still picking itself up from the tidal wave that was Napster. What is perhaps less well known is the amount of innovation taking place within this booming sector. Black band T-shirts may remain a perennial but there have been vast changes to how merchandise is created, advertised, sold and delivered to consumers over the last decade. 

music:)ally today presents its guide to innovation in merchandise and D2C in 2019, with five developments that could (and possibly should) shake up the music merchandising business over the next few years. 


1) Environmentally friendly merchandise

With its reliance on plastic, vinyl and cotton, the merchandise business is not a particularly environmentally friendly one. And yet moves are being made to address this. In the US, Adam Gardner, guitarist for alt-rock band Guster, and his wife Lauren Sullivan launched Reverb, a non-profit organisation that helps bands to go green, including advice on environmentally friendly merchandise. 

And in the UK, music industry environmental agency Julie’s Bicycle has produced a fact sheet offering advice on greener merchandise. “In deciding a merchandising deal for a tour it is crucial to ask the right questions of suppliers,” it says. 

“What steps have they taken to reduce environmental impacts? Have they been awarded any independently verified accreditation for their efforts? Can they provide you with evidence?” Bands, too, have started to make an effort to ensure their merchandise sales are more environmentally friendly. 

Radiohead, for example, sold a backpack made from 40 recycled plastic bottles in 2017. But perhaps the most interesting development has come from The 1975 . In an interview with The Guardian, Jamie Oborne, the band’s manager, revealed that the band were making serious efforts to reduce their environmental impact, including working to minimise the impact of vinyl production. 

“Rather than ignoring that it’s a pollutant, we’re minimising it by only doing lightweight vinyl from now on,” Oborne said. “That isn’t very trendy, but one heavyweight LP is the equivalent of making two or three [standard thickness LPs].” 

The band’s merchandise store currently offers a “recycled plastic cassette” of their latest album, Notes On A Conditional Form, as well as organic T-shirts. Going further, The 1975 recently introduced an intriguing offer, printing logos for Notes On A Conditional Form onto unsold merchandise from 2013 to create a new range of recycled goods. 

Fans attending the 2019 Reading & Leeds Festival (where The 1975 headlined) were able to bring along their own band shirts – from The 1975 or otherwise – and get the new logo printed on them for free, thus combining environmental friendliness with a promotional opportunity. Or, as singer Matt Healy said on Instagram, “We are not making new shirts for now. Unsustainable. SO, AND I’M SO FUCKING INTO THIS. This run is all old shirts (first album, early tours etc) that we had kept and have reprinted as your NOACF shirts.” 

Tersha Willis, co-founder of Terrible Merch , adds, “The 1975 printing onto their old band merchandise at Reading & Leeds is something we really enjoyed seeing and offering free prints on fans’ own clothing was a nice addition to that whole move. It’s sustainable and inclusive. Frank Ocean was doing similar during his European festival run a couple of years back, although not quite as inclusively as The 1975. Merchandise production at shows is hugely under-exploited and creates a legitimate experience, while limiting the amount of overstock. It’ll be growing a lot as it becomes more widely accessible.” 



2) Customisation and print-on-demand 

The scourge of any merchandise company is stock, according to Simon Scott of Push Entertainment ; and the other challenge is to find products that go to the high end. So the rise of print-on-demand, which addresses both issues, has been manna from Heaven to merchandise companies, D2C specialists and artists alike. “On-demand has been there for about two years,” Scott says, “but it has suffered from a lack of understanding about what it takes to make a quality product.” 

This is all changing now. The last few years have seen a number of customisable, print-on-demand T-shirts sold directly to fans, allowing them to add their names to garments from the like of Catfish & The Bottlemen, while a recent initiative from Sony UK’s 4th Floor Creative division let fans use their Spotify profiles to create unique Bring Me The Horizon shirts based on their listening history. Adam Cardew, digital director at 4th Floor Creative, says that the idea came from looking for a way to integrate the band’s merchandise history with streaming. “It’s been really successful,” he adds. “We definitely want to do this again, but it needs to be for the right band and right audience.” 

