The band T-shirt has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Its origins are difficult to trace, but it’s thought that the teenage ‘bobby-soxers’ of the 1940s sparked its creation by scrawling the names of their favorite musicians across their clothes and wearing them proudly. Plenty of the first designs were unofficial – the earliest concert tee was reportedly made by an Elvis fan club in the late 1950s – but bands and promoters quickly noticed the trend and decided to capitalize on it by making official merch. Everyone was happy; die-hard fans got their tees and promoters got their cash.
Fast-forward some 60 years and merch drops are now ubiquitous. Not content with releasing just one design, artists like Travis Scott and Lil Wayne team up with style icons to create extensive, limited edition ranges which usually come bundled with album downloads. When fans redeem these – essentially free – downloads, they add to the artist’s sales, a fact which was highlighted and lambasted by Nicki Minaj earlier this year.
As Billboard struggles to keep up with increasingly complex marketing strategies, it’s worth asking: when did merch drops become so controversial, and are the industry’s biggest players using it to game the system?
Whether or not we might admit it, plenty of us view our favorite artists as an extension of our own identities. You can tell a lot about someone from the music they listen to, which is why we broadcast our Spotify playlists and geo-tag ourselves at gigs. Social media has given us all a platform to build our own personal brand, and plenty of us do it through music. Before the Instagram grid, the only way to declare your allegiance with an artist was to wear their merchandise. Slipping on a band tee sent a clear message that you were different to other people; the general subtext was that you were rebellious, or an individual.
Ironically, entire subcultures were built on this premise. Groups of outsiders – punks, goths, teddy boys, mods – rallied together and built their own aesthetic and cultural codes, usually inspired by iconic musicians. This phenomenon predated the official band tee, driven by the bobby-soxers and rockabillies who were were imitating the looks of their respective idols, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Their beaten up leathers and dapper bow ties (worn by both men and women) became symbols of non-conformity, signs of ‘cool’ which were inextricably tied to music.
It’s no coincidence that protest tees and band tees both seriously emerged in mainstream consciousness (protest tees had been around to a minor extent in the 1950s) during the late 1960s. The US army was locked in a long, lethal war with Vietnam which, leaked documents later confirmed, was essentially futile. Hippies were galvanized and compelled to come together in peaceful protest, resisting police intervention with symbols of tranquility including daises and peace signs. Musicians were similarly incensed, recording protest songs and playing a key role in pressuring the US government to withdraw their troops.
Plenty of these musicians – including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead – were linked to Bill Graham, a war veteran who went onto establish himself as one of the world’s most famous tour promoters. Although admittedly driven by capitalism and a desire for cash, Graham was passionately anti-racist and known for his commitment to safety; he was one of the first to ensure that medical personnel were on-hand at every gig, and he played a key role in building the musical legacy of the West Coast. Graham later turned his attention to tour merchandise, most notably spawning the infamous Grateful Dead merch, whose tie-dyed hues and skeleton prints are still sought-after today.
Although driven by commerce, the tees were a successful project because they were linked to artists with radical messages – by wearing them, fans were expressing solidarity with their views. It was around this same time that psychedelic prints were being linked to protest by illustrator Warren Dayton, whose political illustrations became era-defining. Similar designs cropped up on some of the decade’s more left field band tees, cementing their links to counterculture.
They might be everywhere now, but band tees were definitively not ‘cool’ when they emerged. The Elvis Presley estate had a merch arm as early as the 1950s which lay dormant for decades, whereas the Beatles’ rapid ascent to stardom meant that early merchandising deals were unclear and therefore unable to be capitalized on. As a result, bootleggers reaped the rewards of music-related memorabilia in the 1960s.
This all changed in the 1970s with the advent of stadium rock. In quotes given to The Music Network, historian Glenn A Baker says that AC/DC were the first band to ever make more money from merch sales than tour tickets, cementing their legacy not only as a musical powerhouse, but as a cultural one, too. Bands like KISS followed, spawning entire collections of bobbleheads and cheap souvenirs which were quickly gobbled up by die-hard fans. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were among the other bands that crested this wave, escalating their T-shirt sales at an unprecedented rate. The trend may have been blossoming slowly for decades, but it was in the 1970s that the craze for tour merch truly exploded.
