Industry Mini Dive: Band Merch

rock merch history of band merch banner

The next time you’re out and about running errands – whether it’s at your local mall (hopefully it isn’t dead!), grocery store, or even hitting up a restaurant, take a moment to look at the shirts people around you are wearing. Out of those, how many are music related? Whether it’s Fleetwood Mac, Def Leppard, Taylor Swift, or Tupac, you’ll likely find someone wearing a shirt that shows off their favorite band or artist.

In my deep dive into the tattoo and piercing industry companion blog, I recently wrote that humans need to set themselves apart from other humans. But, at our core, we are also social creatures! We love to be part of a community or a group and feel that sense of camaraderie. And one of the best ways to identify those who like the same things we do is by showing off our passions through merchandise.

The History of Music and Merch

For thousands of years, music has brought people together, from singing songs about the great hunt or singing around the campfire while cowboys stopped for the evening while driving cattle. Music has been used as a way to keep spirits up when times are hard and a way to celebrate when times are good. It can also be divisive! Metal heads notoriously dislike country, while country fans notoriously dislike rap, and so on and so forth. Music is powerful, and so is the merchandising industry behind it – and it all started with good ol’ rock ‘n roll.

The first band merch sold can be traced back to Elvis, at least from what I can find through the magic of the internet. Though, I’m sure there was merchandise even earlier than that – even if Elvis gets all the credit, like the credit he took for making rock ‘n roll popular (IYKYK). Elvis’ music was so schismatic at the time that older folks thought it was a load of noise, and teenage girls actually fainted during concerts. His manager saw the opportunity to capitalize on this controversial music and sold both “I Love Elvis” and “I Hate Elvis” pins outside of the venues where he was performing.

And this was the start of the band merch boom – especially at concerts! Why wouldn’t you want to show off the fact that you got to see your favorite act perform live? The concert shirt is like a badge of honor – something to be proud of! Before the days of retailers like Hot Topic or the internet, the only way to score some merch from your favorite band was to see them at a concert or make it yourself, especially in the metal and rock scene. And these days, they can be super collectible; in 2021, a 1967 Grateful Dead concert shirt sold at auction for over $17k!

Save your concert shirts, people!

Band Merch Means Big Business

Let me introduce you to the battle jacket – it is the pride and joy of many a metalhead. First emerging in the 70s and inspired by the biker scene and military jackets, their primary usage is to show off one’s values to a group or pledge allegiance to a particular band and generally stand out in the alternative crowd. Fans purchase patches at concerts (patches are far less expensive than shirts) and sew them onto their battle jacket to represent all of the concerts they have attended. Some fans even paint band logos on their jackets or make their own patches!

Based on 2022 metrics, most people will spend an average of $8 at the merch table at a concert, and this includes mostly patches, lapel pins, and stickers. Due to the costs associated with touring, venue costs, and ticket reseller fees, bands and musicians don’t make a high percentage on their ticket sales unless they are a very large and very popular band that can sell out an arena. Smaller, lesser-known bands mostly make money from their merch table.

In fact, band merch was a large contributing factor that helped many in the music industry stay afloat during the height of the pandemic in 2020. Bands were held back from touring, but their online stores were still able to turn a profit thanks to loyal fans. In 2021 as concerts began to return, band merch generated $108.9 million in revenue – that’s a lot of shirts. In 2022, Travis Scott’s two concerts in London sold $1 million in merchandise – breaking the previous record set by Korean pop group BTS in 2019.

These days, band merch has greatly evolved from just the simple pin or concert shirt. Recently, the metal band Ghost released a limited edition run of only 300 pairs of dolphin shorts worldwide (ya girl got some!), and they sold out in less than a minute.

Other prime examples of alternative merch are action figures! Ghost’s headliner, Papa Emeritus III, has his own action figure through Super7. Funko, the unique pop culture collectible company, has its own Pop! Rocks line in which they make vinyl figures featuring popular musicians – like this Tupac one pictured below.

So, how can you tap into the band merch industry?

Support your local artists! Lots of smaller artists and bands are trying to make it in the world. Remember, though, they might not have the funds for large orders, so being able to support low minimums is key. And you never know, you might be providing merch to the next Metallica!

You could also look into companies like Hot Topic, Rockabilia, and Global Merchandising for licensing opportunities.

Alright, so what kind of promo products can we turn into band merch? Here are some staple promos to pitch your local artists:

1. Flags & Pennants

2. Patches

3. Enamel Pins

4. Apparel

5. Stickers

6. Bags

7. Hats

Each month we publish the top promos in SAGE Total Access, and we consistently see bags, shirts, and cups in the lead. And so many of these same products can be branded for industries you might not have considered before (like band merch)! That’s why we’re breaking down niche industries, one mini-dive at a time, in this new blog series. Stay tuned for my next article, and let us know in the comments below if there’s an industry you want to break into but don’t know where to start!

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(Marketing Content Writer)

Betty is the Marketing Content Writer at SAGE. She is a self-proclaimed, bonafide nerd, and when she's not writing, you can find her playing video games, watching documentaries, hunting for heavy metal records, and going down rabbit-holes on Wikipedia.

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