Scott says that this kind of specialised merchandise appeals to the super fans. “I think the super fan is generally under-served,” he says. “The traditional way that people service the super fan is you have got box sets or limited-edition merchandise. But one of these things really enable the fan to be part of what is going on with the band and to feel they are being treated differently.” Customised merchandise not only allows fans to be more involved, it also creates a talking point. British folk rock group Bear’s Den, for example, used print-on-demand for their 2017 UK tour, selling bundles for each date that included a ticket and a T-shirt that was exclusive to that concert. “People received the T-shirt and they were walking around Manchester doing your marketing [for the gig] for you,” Will Spencer of D2C specialist Music Glue explains. “It was a really nice way of getting the most out of print-on-demand. And each city had a little bit of ownership.” 

And this kind of initiative doesn’t have to be limited to clothing. Push has collaborated with Bravado on a customised photo book celebrating Elton John’s ongoing Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour , with a dedicated book for each show on the tour. Each book consists of 50 high-quality pages, half of which are dedicated exclusively to a specific tour date, with pictures of the city, the venue and the show itself. It retails for a (relatively pricey) €70. 

Obviously, this kind of plush tour artefact works best with an artist like Elton John . But Scott says customised print could also work for different types of acts. “How are you going to generate a high-quality paper product for a fanbase?” Scott says. “Let’s take a boy band scenario or a pop act – a One Direction or Justin Bieber. There is a large amount of unused photographic assets that get collected during a release cycle. [It is] very easy to create a fan- focused photo book, where fans can pick the pictures that they want to be in that book.” 

The other advantage of print-on-demand is its environmentally friendly appeal. Russel Coultart, CEO of Direct to Fan Sales, calls print-on-demand “without doubt the future for online music merchandise”. He points to the example of print studio Everpress which recently ran a limited merchandise offer for 85 artists and indie labels as part of its annual sustainable merchandise campaign Highpass. “All print-on-demand or preorder and then printed after the pre-order – so absolutely zero waste,” he explains. 


3) TikTok as merchandise platform 

We have talked extensively in music:)ally about Instagram as merchandise platform (see sandbox 233 and our most recent coverage), but how about TikTok? That might, perhaps, sound like pointlessly chasing the next big thing. But TikTok has made recent moves into shopping, launching the Hashtag Challenge Plus for in-app shopping in the US in August. The first Challenge Plus was for US grocer Kroger and saw four TikTok influencers take part in the #TransformUrDorm challenge, with people who watched the resulting videos able to tap through to a Kroger page to browse and buy products, such as hangers and laundry baskets, without leaving TikTok.

At the end of November, TikTok then launched an initiative in Thailand, selling tickets to 500 films and concerts, including gigs by Mumford & Sons and Green Day and dance festival Neon Countdown, from 19th November 19 to 31st December. “Under the TikTok Tickets programme, entertainment partners utilise TikTok’s strength as a preferred platform among creative young audiences to increase their brand exposure and reach millions of TikTok users in Thailand,” TikTok’s head of music in Thailand, Suppawat Berananda, told The Bangkok Post. 

So far, both TikTok Tickets and Hashtag Challenge Plus have been isolated incidents. But they are unlikely to stay so. And, given COVERFEATURE 3 | sandbox | ISSUE 241 | 27.11.2019 the incredible importance of music and its related imagery on TikTok, selling merchandise and tickets in this way would seem like an obvious step. 

Imagine, for example, selling Lil Nas X-branded Wild West merchandise to all those people transforming themselves into cowboys on TikTok to the strains of ‘Old Town Road’. 

