Band and musician merchandise has always been a lucrative business for recording artists Even their labels, and management have been able to benefit from the sale of merch. Many labels have tried to tap into the revenue a musician can generate from their merch to counter the decline in record sales, by trying to implement the unpopular 360 recording contracts. Selling merch is an additional way for artists to monetize on their die-hard fanbase. The fanbase that will purchase each and everything their favorite band or musician puts out. Within the last 10 years or so, music t-shirts featuring logos or a picture of a musician have been a big business. It has become a major trend in fashion. Everyone from the die hard fans, to soccer moms and weekend warriors cover themselves in t-shirts by legendary recording artists. You can’t go anywhere without seeing someone wearing a Rolling Stones, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, or any other “hip” music artist t-shirt on them. Open up any People Magazine, and you will see many celebrities rocking these t-shirts…funny cause I bet they probably know little about the artists they are wearing the t-shirt of. Companies have found quite a bit of revenue from replicating famous shirts of legendary concerts, and albums. It is in vogue now to even distress these t-shirts to make them older and give them that vintage vibe that everyone adores today. I have to admit that I love those shirts. I have many vintage looking band t-shirts from tons of different artists. But, it is of artists that I actually like! I have to admit, not only do I get a kick out of finding some of the more unique t-shirts by some of my favorite artists, but these shirts usually have a trim cut and fit well (thanks to my many hours in the gym pumping iron!). Prices of these shirts easily start around $30, and can even push upwards to $200 or more. That has opened the doors for companies to bootleg some of these t-shirts without getting an official license from the band. Considering how many people buy these shirts, and how much they cost, the license would probably be really high! You could walk into any Target, Wal-Mart, mall, music store, novelty shops, and many more places and find tons of t-shirts by some pretty amazing music artists. But this presents an interesting “pickle” for artists who consider themselves anti-establishment, and don’t won’t to be associated with corporate America. The corporate American that exploits the talent and artistry of musicians for big bucks. No other genre besides Punk is built on this type of anti-corporate, anti-establishment ethos. Many punk bands have refused to license their name and likeness to major companies that will sell their shirts in big chain stores.
Legendary punk figure Ian MacKaye has recently made headlines in this article from Billboard Biz for finally allowing a chain store to sell t-shirts that have the name and logo of his seminal group “Minor Threat” on it.
Ian MacKaye, born April 16, 1962 in Washington D.C., is a singer, songwriter, guitarist, label owner, and music producer. He has been making influential punk music since 1979. He is best known for being the frontman of the influential hardcore punk band Minor Threat, and the label owner of legendary punk label “Dischord Records.” Among many other seminal punk groups he was involved in, MacKaye is also well known for being in Fugazi, and producing artists like Henry Rollins, Dag Nasty, 7 Seconds, and John Frusciante (former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarists). MacKaye has been a prominent figure in the independent-minded, do it yourself punk ethic.
With regard to this blog, it is important to know what is the punk DIY ethic. The punk ethic is essentially built on and supports the rejection of purchasing items, using existing systems or existing processes that would foster dependence on established societal structures like government and big corporations. According to the punk aesthetic, an individual can express themselves by producing works of art, like music, but to do so with limited means is the key component. Many punk bands record their music, create their merch, and distribute and promote their products independently outside the establishment. The establishment being the traditional corporate world of the “music business.” Punk bands desire for independence is so extreme, that they often play shows in basements, homes, and backyards instead of traditional venues and concert halls. This is done in order to avoid having to rely on any type of corporate sponsorship. A big factor as to why they do this is to keep all type of creative control and freedom with their art. When it comes to selling their merch like t-shirts, majority of punk artists would go to great lengths to avoid selling them anywhere outside of their shows and their own websites. Many bands publicly state that this is to eliminate the added cost that would be placed on top of the small prices they would normally sell them for. If a band wants to sell merch through major stores, those stores will jack up the prices.
It was recently announced that Ian MacKaye has struck a deal with major chain lifestyle and clothing store Urban Outfitters and some select online stores, to sell t-shirts with the logo and name of his former band Minor Threat on it. This has come as a surprise to many people including myself. This decision was made mostly to combat bootleggers who have been selling Minor Threat t-shirts illegally for years. In this article from the Washington City Paper, MacKaye stated “It’s f*****g absurd the amount of bootlegs are out there [and] my time is better spent doing other things. It’s not a political thing for me — I just don’t give a f**k about t-shirts.”
To sell the t-shirts, MacKaye hired well known California based merch company TSURT, which ironically was started by former punk band Blink-182’s merch manager Chris Silgin.
