It’s a good time for music in the UK: the live music scene is buoyant, vinyl sales reached a 25-year high in 2016 and even CD sales aren’t as bad as once feared. Images talks to two printers about band merch needs in the modern age
The Measuring Music 2016 Report from the industry body Music UK paints a broadly positive outlook for bands: in 2015, live concert attendance in the UK was 24 million and festival attendance was 3.7 million. A slight dip in grassroot venues for live music is an acknowledged problem, and work is being done to prevent more of the smaller venues closing, but on the plus side vinyl sales have gone up 60% every year for the past three years, CD sales declined just 3.9% in 2015, the smallest fall since 2005, and paid-for subscription streaming is doing well too.
Bands of all sizes have also latched on to the importance of branding and merchandise, and thanks to the rise of DTG it’s now possible for smaller acts to make money via websites such as Teemill without having to put any money up front beyond paying someone to create a T-shirt design. Even Spotify now has a merch button, allowing bands to connect their fans to merch shops in a simple, fuss-free manner.
For the bigger bands, screen printing continues to be the decoration method of choice. Printing for large tours and music merchandisers can be a logistical headache that requires a committed workforce, a 24/7 mentality and a knack for problem-solving: Fresh Air, based in north London, is an experienced player in this market, as director and partner Wocco explains.
“We’ve got very good and long working relationships with two or three of the best music merchandisers in the country. It’s demanding work, but we’re used to it and work well in that environment – I don’t think many other people could do it because of the demands, the lead times, the pressured situations and the logistics of what the merchandisers are trying to do.
“We’ve been printing band T-shirts for 30 years. We used to put the shirts in the back of the car and race down to Hammersmith Apollo so they could get the tees on sale that night. We still do that now, just on a bigger scale.
“We cancel all leave in May, June and July as that’s our busiest time. The sales figures from the night before at a show will determine what we’re going to print that day, or that night even. It’s that quick. They place the initial orders and then once they start selling they realise which one is the bestseller, which one’s not doing well, and they react to that. What they have to do is get to the end of a tour and end up with nothing, although that never happens. Nearer the end of the tour they’re very careful about what they do and don’t buy.
“We’re very much geared up to it. At the moment we’re running at about 70 people in the business, but when we go into the busier months we run a shift system and the numbers go up to about 120 people; you need to print more, move more, pack more, distribute more and get it all lined up at the back door for the trucks.
“It’s not changed, it’s not got any easier. Technology’s changed it in terms of how you move artwork around and how you do sampling – you can email all that side now – but the logistics are still the same. It’s still 100 T-shirts in a box, deliver it to the O2, deliver it to the Birmingham NEC, deliver it to Germany, Italy…
“The numbers are still the same. Anthrax kicks off next week – their order is about 400, 400, 400 across seven or eight designs. Once that first show happens they’ll know what the bestseller is and what’s not working, and they’ll reorder very quickly.
“It’s in Fresh Air’s DNA. We’re used to being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if that’s what they want. At the Wembley Stadium where there are 60,000 people a night at these shows, they sell a vast amount of merchandise. For these, we have three crews of printers on standby for when the figures come in at 4am, 5am from the previous night and they know what they want. We’ll start printing and early afternoon they’ll be on their way to the venues. That’s quite a normal thing for us. We get phone calls at 2am in the morning – the other Saturday an event at the O2 underestimated what they needed. We pulled in the people and printed what they needed.
“The music part of our business in the April to August period probably uses up about 60%, 70% of our production. It drops down to about 40% for the rest of the year, building a little again towards Christmas.
“Are music licences getting any cheaper? No, definitely not. They’re brutal. Selling merch is a big part of generating income now for bands. That’s why more bands tour now than ever before. Licences get used at every angle, at every possibility, because the management needs to get the maximum back from the money they put up for these bands.
“A new thing that’s starting to happen now in the industry is pop-up shops. It crept in last year when Kanye West did a couple of pop-up shops in Sweden, Paris, London, Australia, places like that. We printed the entire European product for them and it ended up in a shop down in Shoreditch where they made a lot of money for just one weekend. It was all done through social media to create the hype.
“Say you’re based in Yorkshire, you’ve got tickets to go and see such and such in London on a Sunday night – you’re going to come down on the Saturday and make a weekend of it. Then you hear on Facebook, Twitter, wherever, that the person you’re going to see has a pop-up shop in Carnaby Street – well, you’re going to go there. That’s a big new thing that’s going on in the music industry.
“My belief is that the music merchandising business is growing, it’s more diverse, it’s more popular than it’s ever been. I think a fashion aspect is creeping into what we’re doing – we’re not just printing basic black T-shirts now, we’re doing other fitted garments, fashion items. Obviously when Iron Maiden go out on tour they have a range of 25 standard T-shirts with different designs on them – that’s never going to change. But I imagine, for example, when Adele goes on tour, there’ll be the normal T-shirts, but there’ll be some nice vests, ladies’ skinnies, because there’s a market for that.