As with any countercultural phenomenon that quickly goes mainstream, tour merchandise suffered from over-saturation. Companies hungrily pumped out new designs and gradually increased their prices to profit from fandom, so in came the punks to reinvigorate the political nature of band tees. Although the punk ‘aesthetic’ we recognize today was largely appropriated from black cultures (Dick Hebdige famously described it in his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style as “a ‘white’ translation of black ‘ethnicity’), its radical ‘fuck you’ message spread worldwide.
British punks rose up against Thatcher’s tyrannical stronghold on working class communities, whereas New Yorkers took to underground clubs for unashamedly political concerts. Their aim was to resist capitalism; in sartorial practice, this meant piercing their ears with safety pins and using everything from toilet chains to tampons to adorn their clothing. T-shirts and jeans were slashed, while leather jackets were battered and decorated with clusters of tightly-packed pins and patches bearing political slogans. The goal was to communicate a message of anarchy and resistance, and clothing became a vital tool to do so.
Of course the marked-up tour tees which were then ubiquitous clashed with this ideology, so an independent scene was formed. Bands including 35 Summers and The Farm created inventive, collectible merch: everything from homemade zines to badges and buttons became affordable, limited-edition alternatives to overpriced tees, and even the tees they did make were sought-after in comparison. Designer Vivienne Westwood tapped into this link between style and subculture, creating iconic punk tees whose messages were unashamedly radical. Not only did she revolutionize the band tee by subverting its blueprint with anarchic slogans and a ‘fuck off’ attitude, she also succeeded in infiltrating the mainstream fashion industry.
Since then, tour merch has undergone various makeovers. Metal bands including Metallica and Slayer used borderline Satanic graphics to create a blueprint which is now more relevant than ever (more on that later), whereas the burgeoning popularity of a then-nascent rap genre spawned iconic tees by Run-D.M.C. and N.W.A. among others. Elsewhere, Madonna’s universal appeal extended further than tour venues; her rubber bracelets became a staple in stores worldwide, indicating that merch had a shelf life which transcended arenas.
Bands like Nirvana, Ramones and even The Spice Girls have proven time and time again that clothing can be even more lucrative than ticket sales, building business empires based largely on their own brands. At the same time, music media was evolving and giving us more and more access to our favourite artists. Cultural obsessions with artists swelled, and promoters were waiting in the wings to reap the rewards.
Fast forward a decade or so and we live in extremely different times. The internet has given us unprecedented access to the past, but the history we see is chopped up and condensed into bite-size pieces. Websites like Tumblr and Pinterest have allowed us to copy and paste vital images onto our own moodboards without ever being forced to question their cultural context. In today’s aesthetically-dominated digital era, the band tee has become just another object without meaning.
This is important. Early collectors of tour merch would literally travel the world to pick up tees, and wearing them became an almost religious exercise in fandom. These weren’t just random pieces of clothing, but limited edition pieces of memorabilia whose stories could be traced back to one night in one town for one crowd. Each of them came imbued with a specific history, one which undeniably meant something to the fans who lovingly cared for them as they grew more distressed, moth-eaten and sweat-stained.
But now we see these signs of wear and tear as nothing more than an aesthetic. Anyone can now peruse the rails of Forever 21 or H&M and buy a Nirvana shirt without ever having listened to Nevermind and, as a result, band tees have become a hot topic of debate. Instagram accounts such as Band of Shirts have emerged to pay tribute to hardcore music heads, but their captions often reveal that the people wearing the tees have never listened to the original bands. Metal tees – themselves a symbol of rebellion – are churned out by underpaid garment workers in far-flung countries, sold at rock-bottom prices and snapped up by fashion fans slavishly recreating the street style looks they’ve seen in magazines.
On the other hand, designers have been similarly lifting inspiration from these metal band tees and selling the results at eye-watering prices. Everyone from Nicolas Ghesquière to Demna Gvasalia has experimented with font and graphics to create high-fashion appropriations of tour merch, whereas pop stars like Zayn and Justin Bieber have set out to resell heavy metal aesthetics to an unsuspecting youth audience. The tip of the iceberg came when Kendall and Kylie Jenner released a range of tees emblazoned with the faces of Biggie and Tupac, prompting Biggie’s mother to release an official statement. Controversy – and a lawsuit – ensued, and the consequences of repurposing images of icons for commercial gain were laid bare.
These experiments have all had varying success rates, but there’s one crossover which reigns supreme: rap and metal. When Kanye referenced old-school heavy metal merch for his Yeezus tees, designed by artist Wes Lang, nothing felt disingenuous because the album itself (arguably inspired in no small part by Death Grips) was littered with influences of punk, noise, and metal. If anything, it made sense – or at least more sense than Bieber’s supposed tribute.
