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'You Can't Download a T-shirt': The Evolution (and Comeback) of Music Merch

From pop stars to hip-hop artists elevating their merchandise, fashion and music have never been better together.
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Beyoncé "Formation" merch. Photo: Composite

Beyoncé "Formation" merch. Photo: Composite

When Beyoncé dropped "Formation" in February, "Hot Sauce"-embroidered dad hats and sweatshirts emblazoned with "I twirl on them haters" were immediately available for purchase in the singer's online shop. This week, on Monday afternoon, Drake released a cryptic social media message with a physical address in New York City. In a matter of hours, a line of curious and excited fans extended down Bowery and received free T-shirts with a "Views from the 6" graphic — the rapper's anticipated new album — that's not unlike Kenzo's eye motif. (Drake had done a similar promo event upon the release of last year's "Nothing Was The Same.") Not to mention Kanye West's surprise pop-up in March, which drew crowds that shut down Wooster Street in Soho and reportedly brought in seven figures for selling "The Life of Pablo" merchandise over the course of a single weekend. From pop stars to hip-hop artists, music merch is getting more attention than ever, usually with a fashion-focused slant that reflects the artist's brand.

"It's changed from just being merch to a lifestyle," says Felix Carrasco, a senior director of product management at Warner Music Group. "Since Wu-Tang Clan and Wu Wear, [merch] has been taken to a new level for the next generation at the moment. Everything is much more on point. You can't download a T-shirt. That's the main thing."

Building an artist's lifestyle brand is also a focus for Bravado, Universal Music's global merchandising division, whose clients include Justin Bieber, Guns & Roses, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. "We're working with our artists to think differently about merchandise. It has evolved from keepsake beginnings to powerful extensions of their personality and brand," says CEO Mat Vlasic.

But why now? It's no secret that the music industry has faced its fair share of shaky times with the rise of the Internet. Revenue isn't the same as it was in decades past when it comes to album sales, and since people prefer to pay for a more memorable experience, new ways of exposing an artist are starting to gain more traction. "As music is increasingly experienced on digital platforms, merchandise can become an authentic way for music fans to have a physical connection to the artists and bands that they love," says Vlasic. And that's a great thing for everyone involved.

"It's been very advantageous for me," says Brandon Rike, who's based in Columbus, OH, and makes his living designing music merch for such artists as 21 Pilots, Paramore and Fall Out Boy. "I personally am thrilled with the idea that bands are starting to treat their merch as a fashion line. It makes no sense to put so much effort into a live show or recording an album, and then [their] merch is a piece of crap that doesn't reflect the care of the band."

Corey Thomas, a freelance designer in New York, is also noticing this shift in the industry. "Bands are starting to really learn the value of merch," he says. "Let's be honest, music is all digital at this point. Band merch is a source of income and advertising." Accessibility has also grown over time. Once an exclusive offering at concerts and live gigs, music merch is now readily available online and in-store among retailers.

Melanie Martinez "Cry Baby" merch. Photo: Melanie Martinez

Melanie Martinez "Cry Baby" merch. Photo: Melanie Martinez

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For those who handle music merch specifically for a label, strategic branding efforts can be done well in advance and alongside anticipated releases and appearances. Currently, Carrasco is working on new merch for up-and-coming singer Melanie Martinez, who released her debut album "Cry Baby" in Aug. 2015 and is known for her distinct Lolita-esque style. "She has such a great vision for her art and her album," says Carrasco. "Right now we're trying to really get that across within the merch space, and try to have 'Cry Baby' come to life with a piece of clothing. And not just a standard T-shirt, we're working on some really cool, unique custom pieces — dresses and leggings that are more fashion-forward." Martinez kicks off her international tour at the end of April.

As a music artist evolves, so does his or her brand — and the merch that goes with it. Bieber, for example, doesn't sport purple hoodies and boyish, shaggy hair like he used to. Instead, he's bleaching his locks (or dreads) and wearing buzzy designer clothing. With an elevated look comes elevated merchandise, and designer Justin Tordella, who lives just outside of Austin and previously worked with Bieber during his "Baby" years, noticed this change, too. "His stuff was appealing to younger girls — bright colors, a big photo of him and his name in a cool font. We messed with foil and glitter," says Tordella. "As he and his audience got older, the big buzz word was 'fashion-forward.' Instead of featuring his picture, let's make it something he would wear." This year, for Bieber's "Purpose" tour, he linked up with Fear of God designer Jerry Lorenzo in collaboration with the pop star's stylist Karla Welch on a custom concert wardrobe that also informed the look and feel of his fan gear: shirts, hoodies and outerwear with design nods to Thrasher and Vetements. (Lorenzo, an avid vintage rock T-shirt collector, is also known for his work on West's "Yeezus" merch.)

Justin Bieber in custom "Purpose" tour merch. Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Justin Bieber in custom "Purpose" tour merch. Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

"For a big name like Bieber or Beyoncé to start caring more about merch, bands are recognizing the fact that this experience goes 360 degrees," says Rike, who is also the creative director of 30 Seconds to Mars. "We can put the fan in a complete ecosystem of the brand." Remember when frontman Jared Leto was spotted in a tie-dye onesie on Instagram? A Mars-made version is now available on the band's e-commerce store.

Pop-up shops, however, are a fairly new phenomenon for artists to house and offer their merch, plus anything else that speaks to their overall brand. "It's fascinating because it's now become the outlet for the artist's fashion line rather than the merch line," says Carrasco. "There's been a bit of a division between what people will have at a pop-up store and what they will have at the show. It's an interesting shift in dynamic." In addition to West and Drake, electronic artist Jamie xx opened a "Good Times" store in New York City last summer, exclusively offering his own and his label's merch, as well as crates filled with vintage vinyl curated by DJs and producers like Mike Simonetti and Tim Sweeney.

Future, performing with Ty Dolla Sign, in a "Purple Reign" tour T-shirt designed by Dbruze. Photo: Prince Williams/WireImage

Future, performing with Ty Dolla Sign, in a "Purple Reign" tour T-shirt designed by Dbruze. Photo: Prince Williams/WireImage

In March, Future hosted a "Purple Reign"-themed pop-up in Los Angeles, conveniently located near Supreme on Fairfax Avenue. According to Pitchfork, some of the shop's inventory is what Future would wear on tour, including custom merch created by designer Dbruze, who's currently working on new wares for Ear Drummer Records (Mike Will Made It, Rae Sremmurd) and Trinidad James. "Everyone is looking for cool merch. All it takes is a few people posting something, and the sheep will want to imitate and follow and so on," said Dbruze over email. "However, definitely not mad at good merch coming back. It's about damn time."

So where can music merch go from here? Chris Cornell, owner of Manhead Merch, has noticed tech companies tapping into the market as well. Sidestep, an app that launched in 2013, lets concertgoers pre-order merchandise to pick up at the show or get it delivered straight to their homes — avoiding long merch booth lines altogether. "It takes out the headache of missing part of the show," he says. Another app is YoShirt, which recently partnered with Fall Out Boy on customized merch during the band's "Wintour is Coming" tour. "Every night, the band would take a photo from the stage with the crowd behind them," says Cornell. "They always did this for years and would just put the photo on Facebook, but we decided to take the photo, print it on T-shirts and a bunch of other products that could be shipped to your house within a week. That was completely successful."

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