The Evolution of Artist Merch
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to keep live concerts on hold, many acts have had to find creative ways to generate income. Not every artist has access to sponsorships and brand deals; and only a small percentage make a significant amount of money from streaming. Many mainstream artists largely depend on touring for the bulk of their income and as their main source of interaction with fans.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen lots of experiments, trends emerge, and moments come and go. Early on was Tory Lanez’ wildly popular Quarantine Radio. We’ve witnessed the meteoric rise of TikTok and have taken part in challenge after challenge. OnlyFans. Deluxe album after deluxe album. Playlists. Virtual performances have become a thing. Podcasts are everywhere, and we have seen a continued uptick in content creation.
But perhaps the biggest change we have seen in the music industry this past year, has been the growth in the production and sales of artist merchandise. While this aspect of branding is nothing new, artist merch has come a long way since its beginnings. Though its origin story remains unclear, it is RUN DMC’s groundbreaking endorsement deal with Adidas that paved the way for the artists of today to cash in on their cultural cachet. Signed in 1986 for $1.6 million, their deal was the steppingstone for the change that began to take place in the music industry in the 90’s, when the worlds of fashion and music became inseparable.
Run-DMC members, from left: DMC, Jam Master Jay, and Run
© ADIDAS ORIGINALS
Early stages of artist led brands
While brands like Guess, Coogi, Starter, Karl Kani, Polo by Ralph Lauren, Air Jordan, and others dominated the fashion scene in the 90’s, the decade gave us so much more. The 90’s saw the emergence of rap tees and the continued growth in popularity of band tees. The decade also birthed artist led brands like Wu-Wear, Sean John, and Rocawear which not only shook up the fashion industry but gave way to another stream of revenue and more creative control for the next generation of musicians. Ventures like these are what led to brands like G-Unit, Billionaire Boys Club (BBC), and Akoo in the 2000’s, and created the formula for the brands to come in the 2010’s.
The 2010’s are when artist merch really started to penetrate all avenues of fashion. Early on we saw brands like Trukfit, Golf Wang, Black Pyramid, Last Kings, and October’s Very Own (OVO) burst onto the scene. At the time it seemed no matter where you lived, if there were young people around or a mall in sight, you were bound to come across these brands. We saw the rise in popularity of vintage clothing, rap and band tees in particular. And taking place almost simultaneously, what really pushed artist merch over the top and into the mainstream was the introduction of band and rap tees into stores like H&M, Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, Zumiez, Spencer’s, etc.
We can’t talk about the evolution of artist merch without mentioning collaborations. With long lists of collaborators by the mid to late 2000’s, brands like Reebok, Nike, and Supreme were early to the party. Supreme took the streetwear culture by storm, collaborating with everyone from Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, and Dipset, to James Brown, and The Supremes. Reebok landed partnerships with the likes of Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Nelly, and Pharrell. Meanwhile Nike, with some of the most iconic collaborations, worked with Kanye West, Eminem, De La Soul, DJ Clark Kent, and others.
And this past decade is when artist merch reached new heights. We saw collab after collab, many more successful than ever before. After his time at Nike, we witnessed Kanye West become a fashion mogul with the success of his Adidas x Yeezy line. We have also seen Adidas collaborate with many other artists, ranging from Big Sean, 2 Chainz, A$AP Rocky and Ferg, to Snoop Dogg, Pharrell, Pusha T, and more. The success of partnerships like these ultimately led to Beyoncé’s multi-layered deal with the Three-Stripe Brand and her clothing company, IVY PARK in 2019.
© ADIDAS ORIGINALS
Despite losing Kanye West in 2014, Nike and its subsidiaries have gone on to produce many noteworthy collabs. After his time at Reebok, Kendrick Lamar left for Nike and has since released multiple silhouettes, and a collection of TDE merch. Drake and his OVO line initially signed a deal with Jordan Brand in 2013 but he eventually released merch in collaboration with Nike, and most recently launched his own division of the brand, entitled NOCTA. Converse, one of Nike’s subsidiaries, partnered with Tyler, the Creator to create the Golf Le Fluer line in 2017. And arguably the most successful and sought-after collaborations to date are those from the Nike / Air Jordan x Travis Scott line.
While brands like Puma may not have had as many notable collaborations as Nike and Adidas to date, they too have had their own successes. Most notably, in their deal with Rihanna, birthing the Puma x Fenty Line in 2014. Puma then went on to collaborate with the likes of The Weeknd and Big Sean. And most recently, the late Nipsey Hussle. Though his first Puma x TMC collection did not release until months after his tragic passing, he was seen sporting the brand often, eventually leading to his signing in 2018.
