FEATURE: Merchant Ivory: T-Shirt Day 2018: Sporting Your Favourite Music Merchandise with Pride - and the Very Real Problem of Fake Options




Merchant Ivory


IN THIS PHOTO: Stuart Maconie (bottom row, second from the left) and the BBC Radio 6 Music RadMac team proudly boasting their T-Shirt Day 2018 choices/PHOTO CREDIT: BBC 

T-Shirt Day 2018: Sporting Your Favourite Music Merchandise with Pride - and the Very Real Problem of Fake Options


BBC Radio 6 Music have just completed…


 IN THIS PHOTO: BBC Radio 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq embracing his love of band T-shirts/PHOTO CREDIT: BBC

their T-Shirt Day 2018 and it provided the chance for listeners, between seven A.M. and P.M., the chance to share their music T-shirts. Whether a classic band tee or a solo artist new to some of us; songs were tailored to their iconic finery. There has been a banquet of great music and it has been a great way of bonding listeners and introducing many of us to new music – I even got a Madonna track played (Express Yourself) after showing a photo of me wearing a Madonna T-shirt! It wasn’t only a chance to get people proudly sporting their favourite music T-shirts but it shone a spotlight on the best and worst sides of merchandise. If you have been to a live gig lately, you probably saw a merchandise table somewhere. Smaller artists tend to have less of a spread and big acts can have anything from posters and T-shirts to caps, cups and pretty much anything you can think of. How much does something like a T-shirt cost and bring in for an artist? Looking at this BBC article and we can see the figures broken down:

But more than simply a memento from a gig, or a way of showing your musical colours, band T-Shirts can be of considerable importance - to both artist and fan. So, we’ve decided to dig a bit deeper to find out just how important band T-Shirts can be.

After all, merch is a considerable part of a musician’s income. The Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association reported that the global music merchandise market (of which T-Shirts are a considerable part) was worth $3.1 billion in 2016, up 9.4% from the $2.83 billion generated in 2015. To put that in perspective, the gross revenue from live music concerts worldwide during 2016 was $4.88 billion; while the global market for recorded music that same year was worth $15.7 billion, according to IFPI. So, still a vital source of income for artists.

Of all music merchandise, band T-Shirts continue to be the items that spark fans’ interest the most. Christiaan Munro, director of merchandise company Sandbag, who work with acts like Radiohead and Arcade Fire, tells us: "The T-Shirt is always the biggest seller - for every artist"... 

T-Shirts are now such a big part of how acts make money as revenue from physical sales experiences a decline. But revenue and profits are not the same thing, so how much of the money you paid for a T-Shirt actually makes it back to the artist you’re supporting?

Willis says many of the acts they work with would expect to pay around £5 per unit for printing and production for a T-Shirt based on a run of 50-250 garments. A bulk order could see the per-unit cost drop to £2.50 but that would be based on 1,000+ items, something only the largest of acts could comfortably sell out of and not be left with mountains of unsold stock.

However, there are many hidden costs that the consumer does not see. In the UK, VAT swallows up 20% of the sale price. Then at the venue, acts can be charged either a flat fee or a percentage of turnover for that night for simply having a merchandise stand at the venue. "This is the thing that really needs to be said – the people who earn the most out of the products, apart from the tax man, are these concession companies," says Sandbag director Munro.

Artists can make around £4.80 from a T-shirt sold for £20.

For hosting and staffing the merchandise stand, many venues with a capacity of around 10,000 and upwards take anywhere between 20% and 30% of gross – even as much as 40% in some cases. For acts on the road, Munro estimates that – after the venue cut and taxes are accounted for – they might have to work with 55% of the retail price. So, for a T-Shirt that cost £5 to make and sold for £20, the margin after deductions would be £6 - of which the act’s managers would typically take 20%, so that’s really more in the region of £4.80”...