In fact, the last few years of music have been largely dominated by hip-hop. It’s debatable that artists including Lil Wayne, Kanye, and Travis Scott are essentially the stadium rock stars of today; they pack arenas and attract the same frenzied reception that rock bands (and then metal bands, and then pop bands) have attracted in the past. Their influence is written across fashion, too: from Migos’ "Versace" to Kanye’s own Virgil Abloh taking the helm at Louis Vuitton's menswear, rappers are ruling the industry and building close relationships with iconic brands and designers. As such, it makes sense that they’re also killing the merch game.
But this domination has caused controversy. It’s a well-known fact that Billboard has always struggled to keep pace with the rapidly-shifting music industry and to ensure that its charts are genuinely reflective of what people are consuming. Prince highlighted this way back in 2004, when he bundled sales of Musicology with tour tickets and quickly shifted almost 650,000 copies in five weeks – then his best numbers in a long, long time.
His move caused controversy but also became somewhat of a blueprint for artists looking to approach the industry with fresh new eyes. When Lady Gaga sold 1.1 million copies of Born This Way back in 2011 – more than 400,000 of which were bought for $0.99 as part of a deal with Amazon – she was widely criticized. Just a year later, Madonna bundled world tour tickets with her MDNA album and easily snatched that week’s top spot, but her sales figures declined by more than 300,000 units in the album’s second week, marking the biggest sales drop ever. In an industry which places a premium on first-week numbers, these case studies are proof that deals can be leveraged by industry heavy-hitters to basically guarantee an entry at the top of the charts.
Historically, the ticket sale bundle has been the easiest way for musical icons to score an easy chart-topper. But, more recently, artists like Lil Wayne and Travis Scott have realized just how lucrative merch drops – especially when they’re limited edition – can be.
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 huge numbers prompted a slew of articles trying to unpick the albums’ successes, but few commented on the fact that each of their extensive merch options came bundled with a digital album download. Fans didn’t necessarily have to claim the free album, but it’s arguable that most would: who could turn down a freebie? Both rappers also courted hypebeasts by teaming up with fashion heavyweights including Balenciaga’s own Virgil Abloh and streetwear icon Heron Preston, as well as much-hyped brands like NASASEASONS and Advisory Board Crystals.
Each drop stuck around for only 24 hours, replicating the exclusive nature of old-school tour tees which were only available at shows. Crucially, they weren’t vastly overpriced – some were just $40 for an album and an exclusive design, which is hard to criticize – and also came attached with pre-sale access to their tours. Nicki Minaj famously called out Scott, who dropped a limited-edition collab with Virgil Abloh on the same day her album Queen finally dropped. In a now-famous Twitter thread, she highlighted that merch sales had tipped the scales in Scott’s favor – a claim proven to be true by statistics which showed their albums were neck-and-neck in terms of ‘pure sales.’
In a world increasingly dominated by free streaming services, merch drops have arguably become more important than the music itself in sales terms. Streams do count towards official stats, but they’re weighted so that paid streams are worth more and their royalties can be notoriously paltry. Incidentally, ticket bundles – the subject of similar controversy – grew in popularity as labels saw their potential to combat flagging concert sales, indicating that fans are now demanding value for money, especially as ticket prices have swelled.
But there’s a key problem: Gaga’s Born This Way figures (allegedly) prompted Billboard to state that albums needed to cost at least $3.50 for their sales to count towards stats. That isn’t the case with these merch bundles, which essentially include the cost of the album but cost no less if you choose not to download it. In essence, you’re buying the merch – the album is just an additional free bonus.
Whether or not the rules will be revised remains to be seen, but it’s arguable that they should be: they create an uneven playing field tipped in the favor of musical heavyweights whose tours and merch drops are a hot commodity. But one thing the controversy has proven is that innovative merch drops can yield real success, and that there’s life in the band tee yet. Its legacy is checkered; the last few decades have seen tour merch go from political statement to cult staple to meaningless mainstream appropriation, so the fact that artists are teaming up with forward-thinking designers and releasing limited, affordable drops is reassuring. A few years ago, it seemed the Jenners had killed off the band tee for good. But a combination of innovative design, clever strategy and – that crucial ingredient – hype have proven that it’s far from dead; it only takes a handful of visionaries to keep its legacy alive.
Can't get enough merch? Next up, read how Bravado turns bands into brands.