Tour merch and the resell market
Photograph by Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images
Kanye West’s iconic Life of Pablo Tour in 2016, coinciding with the sudden boom of the resell market really signaled the potential height of success that could be had with the more independent, DIY style of artist merch. Though many credit his 2013 Yeezus Tour with pushing the envelope, and transcending earlier notions of what merch could be, The Life of Pablo Tour was just special. The perfect storm. There was a certain aurora around the album and that tour, beginning with Ye wearing the iconic Maroon “I Feel Like Pablo” tee at the Yeezy Season 3 Fashion Show, turned album listening party at Madison Square Garden. The approach that West and his team took to this tour was made note of, studied, and often emulated by the tours that took place in the months and years to come. Some of the more notable being: Drake’s Summer Sixteen Tour, Jay-Z’s 4:44 Tour, the On the Run II Tour (OTR II), and Kendrick Lamar’s Damn Tour.
While those tours previously mentioned saw their fair share of success, as their merchandise went on to make waves in the resell market, there was nothing quite like Travis Scott’s 2018-19 Astroworld Tour. On which, he took a similar approach to that of Kanye West’s Life of Pablo Tour. Releasing the occasional exclusive web drop and doing pop-ups, as well as location and date specific merch in limited quantities. The hype surrounding the album coupled with the scarcity of the products, created a scorching hot after-market effect. Since this tour, Travis Scott merch drops have become a highly anticipated staple every time he releases music or announces a new partnership. Having then gone on to partner with the likes of Cactus Plant Flea Market, Fortnite, McDonalds, and others; having the same effect on the resell market almost every time.
Photograph from HIGHSNOBIETY
And that brings us to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a time of unrivaled uncertainty, artists like Beyoncé with her first Adidas x IVY PARK collection, Travis Scott with his Fortnite and McDonald’s partnerships, and The Weeknd with his After-Hours merch line came on strong early and really set the stage for what was to come from various artists, across genres in the music industry. We saw other noteworthy merch collections from two chart-topping posthumous albums, Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon and Juice WRLD’s Legends Never Die. Nav’s Good Intentions, Kehlani’s It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, Big Sean’s Detroit 2, and Drake’s highly anticipated album Certified Lover Boy, amongst others, all saw similar success with their respective merch drops.
In their releases, no two artists took the same approach. Some did collaborations with brands like VLONE, BAPE, so on and so forth. Others did everything in house. We have seen much needed fundraisers for essential workers and other honorable causes. Beyond the often-expected t-shirts, various artist branded mask designs, safe touch door opening tools, and other items that have proved themselves useful during the pandemic have become staples.
For decades, musicians have churned out branded souvenirs for fans to pick up at concerts, with margins large enough to deliver as much as a third of what artists make on the road. But with some artists’ growing ambitions to extend their influence beyond music and the timing of the pandemic, artist merchandise is undergoing an interesting evolution. And fans are responding en masse. Previously lining up at tour venues, pop-ups, and retailers. Now, staying glued to their phones for that notification of a merch release.
Before Instagram, the only way to declare your allegiance with an artist was to wear their merch. Slipping on a band or rap tee sent a clear message that you were different. This phenomenon not only gives young people a sense of belonging but it is also draws on nostalgia, allowing adults to hold on to a piece of their youth. You pull one over your head and it says something about you. People have experienced their highest highs and lowest lows, lived, and died in the shadow of their screen-print; these scraps of cotton tell stories. A piece of merch can help us acknowledge the changes we have gone through in our lives. We all have a desire to both hold on to our past and show that we are part of something meaningful. Especially now, being that everything is so accessible.
What is perhaps most noteworthy, though, is that these successes indicate artist merch is no longer exclusively tied to live shows. Creative merchandising, when it works, is a means of taking it up a level beyond ‘Here’s my album cover on a shirt, buy it.’ In the coming years, experts expect musicians to inch further into the lifestyle market. Where more artists than just the megastars like Pharrell, Beyoncé, and Kanye West can become creative directors, exerting complete control over their image. And customers are responding to that. Offering artists another avenue to connect with fans, including those who never make it to a live show.
What we have come to realize, is that the pandemic’s hardships could be a godsend for all musicians when it comes to merch. With audiences stuck at home, we are hungry for a connection and eager to support our favorite acts. And artists are becoming more responsive and more adaptive than ever before, figuring out ways they can help themselves and continue to connect with their fanbases. Whether it is timely offerings like masks, unorthodox products like furniture displays, or shirts that benefit those in need, the music industry is attempting to make the most of the current situation — and find ways for artists to think bigger about how they approach merch when concerts do safely return.