For venues around the 1,000-capacity level, acts may be charged a fee of £60-80 for a table at the back of the venue regardless of how much merchandise they sell. Grassroots venues though, specifically those with a maximum capacity of 300, normally charge nothing for merchandise tables. So this can often allow smaller, DIY acts to take home more of your £20”.

It is a hard balance when it comes to T-shirts and how much a band can make. I attended a small gig last month and noticed T-shirts selling for about fifteen or twenty quid. The cost of making the T-shirts was minor but few people were milling – even though the designs were great and the quality was fantastic. Even though it can be hard enticing fans to buy merchandise, there is a bit more say when it comes to total profit and how much they get to take home. You can see from the figures above that there are a lot of people who take a cut. A venue needs revenue and some of the pie and people working the stall will get some; the manager and then, by the time profits are split with the band, it is not a huge amount. Even though it can be hard to get a great deal of merchandise, it is a very important was of connecting with fans.

In fact - as the BBC article explains - more can be made (in some cases) from streaming:

Meanwhile, some acts who handle all their royalties themselves can often take home a lot more from streaming. Car Seat Headrest, for example, revealed last year that he had made almost $30,000 from streams of his self-released albums since 2013.

For a CD sale, an act could again earn anything from a single-figure royalty percentage to 20% – but this is after the retailer’s cut, VAT, mechanical royalties and manufacturing costs are deducted. If an act, however, controls their own publishing and acts as their own label, recording at home for next to nothing and selling £10 CDs at the back of their gigs, after manufacturing costs are taken out (which can be as little as £320 + VAT for 500 units in a card wallet), they could be looking at 90% margin after they have covered the cost of the pressing run. It is important to note, however, that these are only guide figures and every act will be operating under very different circumstances”.

As the BBC Radio 6 Music celebration showed; people are holding onto their old T-shirts and showing their colours with pride. I have some newer T-shirts – including Queens of the Stone Age – but I know people who have some classic deigns that are worth quite a bit. T-shirts and merchandise are a great way of forging tribes and creating this identity. We all want proof we attended gigs or show our backing of particular artists.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It is great seeing a great merchandise stand and, given the way we get we get music these days, many artists rely on merchandise for money. There is a problem with over or under-demand and that can create waste but, if one person buys a piece of merchandise, then that connection can be more potent and life-long than anything else. How do we know about the people streaming the music and those listening away from gigs?! If you can see people wearing T-shirts or carrying some band merchandise then that is a solid bond and can lead others to discovering music. I, like many, have discovered new bands/artists through the BBC Radio 6 Music celebration but, in the outside world, many are discovering great artists through seeing others wearing some merchandise. There is another problem that is hard to police: counterfeit merchandise and bootleggers selling unauthorised and unofficial merchandise. I was reading an article from 2014 that, sadly, is still very relevant today:

If you’ve purchased a band t-shirt on Amazon, there’s a good chance it’s fake.  According to research conducted by Andy Young of merch-focused startup Tunipop, more than half of the band t-shirts floating around on Amazon are complete knock-offs.  Young surveyed 100 of the top US artists, and discovered the following:

o    51 artists had merchandise available on Amazon.

o    Out of those, 47% had products that were only available as counterfeits.

o    The other 53% had a mix of authentic and ‘questionable’ items available.

“Frankly, the list of artists doesn’t matter. Just pick one,” Young told Digital Music News.  “The problem is almost across the board inside Amazon”...

“So, where is the outrage from the industry?  How can artists, suppliers and management be so quiet when millions of dollars are at stake?”

Part of the answer, according to Young, is that most merchandise (including t-shirts) are sold on the road.  Young estimates that 80% is sold at venues, in usually controlled environments (ie, at a stand at the gig).  The remaining 20% is sold online, so it’s harder to dedicate resources to policing it”.

How easy is it to control and monitor those selling fake band merchandise and depriving artists of money that should be going to them? This article shed some more light:

On top of assaulting a band’s bottom line, bootleg merchandise is difficult and sometimes even impossible to fight.

