The Origin of Musical Merchandising: How Shirts and Concerts Became a Money Machine
Conceived in the 1950s, the concept of music-related merchandise, which has since evolved into the merch stands seen at concerts and festivals, allowed artists and labels to create a new source of revenue. However, this new business has turned out to be insane. T-shirts, hats, condoms, or incense sticks with a “private parts” scent… Number investigated how this small customer loyalty strategy has turned into a real cash machine.
One of the first t-shirts featuring Elvis Presley’s image, in 1956. 1. Rock bands and tour dates: the resurgence of the “concert t-shirt” The concert hasn’t started yet, and a skinny teenager is forcing everyone in his row to stand up at the Paris Zénith. The first time, he left to get a snack at the bar and came back a little later with greasy fingers and a dismayed look: “I’m disgusted! I wanted to go to the merch stand, but it’s totally packed, there’s a crazy line,” he whispered to his companion’s ear. “I’ll go during the concert, there will be fewer people.” So in the middle of a song, our hero once again makes his row grumble to go to the merchandise stand. When he returns, this time he wears a big smile and reveals the object of all his desires: a red hooded sweatshirt with the inscription “Palace Mafia club”, the brand launched by Luidji, his favorite rapper. He then addresses his friend, hands cupped around his mouth to cover the cheers of the ecstatic audience in the pit: “They didn’t have it in XL, but I found a L, it still has an oversized effect. I got it for 50 bucks, it’s not too expensive.” After a brief moment of hesitation, the revered fashion magazines finally confirmed the resurgence of the concert t-shirt.
The style gurus Bella Hadid, Jennifer Lopez, and Hailey Bieber have been seen wearing one, nonchalantly tucked into their expensive jeans. A ‘90s revival. A beautiful black t-shirt with a faded print featuring a cool punk-rock band… that is no longer around. And it doesn’t matter if you can’t name three songs from their discography, as long as the tour dates are listed on the back of the garment. We’ve seen Kate Bush’s lovely face on hoodies worn by Generation Z – which claims not to have discovered the artist through the TV show Stranger Things. We’ve seen stands being pillaged in a matter of minutes at concerts for Guns and Roses, Harry Styles, BTS, and Elton John, who for the occasion, set up a replica of a 1970s tour bus as a store. We’ve seen Balenciaga collaborating with the controversial German group Rammstein, or Saint Laurent offering t-shirts featuring Kurt Cobain for the modest sum of 3,500 euros. In short, music industry merchandise has redeemed itself, as it is no longer associated with a worn-out biker jacket or a cheap blonde beer. Rather than collecting testimonies of fans in a frenzy after concerts, Number, being more cautious, consulted artists and labels to try to understand how this small loyalty strategy has become a real cash machine… At the end of the 1970s, while the band AC/DC did their accounting, they realized that the merchandise had brought in more cash than the records and concert tickets… Promoter Bill Graham, co-founder of Winteler Production, played an influential role in the march of merchandising.
Origins of Merchandising, a Real Cash Machine At first glance, the t-shirt is nothing exceptional. A plain white top adorned with the silhouette of Elvis Presley, singing his heart out, guitar in hand, surrounded by little music notes and the titles of his most famous songs. But it is 1955, and soon, the industry will seize this prototype imagined by an anonymous fan of the King. Historians suggest that the music industry has had this concept in mind for some time: taking advantage of the success of an artist to produce an endless number of items with their image. It’s capitalism at its finest. Hollywood film producer Henry G. Saperstein saw great potential in this. In Tinseltown, he took the helm of Television Personalities Inc., which mass-produced merchandise inspired by TV stars, from the Lone Ranger t-shirt to the dreadful Lassie mug. And since it worked – even Disney was interested in the idea – why not apply the principle to the king of rock ‘n’ roll? But first, it would be necessary to negotiate with the indomitable Tom “Colonel” Parker, Elvis’s manager, inseparable from his cigar and his Borsalino. Deal! Shirts, belts, or scarves… the controversial singer would earn 45% of the revenue from the sale of these merchandise items. Six months later, the star made headlines in the Wall Street Journal: the concept had already brought in $22 million… In 2022, the Guardian estimated the revenues generated by merchandising at $3.5 billion worldwide…The merchandising race is on. Wholesalers and retailers stock up in bulk, while the most opportunistic entrepreneurs try to take control of the market. This was the case with Bill Graham – formerly Wulf Grajonca – a Jewish child born in Berlin, a survivor of the death camps, who would spend his adolescence in New York, in the Bronx. In 1951, at the age of 20, he was sent to Korea to fight for his adopted country. Returning as a decorated veteran, he discovered the wonderful world of show business in the Big Apple. Graham developed a solid network and became a promoter. One evening, in the early 1970s, his friend businessmen Dell Furano told him about a brilliant idea he had heard about during a dinner with friends: selling merchandise directly in the concert venues. There was no time to lose. In 1974, the two men founded the company Winteler Production and capitalized on their close relationships with popular rock bands (Led Zeppelin, The Who…) to create new licenses and flood the market. The firm quickly became the leading manufacturer of “concert t-shirts”. However, against all odds, merchandising took a different turn… At the end of the same decade, while the band AC/DC did their accounting, they realized that merchandise had brought in more cash than records and concert tickets. This changed the status of merch: it was no longer just a communication tool or a fan lure, but it had become essential in the careers of artists.
Hip-Hop, K-Pop, and Lingerie, a Still Lucrative Merch Business Twenty-six years after the release of Baduizm (1997), her first studio album, soul queen Erykah Badu launched herself into a strange business. The American singer offers Badussy, incense sticks that spread the smell of her private parts in the air. Sold exclusively on her website, Badu World Market, the products were completely sold out in about twenty minutes. Immediate stock shortage. This enthusiasm confirms the urban legend that, in her own words, her vagina would literally transform men… Regarding the composition of these sticks, which were sold for $50 a box of twenty, it would include, among other things, essential oils, sun-dried resin, and ashes from her panties. Because it takes on all sorts of forms, merchandising has become a market that is as improbable as it is lucrative.
Nowadays, all artists demand eco-friendly merch out of personal conviction or just to avoid bad publicity. However, the production cost is higher, thus reducing profits and, at times, the entire production is outsourced to Bangladesh… In 2022, the Guardian estimated the revenues generated by merchandising at $3.5 billion worldwide..