'But I Love This Band': A Retrospective on Merch
  • FRIDAY, JUNE 22, 2012

  • Posted by: Zoe Marquedant

Part of my show-going experience has always been the trek over to to the merch table. I always set aside a small window usually in-between sets to peruse the merch, see what graphic t-shirts and other swag is on sale. At smaller venues, the table is often tucked into a back corner, usually run by the guitarist's cousin or some other distant relative. He sits there with a handful of sweaty twenties and orders have to yelled over the soundcheck. A cardboard sign reading, "NO ADLT MED OR YTH SMLL" hangs above his head. It's all a familiar sight. In bigger arenas and more so in recent years, the merch table has expanded to include any item of clothing or promotional material you could think of. The selection has long surpassed the days of sweatshirts and beanies. You can now buy bottle openers, shorts, tote bags, baby onesies, calendars and bracelets. The CDs are now stacked besides vinyl and I've even seen cassettes (who says physical media is a dying breed?). Useful things like each plugs are still sold, but still, the useless far outweighs them. Who needs special tour issue grills? What is anyone going to do with tie-dye dog tags?

Is this spike in merchandising a response to the rise in illegal downloading? Is the hole where CD sales used to be being filled with what only can be described as stuff? Historically, merchandise hasn't always brought bands the most money. Before the laws of branding and who gets rights to what were sorted out, anyone could get away with selling something as band related. The Beatles, as well as they did, weren't the only ones making money selling shirts (back in the day, that is). Still, later bands like AC/DC and Kiss probably collected more in merch sales than in ticket and CD sales combined. So expensive t-shirts and unnecessary band brand items are no strangers to the tour circuit. But is that really the only way bands can make money nowadays? There's the famous Bob Mould saying, "You can't download a t-shirt." No matter how many songs a person illegally downloads, they'll still fork over the $35 for a tour shirt. That actually makes a lot of sense to me. The band shirt is a popular item and they have become something of an art form. Books have been published on the subject and certain designs outlast their bands in popularity. Think about it. Everyone knows the Run-D.M.C. logo or the Joy Division Unknown Pleasures cover, but not all those people could name a song by either act. You can now buy a shirt with the Rolling Stones lips or The Who bulls-eye at Urban Outfitters, you don't have to wait for a tour to come through. These images have become iconic, with the help of the t-shirt. So is merch, like the t-shirt, a way to revive older music? Is it a way for musicians to make sure they see some profit? Are t-shirts the answer to the downloading problem?

Honestly? I don't know and I'm not sure I care. To me the band shirt is separate from the beast that is the music industry. Even after all the additions to the merch table, the t-shirt has stayed a staple. No matter if it's a show at Madison Square Gardens or the Otto Bar -- there will always be that rickety little folding table. No matter what genres rise to popularity, no matter how many bands come and go there will always be the t-shirt and the table. And I think for most music fans, that's enough. Does it matter that you already have a shirt by this band? No. Does it matter that it's grossly overpriced? No. The band shirt is a monument to the two hours spent jostling your way to the front row only to have a crowd surfer kick you in the neck. It is a reminder that the bassist totally looked at you no matter what your friend says. It is (sometime literally) the collective blood, sweat and tears of everyone at the show that night. It doesn't matter how the show went. The shirt is proof that you were at Bruce Springstein's Working on a Dream Tour or the last time Green Day came to town. It is a keepsake from your first Warped Tour. It's a memory, the way a photograph is a memory. It is something from the experience that you get to keep, like a ticket stub. Unless you got your shirt signed by a band member -- then you can totally sell it on eBay.
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