“It’s hard, it’s competitive, but relationships are loyal, and we never let anyone down. Never.”
Just as the big bands are touring more, so are the smaller bands. These days, the lack of a record deal doesn’t preclude them from selling band merch, especially when there is little or no financial risk. Mikee Parker, owner of Vinosangre in Norwich, offers hand-pulled, eco-friendly screen printed garments for many bands and record labels, some of whom buy merch before even playing their first gig. Around 90% of the company’s work is for bands or music-related.
“Our average print run is 50-100 shirts and everything is hand-screen printed by us. I first started around seven years ago and worked mainly with contacts I’d made through being in the DIY punk scene and from playing in bands, touring and running a record label myself.
“Back then most of the bands I worked with were already fairly established touring bands who were well known enough that they knew they would be able to sell their merch. Now we see a lot of bands who haven’t even played their first gig yet are getting shirts made.
“Band T-shirts have become a lot more fashionable to wear, and more affordable for the bands to source. The money from merch sales will go towards travel costs, recording, record pressing and so on. It’s a great way for smaller bands to get out there gigging without too much of a large initial outlay. A lot of the time it is the merch sales that pay for everything rather than the shows themselves.
“The ability to make an online shop and process payments online and then promote it all through social media has been a big drive forward for both bands and small record labels. Everything has become a lot easier now everyone is becoming more and more connected.
“One of the biggest changes is the options people want to be open to them – that is, different garment types like crew necks, long sleeves, ringers, hoodies etcetera, instead of just a standard T-shirt. It’s also concurrent with fashion styles as well – a few years ago everyone wanted huge oversized prints, which then turned into pocket prints through to the current trend of long sleeve shirts with sleeve prints. Also, bands and labels are looking into multicolour or metallic prints rather than just white print on black shirts.
“Online pre-ordering is very common now. A band is able to put a mock-up of a design up on social media with a link to their Bandcamp or Big Cartel page where people can pre-order the merch. That gives them a good idea of what sizes they need to order and what is most popular with their audience and also brings in the money to front the cost with the printers. It also means bands don’t end up with boxes of unsold mercy.
“People want to have physical music mementos, and after a period of digital sales of music being the ‘in thing’, we are getting back to a time where the tactility of a physical product – be it a T-shirt, a record or screen printed gig poster – is more important to bands and the audience. People want to be able to promote their music taste and show what they like in the form of a T-shirt, and can afford to buy them; bands can easily self promote, and screen printing can be an affordable way to get band mercy.”
Ralawise says a must-have for the festival season is Nutshell’s knitted turn-up beanie (NS001), which comes in a range of 40 colours, including key SS17 shades, and has a double layer knit and soft hand feel. Other recommendations include 2786’s wind- and shower-resistant lightweight jackets (TS010/TS011), which fold up into their pockets for compact carrying, and the full length plastic poncho (JB003) from the JB range.
Colortone with its tie-dyed styles is a must for the festival season. The Tonal Spider T (TD001) is a 100% heavyweight, hand-dyed cotton tee that comes in sizes S-2XL. Also from the brand is the Rainbow Tie-Dye T-Shirt (TD002) that’s available in a range of colours and has a double-needle stitched neckline; the Tonal Spider Hoodie (TD030), available in five shades; and the classic Rainbow Tie-Dye Hoodie (TD031).
The HDi Quest Lightweight Stowable Jacket (R189X) is a fashionable, lightweight, compact, easy-to-stow jacket that is waterproof, breathable and windproof, making it a great choice when planning for unpredictable weather conditions. Other features include an integral elasticised hood, taped seams, elasticised cuffs, full front zip fastening with zip-through collar, side pockets (one zipped), adjustable hemcord and matching stow bag. It comes in six vibrant colourways.
SF reports that its new Men’s Longline T (SF258) is already a big hit and the brand is predicting it might even knock its best-selling Feel Good Ts (SF121/SK121) off the number 1 spot for music merchandise this year. The 100% cotton Longline T has a dipped hem and side seam, and it’s available in black, white and heather charcoal (60% cotton/40% polyester).
The Epona Zip Hoodie comes in a choice of 14 colours and can be printed or embroidered. Like all the Epona garments, it uses Fairtrade-certified cotton and is 100% vegan – perfect for those looking for an ethical, sustainable product for the festival scene. Epona, a member of the Fair Wear Foundation, offers a wide range of colours in its core hoodies and T-shirts.
Fruit of the Loom
The Classic Sweat, made from ethically sourced yarn at the brand’s Wrap-certified plant in Morocco, is a favourite for festivals and music merch says Fruit: “With a great price point and a myriad of colours, it’s great for print and embroidery.” Another well-known style is the 100% cotton Valueweight T, which promises less pilling, enhanced durability and improved washing performance plus a multitude of styles.