The Evolution of Promotional T-Shirts in the Music Industry

The first printed T-shirt promoting an artist emerged on the music scene in 1956. According to the Elvis History Blog, it all started when Henry G. Saperstein approached Elvis Presley with a merchandising plan. Saperstein owned his own company, Special Products, Inc., and he created products for popular Hollywood productions like LassieMickey Mouse, and The Lone Ranger. Saperstein analyzed Presley’s market potential and identified two components that would make his merchandise a success:

  • He was universally appealing: Presley was popular with teenagers and had universal appeal with his charm, music, and innovative though controversial dance moves. He was new on the scene and was considered an artist who had something different to offer.
  • He met the emotional needs of consumersAccording to Saperstein: “We are each of us insecure in our way. We like to identify ourselves with people who are somebody.”

Saperstein, Presley, and his manager signed a licensing agreement in July 1956, and Presley merchandise was sold in retail stores across the United States. The merchandise included T-shirts, skirts, denim, shoes and jewelry, and it was targeted at teenagers. Sales were a huge success, and licensing deals to produce Elvis Presley merchandise were signed with 11 companies in the United Kingdom.

Unfortunately, some artists didn’t receive many royalties from their merchandise sales. Take the Beatles, whose success on the music scene was skyrocketing. They had high commercial appeal, but their inexperienced manager didn’t have the foresight to capitalize on their commercial success, according to the Music Network. Because of that, they didn’t sign any merchandising deals early on and later only received 10% of sales profits while merchandising companies brought in millions. That changed in August 1964, when a deal was signed raising the band’s royalty take to 46%.

Although considered uncool by professional musicians, band T-shirts became popular among concert goers when Bill Graham and Dell Furano began selling T-shirts at Grateful Dead concerts. Furano would sell T-shirts in a corner at gigs because the musicians didn’t want to be embarrassed.

The 70s furthered the appeal and success of selling band merchandise, especially T-shirts, contributing to increased revenue for bands and management teams who had the foresight to capitalize on their commercial appeal. According to historian Glenn A Baker, AC/DC was one of the first rock bands to make more money in T-shirt royalties than ticket sales during their first worldwide tour. Later, KISS and the Rolling Stones followed with band T-shirts and additional memorabilia.

Meanwhile, the punk culture was distinguished by bands reflecting radical images and views in their music and apparel. Vivienne Westwood and her partner Malcolm McLaren broke out onto the punk scene and revolutionized T-shirts with radical slogans of anarchy and attitude. McLaren went on to manage the infamous Sex Pistols, while Westwood styled the group.

Band T-shirts created a sense of community and belonging for like-minded fans. People with similar tastes and passions could easily identify with each other. To wear a band T-shirt was not only symbolic of your musical tastes — it also showed what you stood for in life.

MERCH APPAREL & ALBUM SALES

Today, according to Dell Furano, artists continue to make a lot of money from selling merchandise while they‘re touring:

“For touring artists, their main revenue still comes from touring. But they make very substantial merchandise money. It’ll range from 10 to 35 percent of their revenue[.] Today, many artists routinely do $10-plus per head, and many top pop, rock, country and hip-hop artists gross $15 to $20 per head. Kanye West, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber shows gross $300,000 to $400,000 in merchandise”.

In today’s digital age, album sales have dropped, and with tours and festivals cancelled due to the pandemic, artists need to find other ways to generate more revenue and continually adapt to the changing landscape. Streaming services have diminished their record sales, and they’ve therefore turned to selling merchandise as part of bundles: if you buy a physical or digital album, you get a T-shirt. It’s one of the tactic’s that popular artists have turned to so they can buff up their revenues.

In 2018, Lil Wayne and Travis Scott both released limited edition T-shirts as part of their album releases. New merchandise was released every day over a nine-day period following the album release and was only available for 24 hours.

Scott released his album on August 3, and his merchandise included apparel, the digital album, and pre-sale ticket access to a future tour.

Lil Wayne released his album on September 28 along with exclusive merchandise made in collaboration with 14 designers and brands.

T-shirt from Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V by Illegal Civilization

Both artists made great sales, as HighSnobiety state in their article: “Scott sold more than 500,000 album-equivalent units in his first week with Astroworld, whereas Wayne’s Tha Carter V moved 480,000”.