Push’s Simon Scott says that the challenge with TikTok will be “the fact that the kids aren’t the ones doing the purchasing – so how do you close that loop to the parents, for them to purchase?” But he believes TikTok could be an important sales channel. “YouTube really works, so there is no reason why TikTok wouldn’t work. Absolutely no reason at all.” 


4) Virtual goods and in-game sales 

The rate at which the games industry has soared past the music business in terms of revenue has caused a certain amount of jealousy among artists and labels. It has also led to a fair amount of imitation, with artists from Iron Maiden to Wu-Tang Clan launching their own games over the past few decades with varying results. 

Given the considerable cost and effort that developing a game entails, it is perhaps unsurprising that some of the most notable music/gaming crossovers have come when musicians have joined already successful titles, with Marshmello playing a set in Fortnite and Korn staging a pair of concerts in AdventureQuest 3D and AdventureQuest Worlds. In both cases, the gigs were free for gamers to attend (virtually) but the artists offered a range of merchandise for gamers to enhance their experience. 

Fortnite players could buy a Marshmello skin for 1,500 V-Bucks ($9.99) as well as a related glider accessory and dance emotes, while AdventureQuest fiends could buy a $9.99 “special event pack” for the Korn gig, which included “Korn-branded items, the Heavy Metal Mosh Pit Marauder Armor, exclusive travel forms which let you transform into the new monsters from the show, bonus quests, and more… including a backstage pass so you can get a virtual backstage experience with the virtual band and take a virtual selfie…” 

While it is hugely unlikely the artists in question were able to pocket all of this money – neither Epic Games (Fortnite) nor Artix (AdventureQuest) revealed terms of the deal – they likely proved useful money spinners, with Marshmello pulling a crowd of 10.7m to his concert. As an added bonus, virtual merchandise is incredibly cheap to produce and very environmentally friendly. 


5) Flash sales, limited runs and pop-up stores 

One of the most fascinating recent developments in the merchandise industry has been the way in which the business has injected urgency, novelty and a dollop of cool into the sector, using limited runs, flash sales and pop-up stores to drive fan sales.  One of the most fascinating examples of this was Aphex Twin’s recent excursions into retail. In 2017, the enigmatic electronic artist opened his own online store in collaboration with longtime label home Warp Records and Ochre, the D2C service that evolved out of Warp’s own Bleep store. 

The store allowed fans to stream Aphex’s catalogue and purchase downloads (including previously unreleased material). Equally importantly, it looked great, having been customised by Aphex Twin himself to fit with his general aesthetic, with video at the centre of the store. 

The store also sold individualistic Aphex Twin merchandise, as Ochre MD Dan Minchom explains. “Warp Records developed a series of merchandise items to celebrate Aphex Twin’s iconic music videos. The aim was to create a unique and fitting item for each video. These included items featured in the videos, such as ‘Windowlicker’ umbrellas, and ‘Donkey Rhubarb’ teddy bears, as well as tongue-in-cheek references like ‘Come To Daddy’ kids clothing,” he says. 

Minchom explains that online retail drops were pre-announced to fans and timed around pop-up stores in LA and London. “On the first drop all the limited-run items, umbrellas, towels, masks, bears sold out pretty much immediately,” he says. “There was a second drop a few months later which did the same.” 

Most importantly, perhaps, Aphex Twin’s merchandise excursions – which also included limited-edition 12-inches sold at gigs – have helped to put the excitement back into music retail, creating genuine events that generated considerable media buzz, with reports everywhere from Spin to HypeBeast.

Jessie Scoullar, founding director of e-commerce specialist Wicksteed Works, says, “On-demand and flash sales go handin-hand as a smart way for artists of any size to gauge and print to order, as well as test demand for new product lines. To me, the best merchandise finds a balance between reflecting the artist’s brand and values, and making a sometimes quirky nod to the specific campaign.” 

This is the lead feature from our fortnightly Sandbox magazine, which focuses on essential skills and information for the modern music business. You can download the full issue here

Written by: Eamonn Forde