It appears that MacKaye hired Silgin and TSURT to finally put an end into what has been long history of battling with stores who have been selling t-shirts with the name or likeness of any of his bands on it, without getting the proper merch license from him. One of the more notable incidents was in 2009, when MacKaye had Forever 21 (major chain women’s clothing and lifestyle store) pull from their shelves a cheap knock off Minor Threat t-shirt that they were selling. Selling a colorful and glittery Minor Threat t-shirts in a major mall to 14 year old girls who have no clue who Minor Threat is, but are just wearing it to be trendy, goes against everything MacKaye stands for. With MacKaye’s band Minor Threat, he is credited with coining the term “straight edge.” The term “straight edge” was used to describe a personal ideology that promotes independence by countering the popular appeal of drug and alcohol abuse, materialism, money, greed, and popular trends. MacKaye has stated many times that he did not intend to turn it into a movement.
MacKaye even went after mega sneaker and sports company NIKE in 2005, when they copied the cover of Minor Threats first self-titled EP “Out of Step” for a promotional poster. For more info on it, check this link out from Pitchfork.
MacKaye’s label, Dischord Records stays true to the punk ethics even with their business practices. They are known for keeping concert tickets, merch, as well as download and CD prices very low on their website. With the punk ethic being so heavily ingrained in his blood, MacKaye is not happy about striking this deal to officially sell Minor Threat t-shirts. MacKaye stated, “Do I think it’s absurd? Yes, I certainly do. M***********s pay $28; that’s what they wanna pay for their shirts.” The t-shirts are being sold for $28 on the urbandoutfitters.com, and additional shirts with other designs are being sold at boompa.com.
Punk artists are not the only one’s who want to exhibit control over their merch. Recently, R&B artist Rihanna won a lawsuit against UK clothing store Top Shop for using her likeness on a t-shirt without her permission. Read more on Rihanna’s t-shirt ordeal here. Indie band Yacht went after Kohl’s for using their band logo and some lyrics on a t-shirt. The t-shirt was later removed from the Kohl’s site.
The bootlegging business has always been an issue for the music industry. It is something that the music business has combated for years. The sale of unlicensed t-shirts is not the only issue the music industry faces. In the years prior to digital downloading, the record business had to face people making copies of albums from peers, instead of buying the album themselves. Now, the new form of bootlegging is illegal downloading online. But, the industry still faces the issue with bootleg copies of albums in the international music market. Much of the international music sales are of from bootlegged CDs. It is a well-discussed issue that many countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East have bootleg copies of major albums being sold everywhere. The music business has also had to figure out a way to deal with bootleg copies of live concerts. This has been a problem for as long as people had any type of personal recording equipment. Some bands have figured out strategies on their own, which actually have even pleased their die-hard fan base as well. In order to combat the many illegal recordings of concerts being sold by fans, bands like Grateful Dead, Pearl Jam, Phish, Dave Matthews Band, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and more have started to sell many “official” recordings of their concerts that were heavily bootlegged. Some of these artists even title them as the “Bootleg Series.” So the sale of unlicensed product like t-shirts is not a new problem for the business. I think in Ian MacKaye’s case, it is less about the loss of revenue he faces, and more about the way and price his t-shirts are being sold at. The high priced sale of Minor Threat t-shirts to consumers who would wear them solely for a fashion statement, goes completely against everything Minor Threat stood for. Minor Threat and it’s frontman Ian MacKaye were some of the originators of the punk DIY ethic that I discussed earlier in this blog. Ian seems to reluctantly give in to selling his shirts at a limited amount of places. I guess he was sick and tired of fighting, and just realized, well if they are going to be sold, might as well make it legit!
I am not against buying merch or music by an artist when it is sold directly from them. In fact, I am for it! This supports them! Just make sure that its an officially licensed product where the band or artist is getting something from it. If you like their music, logo, or pictures so much, make sure to support them. That is the best way to let them know you are a fan! That is why I can never understand why people still download music illegally online. Ya, I get that music can be overpriced, and fans assume labels are greedy. But what about the artist? Remember, they are already making a small amount of money from the sale of their records. For those of you complaining about crappy music coming out today, take note that one of the main reasons you don’t like contemporary music is because less money is coming into to labels to spend on recording artists, developing new talent, and taking risks on unknown artists who might develop into something special down the line. They can’t afford to sustain a business model like that anymore. Less and less people spend money on actual music anymore. So, if there is no money coming in to compensate the labels and artists, how will they have the money to continue to create the music you love so much?