“The market is fluid and bands are constantly trying to address the bootleg problem as the bootleggers become better at evading detection,” says entertainment lawyer Scott Burroughs. “Depending on the artist, there can be more people outside the venue selling bootleg stuff than authorized sellers offering the real deal.”

To make matters worse, enter: the internet. Bootleg sellers outside of shows are nothing new, but websites like Amazon, which is just the massive tip of the e-com iceberg, are making it exponentially easier to sell unauthorized merchandise, and exponentially more difficult for bands to track all of that merch down”...


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Given how hard it is to track down bootleg sellers, and how much harder it is to actually succeed at stopping them, trying to get fans to only buy authorized items is probably the best solution. The easiest way to know a t-shirt is legitimate is to buy directly from the band at a show or on their website, but wading out into the world of retail, especially online, can take fans into murky territory.

“Spotting bootleg merch online is like spotting a spam e-mail, you have to have an eye for what is official and what is not,” Vince Edwards of Metal Blade Records notes.

There’s merch sold at shows and merch sold online, and then there’s another seemingly ever-expanding curveball: the band name-splashed fashion items from mega-retailers like H&M, Forever 21, and Urban Outfitters. The question of “legitimacy” here is really more about fan cred. Stores this big can’t get away with ripping bands off, and when they try to, they tend to get sued, or at least forced to pull the designs”.


IN THIS PHOTO: BBC Radio 6 Music’s Lauren Laverne getting into the spirit of T-Shirt Day 2018/PHOTO CREDIT: @laurenlaverne

There is the issue regarding big retailers selling unofficial merchandise and making a profit from it or, in fact, anyone making their own merchandise. I have seen a lot of T-shirts and seemingly official merchandise from various sellers but you know that it is fake. I have heard from a lot of artists, popular and new alike, on the subject and they are divided. Many are furious others are profiting from their name like ivory hunters; this unethical and unseemly practise; from small stallholders to major websites. They do not feel it is fair for others to trade on their name and not give any money where it should go. On the other hand, if people are wearing that artist then that is raising awareness. Some artists struggle to shift a lot of merchandise so the fact people are going online and buying is good, right?! It is a hard moral dilemma but I feel this almost sacred connection between artist and fan should not be exploited by retailers and vendors. It might seem expensive parting with a lot of money for a T-shirt but consider how much the artist gets. Unlike your everyday T-shirts; band merchandise can be cherished for years and make that huge impact. How many of us are willing to dispense with a great T-shirt or piece or merchandise we bought after a gig?! The memories held are very special and, as said, others will see that artist on you and ask – that can connect existing fans with new fans and, like that, the artist has fresh support.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Shaun Keaveny and the breakfast team showing off their music tees for T-Shirt Day 2018/PHOTO CREDIT: BBC

It is wonderful seeing people proudly talking about their favourite music T-shirts and merchandise and I know what an important source of income it can be. The fact so many other people profit from a band/artist and their merchandise (vendors and the venue) means it is extra-important to make sure you are buying official merchandise. I guess it is good – if you buy unofficial products – you are still showing support but the morals surrounding depriving an artist all-important finance does not sit well. I am worried, when I am online ordering a musician’s merchandise, whether it is legit and how much money goes to them. The important thing is showing your support but it is vital we ensure, when thinking of buying merchandise, we go to official sites and buy, if possible, at gigs. In any case; BBC Radio 6 Music T-Shirt Day 2018 has been a raging success and shows how so many different artists are connected by that love of something so simple – the chance to wear these brilliant threads and show our love. Whilst songs and gig memories might only last a few months or years; the sacred and exciting merchandise can recruit new followers to an artist and those shared memories can last...


 IN THIS PHOTO: Louis Theroux and a favourite band T-shirt/PHOTO CREDIT: BBC

FOR generations.