These bundles and merchandise products have become part of artists’ strategies to raise their rankings on the charts and keep their music and brand top of mind.

In exploring other avenues for success, artists have now entered the world of apparel and fashion, which isn’t unheard of but has become more common over the years. Quality of the merchandise is the primary focus when designing pieces since it will impact artist’s image. According to Graeme Jack from the Bravado agency, “The artists have a vision for their brand that is reflected in their music, videos and now merchandise. Nothing is just thrown together”. T-shirts aren’t the only apparel artists sell: fleece sweaters, hoodies, and joggers are also big on the market.

Artists with clothing brands include Beyoncé, Kanye West, Rihanna, Jessica Simpson, Madonna, Victoria Beckham, and Drake to name a few.

BAND T-SHIRTS GET FASHIONABLE

Since the 2000s, band T-shirts have become fashionable without wearers listening to the band or having any idea of who they are or what they stand for. Retail stores like H&M and Top Shop, who take inspiration from high fashion brands, started selling band T-shirts after the look was introduced on the runway.

Some may say this is appropriation, but it could also be a new way for an aging band to be rediscovered by a demographic that wouldn’t have known of them otherwise. People wear the T-shirts simply because they’re cool and have become a part of streetwear and high fashion trends. The whole thing is pretty controversial for die hard fans, but some people who buy the shirts because they’re cool wind up getting into the bands too.

LEGACY

The Rolling Stones, one of the most famous rock bands in the world, opened RS No. 9 Carnaby, their first flagship store, in London’s Soho district on Carnaby Street on September 9. This store is the result of a partnership with Bravado, Universal Music Group’s merchandise and brand management company.

The store includes apparel from the band’s fashion label (denim, T-shirts, hoodies) and launched with some exclusive collaborations between high fashion brands like the Soloist, who collaborated with them on chairs and scarves, and Swedish designer Stutterheim, who designed a rubberized cotton raincoat featuring the band’s logo.

A really cool feature is the customizable T-shirt station where fans can create exclusive designs and create their own one-of-a-kind T-shirts. Bravado’s CEO, Mat Vlasic states: “RS No. 9 Carnaby is the result of years of planning and decades of building one of the world’s most recognized brands. It creates a destination where fans can connect and immerse themselves in the music, style and spirit of one of the world’s most iconic and beloved bands.”

The store has some cool features, including the introduction of the Pantone color Stones Red (the color of their first logo), which is the red used for their exclusive limited edition Goats Head Soup vinyl.

As an aging band, the Rolling Stones are still very relevant and are using a new way to attract people back to the music scene. The band’s music is also available to purchase in store with limited edition CDs and vinyls of their legendary albums. The music is still their core focal point– everyone knows who they are first and foremost because of their music– but their brand and logo have helped define them along the way and allowed them to stay relevant to a younger demographic.

POPULAR BAND T-SHIRTS

THE RAMONES

One of the most recognizable and popular band T-shirts is the Ramones T-shirt with the logo Arturo Vega designed in 1978.

LED ZEPPELIN

Led Zeppelin’s T-shirt from their last sold out North American tour in 1977.

PINK FLOYD

Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon T-shirt is representative of the band: their stage lighting, lyrics, and the simple and bold designed they requested.

RUN DMC

The Run DMC T-shirt was designed by Stephanie Nash, a designer at Island Records, in 1986.

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS

The Red Hot Chili Peppers logo was created by band member Anthony Kiedis when their management asked them for a logo.

METALLICA

The Metallica logo was designed by singer and lead guitarist James Hetfield has been on all of their shirts ever since.

NIRVANA

And then there’s NirvanaThis logo made its debut in 1991 on a promotional poster for their Nevermind album.

And we couldn’t resist showing you one last Nirvana T-shirt that we’re pretty sure you’ve never seen before. It features the Hanson brothers, and their long blond hair will surely remind you of the famous grunge guitarist and singer. This is our favourite of all the ironic band T-shirts you can find online. Don’t be surprised if people pause on first glance when you wear this baby.

browse our variety of 100% cotton, cotton blend, and triblend T-shirts, perfect for screen-printing your favorite band logos!

Posted on 19 October 2020 in Recent News

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